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Pushing back China’s grey zone operations in the South China Sea: The need to foster closer security ties with like-minded Indo-Pacific states













SCREENGRAB FROM THE PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD VIDEO

On Aug. 5, several Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels blocked and used water cannons against Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP)-chartered wooden boats delivering supplies to a small Philippine Marine (PM) contingent on board the BRP Sierra Madre on Ayungin Shoal. According to Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela, the two wooden boats were part of a convoy escorting PCG patrol ships that were on a resupply mission to deliver food, water, fuel, and other items. In its statement, the AFP branded the CCG’s action as “excessive and offensive” and that the Chinese conducted “dangerous maneuvers”…“in wanton disregard of the safety of the people on board and in violation of international law.”

On Aug. 8, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), through Undersecretary Theresa Lazaro, summoned Chinese Ambassador to Manila Huang Xilian and handed him a diplomatic protest. The letter condemned the CCG vessels’ actions against the AFP supply boats, told China to stop interfering in legitimate Philippine activities, and urged China to comply with its various obligations under international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The DFA also expressed its disappointment that it was not able to reach China’s foreign ministry through a hotline established between Manila and Beijing during President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.’s state visit. The Philippines and China agreed to establish the hotline to foster communication to manage maritime incidents generated by the South China Sea dispute.

CHINA’S LONG LIST OF GREY ZONE OPERATIONSThe Aug. 5 Ayungin Shoal water cannon incident, which lasted more than an hour, is the latest in a growing number of alleged grey zone operations conducted by China against other claimant states in the South China Sea. American, Western, and Japanese defense analysts use the term “grey zone operations” to describe a strategy employed by a state actor to change or alter a status quo by undermining the power, legitimacy, and will of the adversary without triggering an armed conflict. China has finetuned its grey zone operations in the South China Sea given that the disputed area is wide, and it has overwhelming naval and civilian capabilities over the navies and coast guards of the littoral Southeast Asian states.

There is a widespread perception among the Chinese population that their rights and interests in the South China Sea are being unjustly challenged and undermined by smaller Southeast Asian states that have taken control of the several uninhabited land features in the disputed waters. Thus, there is strong public clamor for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the CCG, and the Chinese Maritime Militia to intensify patrols to maintain Chinese rights and interests in the South China Sea and enhance their collective ability to respond to unexpected maritime incidents involving China and the littoral Southeast Asians states such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

China has conducted several grey zone operations against the newly elected Philippines president’s administration as CCG patrols in the South China Sea became more frequent in 2022. This resulted in two maritime incidents in the South China Sea at the onset of the Marcos Jr. Administration, namely: a.) a big CCG ship blocking and harassing a small PN supply ship on its way to resupply a small AFP garrison on Ayungin Shoal; and, 2.) fishing boats manned by suspected Chinese Maritime Militia swarming to establish control over disputed South China Sea features.

And then, in February 2023, a CCG vessel directed “a military-grade laser” at a PCG ship escorting a resupply mission to the small Philippine garrison on board the BRP Sierra Madre on Ayungin Shoal.

China’s zero-sum game against the Philippines has pushed the latter to file several notes verbales against what it perceives as provocation. This has also led President Marcos Jr. to call on the AFP to shift its mission from internal security to external defense in the face of China’s coercive behavior against the PN and ordinary Filipino fishing folk.

THE BACKLASH AGAINST CHINESE GREY ZONE OPERATIONSThe Aug. 5 Ayungin Shoal incident is the latest in a series of Chinese grey zone operations aimed at isolating the small marine garrison on board the BRP Sierra Madre. China’s eventual goal is to force the Philippines to withdraw its forces from the land features it currently occupies, and relinquish its territorial claims over these land features, along with its maritime entitlements in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea.

China’s gambit against the Philippines, however, is triggering a major backlash in the country. The Marcos Jr. Administration found it imperative to enhance its security relations with the US, Japan, Australia, and South Korea. The Philippines is leveraging its geostrategic value to gain practical strategic and economic benefits from the United States and its other treaty allies such as Japan, Australia, and South Korea. At the core of this strategy is the reinvigoration of the Philippine-US alliance. This strategy is based on a key calculation that the Philippines and the US share a pressing strategic objective: the maintenance of the status quo in the South China Sea. The Philippines is also exploring the prospect of closer bilateral and multilateral ties with other US allies. For their part, Japan, Australia, and South Korea recognize how a military-capable Philippines could support their respective Indo-Pacific strategies in the face of an expansionist China in the South China Sea.

China must realize that its actions invite consequences not only in the Philippines but in the community of nations. Indeed, it is through alliances with like-minded states in the Indo-Pacific that the Philippines can defend itself against China’s gray zone operations in an area that has been established as unequivocably ours.

Dr. Renato Cruz De Castro is a trustee and convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program of the Stratbase ADR Institute.

Neil Banzuelo




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