Andrew Erickson and Ryan Martinson on China and the Maritime Gray Zone

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Andrew Erickson and Ryan Martinson on China and the Maritime Gray Zone

How China thinks about and acts in the maritime gray zone, and what that means for the region’s future.  

Andrew Erickson and Ryan Martinson on China and the Maritime Gray Zone
Credit: Indian Navy

Over the past few years, as China has continued its expansion in the maritime domain, scholars and practitioners alike have honed in on the subject of how Beijing operates in the so-called “gray zone” between war and peace, staying below the threshold of armed conflict to secure gains while not provoking military responses by others, including the United States. Understanding the dynamics of this has important implications not only for particular maritime spaces, such as the East China Sea and the South China Sea, but also for broader issues such as the management of U.S.-China competition and wider regional peace and stability.

The Diplomat’s senior editor, Prashanth Parameswaran, recently spoke to Andrew Erickson and Ryan Martinson, both affiliated with the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, about how China thinks about and acts in the maritime gray zone and what that might mean for the region’s future. The discussion was framed around the release of a new edited volume by the authors in March entitled China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations.

One of the core contributions of the book is providing a detailed and systematic understanding of how China itself thinks about the maritime gray zone – both on its own terms as well as how it related to broader Chinese foreign and defense policy – with a detailed use of Chinese sources. What are some of the key takeaways about how China thinks about the maritime gray zone in particular, in terms of how it is defined as well as the objectives and key components of China’s approach? And what would you flag as some of the areas of similarity and difference with respect to how others may think of these challenges and talk about them?

China is much more transparent in Chinese. And, particularly in native-language sources, Chinese policymakers are very clear about the fact that their long-term goal is to exercise “administrative control” over all of the 3 million square kilometers of Chinese-claimed maritime space. This includes all of the Bohai Gulf, large sections of the Yellow Sea and East China Sea, and all of the area within the nine-dash line in the South China Sea. Many Western analysts assume that China has more abstract aims, like discrediting the international legal order. This may happen anyway, as a byproduct of their actions, but the most compelling evidence suggests that Beijing sees strategic, economic, and symbolic value in controlling as much space as possible within the First Island Chain.

Chinese leaders don’t use the term “gray zone” to describe their approach to asserting control over this space. For at least a decade, they have conceived of their policy as a balancing act. On the one hand, they feel the need to defend and advance China’s claims. They call these actions “maritime rights protection.” On the other hand, they want to avoid severely harming their relations with other states. Regional stability, after all, is vital for sustaining China’s economic development — which remains the core of China’s grand strategy. Using paranaval forces like the coast guard and the militia allows them to find an optimal balance between “rights protection” and “stability maintenance.” Paranaval forces are much less provocative than gray-hulled warships. The Chinese coast guard operates on the pretext of routine law enforcement, and militia often pretend to be fishermen. Yet both forces can be used to pursue traditional military objectives of controlling space.

Another key contribution of the book is the depth with respect to understanding the roles and responsibilities of several of the specific actors, including the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). It raises several questions, including how we should understand the level of coordination and differentiation between these actors in various scenarios and how that has evolved over time. How should we think about this question today, and what are some of the key variables that could shape continuity and change regarding this moving forward?

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), China Coast Guard (CCG), and People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) are the three sea services Beijing charges with conducting rights protection operations. The PLAN is mostly in the background, although it will aggress foreign mariners if the coast guard or militia are not available. Coordination among the three services has long been an issue. Until fairly recently, they were in three different chains of command. In fact, before 2013, China had five different law enforcement forces and coordination among them was very poor.

But Beijing has taken major steps to remedy these weaknesses. In 2013, China combined four of its maritime law enforcement agencies into a new agency — the China Coast Guard. This created a single chain of command for rights protection law enforcement, which meant much improved coordination. The three services have also been developing mechanisms to promote greater jointness. This is especially the case in the South China Sea. China has built a command center on Woody Island in the Paracels that oversees coordination for at least some navy, coast guard, and militia activities within China’s sweeping nine-dash line claim.

Both the militia and the PLAN are now subject to control of theater commands — the result of the PLA reforms that began in 2015. In 2018, the CCG was transferred from a civilian agency to the People’s Armed Police, which like the PLA takes orders from the Central Military Commission headed by Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping himself. The current commandant of the CCG is a PLAN rear admiral named Wang Zhongcai. So there has been a very clear trend towards improving synergies among the three sea services that conduct maritime rights protection operations.

The book also includes several notable cases with respect to China’s approach to the maritime gray zone, including the oil rig incident between China and Vietnam, the Scarborough Reef flashpoint for China and the Philippines, and the East China Sea issue with China and Japan. How would you characterize China’s sense of the degree to which its approaches to the maritime gray zone thus far have been successful in these cases as well as others? What are some of the lessons you believe Beijing has learned, and how is this impacting its approach today and perhaps its future behavior as well?

The Chinese saw the Scarborough Reef incident of 2012 as a great victory. It is easy to understand why: Beijing ended up with control over a major disputed land feature without firing a single shot or paying any visible cost whatsoever. In China, people talked about the birth of a “Scarborough Model” for recovering Chinese-claimed territory. This hasn’t really panned out. There are few uninhabited features like Scarborough left in the South China Sea. Most significant land features are already occupied. When people inhabit an island, the act of seizing it becomes much more provocative. So the Scarborough Model may not be repeatable. Chinese officials likely recognize this, as today we seldom see the term used.

