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KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 331

Coercion with Chinese Characteristics: “Gray Zone” Tactics in the West Philippine Sea

De La Salle University Associate Professor
Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby

China’s coercive measures in the West Philippine Sea have been on the rise. Between August to September 2023 alone, the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and maritime militia used dangerous maneuvers to block and harass the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) from conducting resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal. A small team of Philippine Marines is stationed in the BRP Sierra Madre, which is a grounded ship from the Second World War and serves as the Philippines’ outpost in the West Philippine Sea. 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.

Defined as activities below the threshold of armed conflict, the “gray zone” carries a veil of legitimacy to otherwise subversive actions to assert control over an area. China may not attach the label “gray zone” to describe its approach, but its deployment of these tactics in the South China Sea contributes to regional instability because its byproduct undermines maritime space and the rules that govern it. Hence, when it builds artificial islands and military installations in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, when it relies on its maritime militia to chase Filipino fisherfolk away from their traditional fishing grounds, and when it uses military-grade lasers and water cannons to disrupt resupply missions, China calls these actions “maritime rights protection” or “peacetime use of military forces.” Regardless of whether the term “gray zone” or “maritime rights protection” is used, what is clear is that these defensive maneuvers are a disguise for China’s expansionary campaign to claim all of the South China Sea. The term “gray zone” is thus incapable of capturing the extent to which China’s tactics are a function of a broader strategic intention to project military power. In the context of the West Philippine Sea, China may refer to its actions as “maritime diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, but from the Philippines’ perspective, it is more accurate to describe its activities as coercion with Chinese characteristics.

In the analysis that follows, I discuss China’s militarized coercion in the West Philippine Sea. The Philippine experience demonstrates that China’s tactics in the maritime domain go hand-in-hand with actions in the political realm, as well as coordinated information campaigns that are disseminated in the public domain. Coercive measures that impact Philippine maritime security are critical to regional security. However, China’s activities go beyond the maritime domain and infiltrate the sub-national level. In the context of the Philippines, this refers to activities in the local government units involving cultural programs and exchanges, as well as sister-city arrangements and “twinning” projects. One can then make the argument that while coercion takes place in the maritime domain, China has already managed to lay down the groundwork for invasion with the numerous intersecting networks it has created. The latter part of the following analysis then focuses on these issues and what lies beyond the maritime domain. Consequently, these can serve as lessons for other members of the region. The piece then ends with some policy recommendations on addressing coercion, particularly as regards the value of shifting our frame from the “gray zone” to a “hybrid strategy.”

Coercion in the maritime domain

Within the Philippines’ maritime domain, Chinese coercive measures can be categorized as either militarized or non-militarized tactics. Militarized activities are incidents involving the CCG and the maritime militia 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, in other words, China relied on both types of coercive measures to advance its interests.

One example of China’s coercive militarized activity in the West Philippine Sea is the incident in the Recto Bank in June 2019 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 the incident off Ayungin Shoal in February 2023 where a CCG vessel directed a military-grade laser light at a PCG ship on a routine resupply mission of the Philippine Navy (PN).  In early August 2023, another CCG vessel fired water cannons and employed unsafe blocking maneuvers, thereby disrupting another rotation and resupply mission.  Swarming is also another method that China uses as part of its coercive militarized activity in the West Philippine Sea. The AFP Western Command conducted aerial patrols in early September 2023 that detected Chinese fishing vessels located near Recto Bank. 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 delineate approximately 90 percent of the South China Sea where China makes sovereignty and maritime claims. The 2023 version of China’s standard map 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 ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, 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/diplomatic measures, Chinese coercive activities are likewise bolstered by information campaigns that permeate domestic discourses. For example, there is an ongoing narrative in the Philippines that the CCG is a civilian service. As such, 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 the Philippines must rely on its (limited) capabilities instead of seeking help from like-minded states, allies, or partners. To do otherwise would be to provoke China even further. Hence, maintaining the ambiguity in the “gray zone” benefits China.

Beyond the maritime domain

While China’s coercive maneuvers in the West Philippine Sea remain in the spotlight, it is also important to note that similar measures are being undertaken beyond the maritime domain. In the Philippines, infiltration has already taken place at the sub-national level in the form of so-called twinning programs. Under Philippines-China bilateral cooperation, the first town and city twinning program began in 1982 and was reinvigorated in 1997 with the issuance of a circular from the Philippines’ Department of Internal and Local Government (DILG) that expanded the concept of the program to include trade and investments. From 2016 onwards, this became a security concern because of the rapid establishment of twinning programs as a function of then President Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot to China policy. The problem emerged because of the lack of a policy that requires a local government unit or the DILG to conduct inter-agency consultations and assessments before the approval of a twinning arrangement. Similarly, there are no established rules to monitor and evaluate the impact of these arrangements on national security.

What complicates matters even further is the fact that there is currently no unified – much less, official – list of twinning arrangements. Varying lists are maintained by Chinese and Philippine authorities, but an initial assessment reveals that the locations of twinning arrangements are well within the vicinity of the vote-rich areas of the Philippines, traversing the Lingayen-Lucena corridor in Luzon island. Incidentally, this corridor is also the center of economic production in the Philippines. Hence, if the intention is to promote Chinese culture and trade, then the arrangements are well within the main economic power structure of the Philippines. By implication, the arrangements favor China because they exacerbate the Philippines’ economic vulnerabilities in the form of increased urban-rural divides and the lack of alternative economic hubs. Politically, the programs give rise to economic-centered narratives to influence the country’s foreign and defense policy. If the government is unable to craft a viable counter-narrative, the existence and the pervasiveness of the twinning arrangements, which can potentially coopt domestic elites in vote-rich areas, can affect the legitimacy of the administration and influence foreign and defense policymaking in the Philippines.

In closing, the concept of the “gray zone” is shrouded in ambiguity, which benefits China even more. A better description that can capture and frame ways to address Chinese coercive measures is that of a “hybrid strategy.” International Relations literature describes China’s actions as involving militarized and non-militarized methods, with the latter further categorized into political/diplomatic means, the use of information manipulation, and economic coercion, among others. To lump all of these into the “gray zone” obscures the necessary tools that can be tapped to combat them. Thus, shifting the frame to a “hybrid strategy” opens the policy toolbox and allows flexibility in addressing these coercive measures.

A lesson for the Philippines and others in the region is to pay attention to the maritime domain but keep scanning the horizon for other types of similarly coercive measures in other areas. In the case of the Philippines, China has been able to lay the groundwork for economic coercion and elite cooptation via the establishment of numerous twining programs across the country. In line with this, strategic assessments are crucial to understanding the nature, quality, and extent of Chinese investments in twin towns and cities. Likewise, the Philippines needs to formulate and make available to the local government units an economic coercion assessment matrix. Efforts are also being made to come up with an “Anti-Foreign Interference Act” following the Australian model.

Other countries in the region need to look at their own backyards as well. Comparative analyses of economic investments by other partners need to be conducted to determine the extent of China’s economic influence. As important as maritime security is to regional security, efforts to boost that domain will be futile if the economic front is left unattended.

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.

  • The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of KIMS. 

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