Webinar on “Dealing with China’s Gray-Zone Strategy in the South China Sea”

In this webinar, Dr Collin Koh, Dr Evan A. Laksmana, Dr Nguyen Thi Lan Anh and Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong (Ret) examined China’s gray-zone operations in the South China Sea.


5 October 2023, Thursday – In a webinar held by the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Dr Collin Koh, Dr Evan Laksmana, Dr Nguyen Thi Lan Anh, and Rear Admiral Rommel Ong shed light on the growing intensity of China’s gray-zone tactics at the South China Sea, and discussed the strategies and measures adopted by affected claimant states in response to China’s manoeuvres.

Clockwise from top left: Dr Collin Koh, Dr Ian Storey (moderator), Dr Evan Laksmana, Dr Nguyen Thi Lan Anh and Rear Admiral Rommel Ong (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Koh began by explaining the definition of gray-zone tactics, often referred to as hybrid, political or economic “warfare” by some. He expressed reservations regarding the term “warfare”, and instead advocated for the use of an alternative label, namely “short-of-war” strategies, which encompass a spectrum of actions operating beneath the threshold of lethal force. Expanding the scope of the gray-zone strategy, the gray-zone concept could also include economic coercion and the use of political influence and cyber activities, representing a diverse array of statecraft tools at a nation’s disposal.

Dr Koh noted that there has been a noticeable uptick in incidents in the South China Sea. In particular, there has been an intense frequency of incidents in the Philippines within a relatively brief timeframe, starting in February and extending to the present moment. Notably, the impact of modern technology has enhanced the transparency of these ground-level incidents and facilitated public access to live updates and information. Governments attempting to downplay or obscure these gray-zone activities now face heightened public scrutiny and potential criticisms over inaction or sub-optimal reactions to these aggressions.

Dr Koh situated China’s gray-zone strategies within the context of China’s longstanding discourse on Comprehensive National Power (CNP). He further noted that the objective of China is to maintain a “moral high ground” in the South China Sea dispute, as China aims to portray the dispute as generally peaceful and manageable by the concerned parties without the need for external intervention. By cementing its position as a non-instigator and painting claimant rivals as provocateurs coerced by external actors, China aims to discredit the U.S., and illustrate the scenario that other claimant states lack the autonomy and agency in determining for themselves where their national interests lie.

Dr Laksmana emphasised transparency as a potential antidote to the ongoing issues in the South China Sea. However, he caveated that transparency needs to extend beyond merely exposing China’s aggressive conduct. It also needs to come in the form of a more comprehensive strategy and well-defined policy framework to effectively manage the ladder of escalation. He also stressed that transparency includes the need for clarity in maritime claims and delimitation discussions among claimant states.

Dr Laksmana highlighted the multi-level problems that arise when addressing gray-zone challenges. On the bureaucratic front, initiatives like the maritime law enforcement forum – which Jakarta tried to organize through ASEAN – has only started to emerge over the past year. He thus highlighted the importance of bolstering the bureaucratic ecosystem to effectively respond to gray-zone challenges, such as improving coordination mechanisms between entities like the coast guards and the navy. On the domestic front, China has employed wedge strategies to exploit domestic cleavages among different elites, each of whom hold differing stakes in their relationships with China and maritime security matters. Achieving a unified and coherent strategy can thus prove to be a herculean task. On the regional front, there is a limited range of publicly discussed options, with a predominant focus on the ongoing COC process. He noted that the COC process should not be the sole option in addressing the gray-zone challenges, and that claimant states should not “buck-pass the difficult responsibility” of building up maritime law enforcement network, and should begin the process of maritime delimitation talks.

Dr Laksmana suggested that in dealing with China’s gray-zone tactics, ambitious goals such as persuading China to renounce its nine-dash or ten-dash line may prove to be futile. Instead, claimant states should focus on limited goals, such as ensuring the prevention of incursions. He further advocated for deeper intra-ASEAN maritime engagement as a complement to the ongoing COC process. Considering the absence of an ASEAN coast guard academy or maritime law enforcement coordinator, more resources could be invested to hold joint maritime training to bolster maritime cooperation. In sum, individual maritime states entangled in gray-zone challenges must recognize that achieving a sustainable solution requires a substantial “overhaul of their strategic political ecosystem”. This overhaul should address critical aspects such as restructuring the relationship between the coast guard and the navy, strengthening the coast guard’s capabilities, and establishing a coordinated system for crisis communication and messaging.

Dr Nguyen outlined seven evolving elements characterizing China’s gray-zone strategy. First, the reclaimed features in the South China Sea have served as outposts enabling China’s increased flexibility and swifter deployment of operations at the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of other claimant states. Second, cross-domain operations have become increasingly pertinent, where the traditional focus on maritime activities has expanded to encompass aerial, cyber and subaquatic domains. Third, China’s gray-zone tactics are conducted for “multi-purpose” objectives, including the assertion of sovereignty claims, resource acquisition and security purposes. Fourth, there has emerged close coordination between the private and public sectors in China. This coordination is particularly evident within the framework of the cabbage strategy, whereby there are multiple “layers” of involvement. These layers include not only the traditional naval and coast guard components, but has also extended to include the maritime militias, fishing vessels and commercial vessels. Fifth, China has incorporated cutting-edge technologies such as the Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) in the South China Sea. Additionally, China has harnessed artificial intelligence (AI) to simulate scenarios aimed at optimizing the utilization of land reclamation features, and envisaging prospective economic and military activities in the region. The sixth element concerns the information sphere with the establishment of Chinese think tanks and websites dedicated to disseminating information regarding “militarized actions” conducted by the U.S. and other claimant states in the region. The final element concerns China’s employment of legal tools to project its own interpretations of international laws and treaties.

Dr Nguyen put forth several key points for future consideration, including the importance of affected states clarifying their claims, and the need for a unified and collective response to China’s coercive actions. She also proposed embracing technology-sharing initiatives, and referenced ongoing initiatives under the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA).

Admiral Ong raised the significant challenges posed by the PLA Navy, noting that the regional naval balance of power had been skewed to their advantage since 2015. In response to this challenge, the Philippines Marine Corps has taken steps to acquire advanced missile systems, such as the Indian BrahMos missile system, with the aim of establishing a sea buffer. He also suggested that both the navy and the coast guard increase maritime presence to challenge China’s “quantitative advantage” in the South China Sea.

Admiral Ong talked about the Philippines’ strategic choices, which include bilateral security dialogues and 2+2 deals with the U.S. and Japan that have yielded comprehensive packages of security and economic engagements for the Philippines. Moving forward, the Philippines aims to forge informal trilateral cooperative arrangements, underscoring the country’s commitment to fostering collaborative approaches to address the South China Sea dispute.

Admiral Ong highlighted various “low-hanging fruits” that ASEAN could explore to address the challenges in the South China Sea. Mentioning the ASEAN guidelines for maritime interaction, which was approved during the 17th ASEAN Navy Chiefs’ Meeting (ANCM), and the ASEAN agreement for aeronautical and maritime search and rescue operation, he suggested that these initiatives could be effectively harnessed as tools for fostering cooperation and establishing mechanisms to push back against China.

The webinar was attended by an online audience of around 200 people and concluded with a Q&A session. Among the inquiries addressed were the sufficiency of current international laws and the future COC to address China’s gray-zone strategies and the role of ASEAN in this respect. Participants also discussed the feasibility of intra-ASEAN maritime coordination, the potential for other claimant states such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam to emulate Philippine’s transparency efforts, and the assessment of present-level coordination between the navy and coast guard within individual ASEAN countries.