This does not mean that China simply ignores foreign-occupied features. Instead, Beijing uses paranaval coercion to influence foreign decisions regarding what they do on features they possess. This might be called the “Second Thomas Shoal Model.” Since 2013, the CCG and PAFMM have periodically harassed Filipino vessels sent to re-supply a military outpost on that feature. As we speak, Chinese coast guard and militia forces are massed off Filipino-controlled Thitu/Pagasa Island, presumably to discourage repair and construction work there.

For Chinese leaders, the HYSY-981 incident of 2014 may have demonstrated the limits of gray zone coercion. To be sure, the defense of the oil rig (HYSY-981) was a tremendous display of China’s maritime power: on some days there were over a hundred Chinese militia and coast guard vessels out there protecting the rig. They kept this up for months. But China looked like a bully and the financial cost was enormous. Almost five years later, no Chinese rigs have been back to the area, despite the claimed existence of hydrocarbons.

The HYSY-981 incident reinforced a lesson that frontline Chinese paranaval forces have known for a long time: it is much easier to attack than defend. Sabotaging somebody’s operations at sea is not that difficult. You can fire a water cannon, cut a cable, or even use your vessel itself as a weapon by ramming. But unless China is willing to use armed force — which it clearly is not — it can only send paranaval vessels to physically impede approaching ships. Because the attacker has the initiative, China needs far more ships than the adversary.

Of course, this same principle puts China in a very strong position to oppose foreign hydrocarbon development activities in Chinese-claimed areas. Chinese planners clearly recognize this. China’s gray zone strategy has been most effective at discouraging foreign states from doing things that China opposes.

The book also examines the emerging responses of some key regional actors, including Japan and Vietnam, to China’s maritime gray zone operations. It is clear that the responses have been quite multifaceted and varied, and developments to date have made clear that levels of effectiveness have also been quite different. What are some of the lessons learned you would distill in terms of countries dealing with this challenge? What else can these regional states do in the future?  

In our book, we do not systematically distill lessons for regional states. That would require a different type of study. Paranaval coercion is just one element of China’s overall strategy. Beijing uses a range of levers to compel other states to accept its demands. For example, China relies heavily on geoeconomic tools — informal embargos, offering and withholding trade and investment opportunities, etc. — to influence foreign decision-makers. In this book, our big aim was to understand the saltwater component of China’s national approach.

But there are several obvious takeaways. One is the virtue of tenacity. Vietnam has chosen to vigorously contest China’s maritime gray zone strategy. The Philippines has not. There’s no question about whose approach has proven more effective.

Another is the value of a proactive public diplomacy campaign. This starts with shedding light on what China is doing at sea. The ocean is a barren place. Dramas can play out without anyone else in the world knowing. It helps to have journalists out there to document Beijing’s assertiveness. Images, especially, are very powerful. Vietnam invited foreign journalists to witness China’s use of ramming and other coercive tactics in the defense of HYSY-981. Manila has also allowed journalists to document Chinese activities around islands that it occupies, such as Second Thomas Shoal. Allowing press coverage probably puts pressure on China, which really does want the world to believe that its rise is entirely benign. It also helps buttress a narrative of Chinese assertiveness, which the victims of China’s maritime expansion can leverage to gain international support.

While the United States has taken some steps to date in terms of responding to China’s maritime assertiveness, the book, especially the concluding chapter, makes clear that there is a lot more that Washington can do to counter China’s gray zone activities more specifically. How would you characterize the Trump administration’s approach to this challenge thus far? And what are some specific things that the administration can do, especially within the context of growing U.S.-China competition set out in the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy, and the development of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy?

The current administration has been very committed to countering the disruptive aspects of China’s rise, including its coercive behavior at sea. The NSS and the NDS lay out the rationale for the new approach. The U.S. government is taking robust steps to reclaim the initiative from China. These include maritime operations, especially in the South China Sea, and diplomatic initiatives, such as reaffirming commitments to our allies and partners. Publicly, Chinese officials are framing the new U.S. policy as the latest chapter in longstanding efforts to contain China’s rise. But there’s probably been lots of confusion and recrimination in Beijing. When President Trump won the election in 2016, most experts in China predicted a moderation in U.S. policy towards Beijing. The opposite has happened, quite possibly with much more to come.

The U.S. can do more to support its allies. Washington does not take sides on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. But the 2016 South China Sea arbitration decision opens the door for the U.S. to play a more proactive role defending the interests of its allies and partners. The nine-dash line has always been a legal absurdity. In 2016, it was completely repudiated. None of the islands in the Spratlys generates an exclusive economic zone. Even if China owned every piece of land, its maritime rights would be very limited. We don’t know what conversations U.S. diplomats are having with their Filipino counterparts. But the U.S. could offer to help the Philippines enforce its administrative rights in its exclusive economic zone. That would allow Washington to support an important ally and uphold international law, while remaining neutral about the sovereignty of individual island features.