The gray zone darkens: the ongoing action-reaction spiral?
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s heightened sensitivity to sovereignty issues, coupled with its growing military and paramilitary capabilities and greater risk tolerance, has likely contributed to the increased number of incidents China has caused in the disputed maritime space in the South. China Sea. The action-reaction spiral between China and the other claimants continued throughout the year and into 2022, making the gray zone darker than ever.
In March 2021, the Philippines reported that hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels, some believed to belong to China’s maritime militia, sank off the Whitsunday Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. In April, while the tense showdown in the Whitsunday Reef was underway, a Philippine news crew was reportedly chased by two People’s Liberation Army Navy fast attack boats in disputed waters off Palawan, marking the first time that China’s navy assets were deployed to directly confront civilian ships from another claiming country. Heightened concerns about China’s behavior prompted Manila to call off the process to end the US-Philippines agreement, which Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had previously promised to cancel.
But the spiral didn’t stop there. In November, three Chinese Coast Guard vessels blocked and used water cannons on Philippine supply boats bound for the Second Thomas Shoal, which had occupied the Philippines in 1999 by deliberately grounding a naval vessel and had been stationed with a small military force ever since. Notably, this incident took place on the eve of the finalization of the candidates for the 2022 Philippine presidential election. In December, the Philippines signed a deal with India to acquire the short-range anti-ship cruise missile system BrahMos, as part of what Manila understands. as an asymmetric, denial-focused defense strategy to counter China’s gray zone activities in the South China Sea. † In April 2022, two Philippine supply ships to the Second Thomas Shoal were reportedly blocked by Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels using fishing nets and buoys. The resupply was completed under close supervision by the Chinese ships.
The Philippines are not the only claimants to have solidified their position against China amid the dark gray zone. Vietnam joined the Philippines and issued a strongly worded statement against the presence of the Chinese fishing fleet in the Pentecostal Reef. In June 2021, Malaysia, a claimant who traditionally tends to keep disputes with China inconspicuous, stirred fighter jets after detecting 16 People’s Liberation Army Air Force planes flying over disputed waters off Borneo and called on the Chinese ambassador to file a diplomatic protest – a rare strong response in the context of China-Malaysia relations.
Reputation costs and deterrence: does Beijing still care about image?
China has clearly moved away from its traditional pattern of reactive assertiveness and has become less reluctant to initiate incidents at sea. At the same time, Beijing in general appears to have refrained from escalating recent incidents. Unlike the Benigno Aquino era, when bilateral relations between China and the Philippines hit rock bottom and Beijing forced Manila at will by imposing economic sanctions, freezing most bilateral diplomatic exchanges and seizing control of disputed land features Beijing seems to have consistently avoided applying punitive measures against Manila in the recent incidents.
Some may speculate that a more robust US stance on the Indo-Pacific region, with a stronger commitment to multilateralism under the Biden administration, has cast doubt on Chinese decision-makers. But Beijing’s propensity to take punitive action against other parties it considers infringing on Chinese sovereignty has not been dampened in the past year, as shown by economic sanctions against Taiwan and Lithuania.
Instead, as I have argued elsewhere, China usually weighs and balances the potential costs of escalation and de-escalation when dealing with incidents arising from the disputes in the South China Sea. Robust bilateral ties between China and the rival claimant involved in a given incident could increase the opportunity cost of Beijing choosing to escalate.
The improved ties between China and the Philippines under Duterte have arguably provided an impetus for China’s de-escalation, even if this alone is not enough to completely eradicate such provocations. During the showdown at the Whitsunday Reef, as part of an international public information campaign, Manila released photos and videos of the Chinese fleet. As embarrassment and diplomatic tensions forced the incident to Beijing’s attention, this month-long standoff ended without a hitch when Chinese fishing vessels left the area. This is in stark contrast to what happened during the 2012 Scarborough Shoal showdown, when China justified its use of coercion against the Philippines with Manila’s decision to release photos of detained Chinese fishermen.
