China y el poder naval: Navegando en la zona gris

China and naval power: Navigating in the gray zone


06 | 02 | 2024


Chinese tactics to seize control of the South China Sea from other coastal countries

In the picture

Satellite image of the northern fringe of the South China Sea.

Since October 7, when the terrorist Hamas group decided, after many months of thoughtful preparation, to open a new chapter in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the media attention that had previously been focused on the war in Ukraine has been significantly diverted to the eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea. So much so that even President Volodimir Zelensky himself has publicly lamented this. However, Ukraine has not been the only casualty in the shift of international attention to current conflict scenarios.

Although much more unnoticed by the media spotlight, developments in the South China Sea for several years now have seriously accelerated over the course of 2023. This sea dominated by China's coastline and flanked mainly by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan, as well as Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei, occupies a central position in Chinese strategic thinking. The various archipelagos and islet and atoll formations scattered throughout what naval historian Alfred Mahan called the 'Asian Caribbean' are the subject of legal disputes by several of the countries mentioned above.

The sovereignty claims are due to the strategic importance of this sea, especially in terms of the exploitation of natural and fishing resources, and also as a transit point. But in the case of China, it is of even greater importance, which also includes ambitions of a military nature. This analysis therefore addresses the concept of sea control and its implications in the case of China, whose territorial expansion ambitions to gain control of the region have materialized in hybrid (gray zone) naval tactics to scare off its neighbors.

On the control of the sea

As we pointed out not long ago in another article for the Spanish Institute of programs of study Strategic , China seeks to gain control over the South China Sea. reference letter The term 'sea control' refers to the ability of a given actor (often a state) to be able to navigate freely in a given maritime region (including also the airspace above it and the waters below its surface).

The control of the sea allows whoever holds it to make use of that region for any activity they wish, mainly oriented to the extraction of resources and also to the protection of the national territory. Another advantage is the ability to guarantee the protection of the maritime lines of communication through which maritime trade transits (on which many countries are highly dependent). On the other hand, it also implies a certain Degree of denial of area; that is, that no one else can make use of those waters beyond the actor that has control or dominion over the sea.

Moreover, a navy cannot exercise control of the sea in a particular region without adequate capabilities. These include not only the surface ships and submarines of its navy, but also an air force to ensure control of the airspace over that region (something without which it is almost impossible to exercise control of the sea), and adequate coastal defenses with which to defend against any enemy attack (mainly missile and radar batteries).

China and the control of the sea

In the case of China, its struggle to gain control of the sea in the coveted space carries an implicitly strong emphasis on denial of area, focused on preventing the US Navy and its allies from jeopardizing its interests in the region. The manner in which it pursues such goal contravenes in many respects the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as it places it in constant conflict with its closest neighbors over sovereignty and control of various points.

As China claims sovereignty over the entire region beyond the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), it has provoked numerous dangerous encounters due to the hybrid tactics it employs to exert dominance. Beijing's desire to take over the disputed areas is a key element of its strategy to expel as far as possible any presence of the United States and its allies in the vicinity. Such hostile encounters, of which there have been particularly numerous in 2023, continually threaten the possibility of escalating tensions in one of the world's most important maritime regions.

China resorts to hybrid warfare tactics, which we describe in more detail in the next section, to harass its neighbors and gradually establish a regime of control over the entire region. Its ambitions, encompassing the area nine-dash line, have become a nightmare for the Philippine and Vietnamese coast guards, who are seeing Chinese vessels increasingly entering their exclusive economic zone and territorial waters, and for longer and longer periods of time.

We have already spoken on other occasions of how a hypothetical attempted invasion of Taiwan would develop (it is becoming increasingly clear that it could take the form of a naval blockade rather than an invasion), and also of the reasons that would make such a conflict a nightmare for the United States, its allies and even China itself. However, there are other potential sources of conflict besides Taiwan which, if escalated, could also lead to a regional conflict whose consequences would be far more serious than those of the current crisis in the Red Sea.

In the picture

At left, Chinese vessel CCG 5205 aiming a laser at Philippine Coast Guard BRP Malapascua, in February 2023 [Chinese Coast Guard]. At right, Chinese Coast Guard CCG 31101 firing a water cannon at a Vietnam Coast Guard vessel, May 2014 [Vietnam Coast Guard].

China's gray zone and naval tactics

The gray zone, which characterizes Beijing's actions in the South China Sea, is a conceptual space that lies between peace and armed conflict. It materializes when one or more actors use different elements of power in a deliberate manner to pursue political or military objectives through activities of an ambiguous or difficult-to-attribute nature. These activities exceed the limit of what could be a mere competition between these actors, but fall short of armed conflict.

Activities in the gray zone are below the threshold that would justify a military response, and occur gradually over a period of time rather than involving immediate and direct action. The vast majority of them are posed in such a way that it is highly complicated to identify their perpetrator, although in the case of the South China Sea this does not apply.

