In recent months, the Chinese Coast Guard and Beijing’s maritime militia have used dangerous maneuvers to block and harass the Philippine Coast Guard and Armed Forces of the Philippines from conducting resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal. An October 22 collision between two of the countries’ coast guard vessels is just the latest incident of maritime confrontation. As tensions rise, the stakes are high and could draw in the United States, which has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines, and other naval powers.

A ship operated by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army guards Chinese-built structures on Mischief Reef, off the Philippine island of Palawan, in the South China Sea on May 10, 2023. (Jes Aznar/The New York Times)
A ship operated by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army guards Chinese-built structures on Mischief Reef, off the Philippine island of Palawan, in the South China Sea on May 10, 2023. (Jes Aznar/The New York Times)

Surely understanding the gravity of the situation, China has relied on so-called “gray-zone” tactics to avoid the perception that it is committing acts of war and to assert control over its maritime claims in the South China Sea, also known as the West Philippine Sea. 

What Are Gray-zone Tactics?

The definition and understanding of what constitutes gray-zone activities remains vague, as the term itself implies. These subversive actions typically fall below the threshold of armed conflict and may not necessarily be considered acts of war, but nonetheless achieve the objective of asserting control over an area. For example, in the years leading to and after the 2016 arbitral ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in favor of the Philippines, China relied on a range of maritime gray-zone tactics to advance its interests in the seas. These actions include building artificial islands and military installations in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, relying on its maritime militia to chase Filipino fisherfolk away from their traditional fishing grounds, and using military-grade lasers and water cannons to disrupt resupply missions.

In this context, categorizing activities as operating in the gray zone allows the perpetrators the advantage of amorphousness and ambiguity to reach their goals. While there is significant international attention on the issue and, to a certain extent, gray-zone activities are not undetected, the fact that many such tactics are lumped together under the umbrella term gray zone precludes the identifying appropriate measures to combat them. This game of shadows can only be addressed when enough light is shone upon it.
China doesn’t attach the gray-zone label to describe its approach, but its deployment of these tactics in the South China Sea contributes to regional instability, undermining the rules that govern maritime space. China calls these actions “maritime rights protection” or “peacetime use of military forces.” Regardless of what terminology is used, it is clear is that these offensive maneuvers are a disguise for China’s expansionary campaign to control all of the West Philippine Sea. The term “gray zone” is thus an unhelpful category to describe the extent to which China’s tactics are a function of a broader strategic intention to project military power. 

How China Deploys These Tactics Against the Philippines

Within the Philippines’ maritime domain, Chinese coercive measures can be categorized as either militarized or non-militarized. Militarized activities involve the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and maritime militias using methods ranging from shadowing and swarming to outright dangerous maneuvers. Meanwhile, non-militarized tactics utilize official diplomatic measures and information manipulation. Within the overall context of the West Philippine Sea, China relies on both types of coercive measures to advance its interests. 

One example of China’s coercive militarized activity in the West Philippine Sea is a June 2019 incident in the Recto Bank where a Chinese vessel sank a Philippine fishing boat and abandoned the 22 Filipino fishermen to fend for themselves in the waters. All the Filipino fishermen on board were later rescued by a Vietnamese fishing vessel. Another example is an incident off Ayungin Shoal in February 2023 where a CCG vessel directed a military-grade laser light at a Philippine Coast Guard ship on a routine resupply mission of the Philippine Navy. In early August 2023, another CCG vessel fired water cannons and employed unsafe blocking maneuvers, disrupting a rotation and resupply mission. 

Swarming involves moving together in large numbers to intimidate other vessels. In July 2023, for example, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spotted at least 48 fishing vessels near Reed Bank. The AFP Western Command conducted aerial patrols in early September 2023 that detected Chinese fishing vessels located near Recto Bank and the AFP spotted five Chinese vessels in Escoda Shoal and two vessels in Baragatan Bank.

China’s militarized coercive maneuvers in the West Philippine Sea are bolstered by political and diplomatic measures. In the past, the Chinese Communist Party used the nine-dash line to illustrate the country’s claims to the South China Sea. The nine dashes delineated approximately 90 percent of the West Philippine Sea where China makes sovereignty and maritime claims. The 2023 version of China’s standard map now shows 10 dashes. Philippine Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro Jr. said that the updated map “is the best evidence of [China’s] expansionist agenda … .” Speaking at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Jakarta this September, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said that because of this, the region’s vision for a peaceful and stable South China Sea “remains a distant reality.”

Apart from militarized and political and diplomatic measures, Chinese coercive activities are bolstered by information campaigns that permeate domestic discourses. For example, there is an ongoing narrative on social media in the Philippines that the CCG is a civilian service, which would mean that combating the CCG-led maneuvers in the West Philippine Sea does not necessitate invoking the Philippines’ Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States. The narrative implies that China is doing the Philippines a favor by not using the Chinese Navy, which would then require a response from the Philippine Navy. The narrative further implies that because these clashes are between the two countries’ coast guards, the Philippines must rely on its (limited) capabilities instead of seeking help from like-minded states, allies or partners. To do otherwise would provoke China even further. Hence, maintaining this ambiguity benefits China.

China’s Hybrid Strategy

The gray-zone concept has long lost its utility. Its very ambiguity allows China to thrive in the use of activities that are classified as such. Instead of the term gray zone, a more accurate description to explain and understand — and ultimately, address — China’s coercive measures is to call them a “hybrid strategy.” It is unhelpful to lump China’s militarized and non-militarized methods into the gray zone because it obscures the necessary tools that can be tapped to combat them. While this may be seen as a simple rhetorical change, shifting the frame to a hybrid strategy opens the policy toolbox and allows flexibility in addressing these coercive measures because the Philippines and other actors can call out China’s actions for what they truly are: offensive maneuvers to which there are corresponding methods and measures to combat them. 

The utility of the concept of a “hybrid strategy” cannot be underestimated, especially as it opens up the “gray zone,” peeling away the shadows and layers of ambiguity that are the trademark of these tactics. Looking at China’s activities as a hybrid strategy can demonstrate, not least to China, that the international community can see through its actions and respond with appropriate measures. 

This would also cast a spotlight on the crucial role that crisis communications play. This rhetorical change can promote transparency, clear communication and signaling in terms of directly addressing the issue or lowering tensions to avoid a military confrontation. As long as the “gray zone” exists, lines of communication will remain murky. The only way to clear those channels is to hasten the demise of the “gray zone” and see the actions that are usually lumped together under that category for what they are: efforts to project military power.

Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby is associate professor in the Department of International Studies at De La Salle University in Manila, Philippines. She is also a member of the Board of the Foundation for the National Interest and a nonresident scholar at Carnegie China.

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