In the November 2021 Second Thomas Shoal episode, Beijing quickly modulated its attitude and rhetoric and allowed Philippine complement, citing “humanitarian considerations.” Attributing the shift in Chinese behavior primarily to opposition from the United States and the European Union may be a bit of an exaggeration, given Beijing’s inflexible stance towards the West on other important issues, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang. But with the Philippine presidential election (which took place in May 2022) in mind, Beijing has apparently deemed it necessary to avoid the next government’s approach to China, motivating its swift de-escalation decision. In a speech at a virtual forum held by the Chinese embassy in Manila in January, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pledged that China would not use his prowess to bully its smaller neighbors over the South China Sea and urged the Philippines to continue Duterte’s China-friendly. policy. After the Second Thomas Shoal episode in April 2022, during a telephone conversation between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Philippine President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. In mid-May, Xi reiterated Beijing’s desire to maintain the positive bilateral ties with Manila built during Duterte’s tenure.
Meanwhile, facing a real and strong backlash from Malaysia to the airstrike incident, Beijing appears to have tried to re-establish ties with Kuala Lumpur and has somewhat modulated, rather than suspending, its operations off the Malaysian coast at the time of writing. . The Chinese embassy and Chinese foreign ministry said the flyover was part of routine training and not intended to be targeted at any country, and called on both sides to “continue bilateral friendly consultations”. In the first half of 2022, China appears to have phased out its operations in Malaysia’s claimed waters, and Kuala Lumpur has expressly pointed to the absence of major Chinese intrusions.
With regard to Vietnam, Hanoi first made clear in 2014 during the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig incident and again in 2019 amid the Haiyang Dizhi 8 flare-up that it is considering arbitration. While Chinese analysts have openly discussed possible countermeasures China could take if Vietnam started arbitration, the prospect of another arbitration against China and the high international reputation costs China threatens to pay in both cases seem to have contributed to Beijing’s response in both cases. decided to prevent further escalation. Also, in response to Hanoi’s strong statement during the Whitsun Reef stalemate, Beijing has issued only a brief statement through its embassy in Hanoi, reiterating its position without explicitly naming any country, suggesting that China has no diplomatic missions. escalation with Vietnam over the standoff.
Moving Forward: A Reputation Deterrent Strategy
Since the outbreak of the global pandemic, there has been a paradigm shift in Chinese foreign and security policy, as evidenced by Beijing’s wolf warrior diplomacy and the growing propensity to initiate incidents at sea in recent years. However, China’s long-term ambition remains unchanged: it wants to not only become strong and rich, but also influential and respected on the world stage, as my Brookings colleague Ryan Hass points out. To the extent that Beijing is still concerned about undermining its reputation as a non-belligerent and fostering a counterweight coalition in its immediate periphery, its smaller neighbors will continue to exert significant diplomatic and geopolitical influence that, if used properly, could spur Beijing limit its gray zone activity at sea.
For claimants, they have to walk a fine line between responding to China’s growing gray zone activity by developing asymmetric, denial-focused defense capabilities and maintaining generally stable, positive bilateral ties with Beijing. These are the two sides of the same coin that could help stabilize the South China Sea by increasing the potential costs of escalation in Beijing. Notably, now in light of the war in Ukraine, the supply of the Brahmos – which India produces together with Russia – could be jeopardized by the sanctions imposed on Russia by the West. This will leave the Philippines in a position where they have to choose to wait or consider hosting US Naval Missiles† Manila should make it clear to Beijing that it would not be in China’s interest to maintain pressure in the gray zone and eventually get Manila to receive US missiles.
For other players in the region, especially the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as I argued in a previous piece, a coordinated, proactive approach leveraging their unique normative and collective bargaining power with Beijing can add even more weight. to the reputational deterrent to China’s gray zone pressure.
For Washington, in implementing its Indo-Pacific strategy, it must go beyond a singular focus on major powers and empower smaller stakeholders in the region with the aim of increasing the latter’s resilience to Beijing without forcing them to take sides. . Beijing’s cost-benefit calculation for the South China Sea is as much driven by America’s broad strategy as it is by the way smaller nearby stakeholders respond and can respond to China’s behavior. Ignoring this and relying heavily on security-oriented minilateral groups could prove counterproductive by marginalizing ASEAN and thus undermining the organization’s unique influence over Beijing.