In this region, a wide variety of legal and political justifications, as well as, above all, historical arguments, are employed for the acts committed. In addition, China also relies on the threat of escalation as a coercive instrument, so that the states concerned are compromised if they attempt to stand up to Beijing's assertiveness.

Following is a fictional meeting illustrated by retired Admiral James Stavridis, which perfectly describes the reality of today's status in the region:

One summer evening in the sweltering South China Sea, a 2,000-ton coastal steamer approaches a fleet of Vietnamese fishing vessels that are fishing within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone, about 150 miles offshore. The steamer loiters in the area for an hour or two as night falls.

Suddenly, three speedboats, each armed with 50-caliber guns and hand-held rocket launchers, appear on the side of the ship. For the next hour, the speedboats attack dozens of fishing boats, firing with their cannons, lobbing grenades and attacking survivors floating in the water. The fishing vessels that manage to get away flee for their shore, frantically sending out radio distress signals, which are intercepted and overridden by small drones flying overhead [...].

In the aftermath, China insists that its armed forces were not involved and says it suspects a group of extortion gangsters, pirates or Vietnamese terrorists.

With this story, which is not far from what could one day happen to Vietnamese and Philippine fishing vessels in the region, the admiral highlights two fundamental characteristics of hybrid warfare: the use of force always below the threshold of armed conflict (these are not actions typical of a conventional war such as those we are seeing in the Black Sea), and the difficulty of attributing the actions to a specific actor due to the absence of identification on their vessels and uniforms (which allows the perpetrator to evade responsibility for their actions).

Regarding the first characteristic, China resorts to a range of hybrid tactics to harass its neighbors and claim de facto control over the aforementioned regions, most of which are non-conventional:

'Laser Dazzling'. Lasers are non-lethal weapons used by the Chinese Coast Guard to cause momentary blindness to sailors from neighboring countries, as well as cause problems with their ships' sensors. They are mostly used to harass Philippine vessels in contested areas, such as Scarborough Atoll or the Ayungin sandbar (known as Second Thomas Shoal).

Blockades. One of the most commonly repeated actions against Philippine vessels are blockades, which consist of making crosses in front of the bow of the vessel to obstruct the conduct of their patrols or to reach their destination. Their use is especially common against Philippine resupply missions to the Ayungin Bank, having repeatedly prevented them from being carried out normally.

'Going Dark', translated as 'goingdark'. Chinese vessels resort to this tactic to make it uncertain where they are operating or where they are headed. They do this by turning off their automatic information system (AIS) transponder, a signaling tool that identifies the vessel's subject , its position, speed and other navigational safety indicators. Although its use is mandatory under agreement with the International Maritime Organization (IMO), Chinese vessels operating in the region often turn it off to conceal their maneuvers against Philippine vessels. In addition to the South China Sea, this tactic is often employed by Russian vessels as well, and has also been seen on several occasions with incidents in the Red Sea.

Swarming. Another characteristic feature of China's actions in the region is the employment of its maritime militia (mostly composed of fishing vessels) to pursue its strategic objectives. Despite their appearance as simple civilian vessels, they are often also equipped with weaponry to intimidate larger vessels of other coast guards. Under the official name of the People's Army Maritime Militia (PAFMM), and known more colloquially as the 'little blue soldiers', they allow China to harass other vessels where China claims sovereignty.

Water Cannons. As the name implies, China has on numerous occasions resorted to firing high-pressure water cannons at fishing vessels and coast guards of the Philippines and other neighbors. As with all other tactics, Beijing seeks to deter these vessels from carrying out their usual duties, so that they will leave the disputed regions and China can slowly reclaim its sovereignty.

These and other tactics can be consulted on the Sea Light page, an initiative of several maritime security specialists in the region that seeks precisely to 'shine a light' on China's activities in the gray zone.

The weight of the Indo-Pacific

At final, although the current conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza are almost entirely in the media spotlight, we must not forget the seriousness of the status in the Western Pacific.

Over the coming years, China will continue to strengthen its maritime posture and cement its status as the world's largest navy. At the same time, in response, neighboring countries have for years been focusing their efforts on strengthening their own naval capabilities to cope with China's expansionism. Japan and South Korea are, after China, the two countries with the largest shipbuilding capacity today, and their efforts have resulted in a rate of growth of their navies not seen since the time of World War II. Both factors make the status one of the most geo-strategically dangerous, due to the importance of these waters for global maritime trade.

In addition to Japan, China and South Korea, smaller countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam are also seeking to increase their capabilities to cope with China's harassment, whose range of hybrid naval tactics could lead to a dangerous escalation of tensions in the coming years. It is therefore advisable to follow developments in the region closely, being aware, as we mentioned above, that a conflict in the region would have more serious consequences than those of the conflict in Ukraine or Gaza.