KUALA LUMPUR: “We need to be aware of China’s gray zone tactics in the disputed South China Sea,” said a veteran observer of regional affairs during a short chat while attending the Taiwan national day celebrations, here, recently.
News about China’s so called “gray zone tactics” have been in the news months ago but has not caused ripples in the Malaysian context.
He was concerned that it will be too late if action is not taken, at least to show China that Malaysia and other claimants on the South China Sea do have the capacity to deter Beijing’s manoeuvres in the area.
An example of a gray zone tactic is by sending hundreds of ships to a certain territory which was claimed by another country, to show how fast and big China’s action can be and if there is no counter move then it is easy for them to keep and hold on to it, he said.
China claims most of the South China Sea while Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are the other claimants.
It is estimated that US$3.37 trillion (RM14.11 trillion) worth of global trade passes through the South China Sea annually, which accounts for a third of the global maritime trade.
The Philippines Star portal report said Manila is concerned about this “gray zone tactics” by China and quoted analysts who urged the country’s president Rodrigo Duterte’s government to revise its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) to counter China’s actions in the South China Sea.
The portal further reports that one of China’s gray zone tactics is deploying hundreds of paramilitary vessels in the vicinity of Pagasa Island, where Manila is upgrading its facilities.
Chinese vessels have also been intimidating Filipino fishermen near the Island, one of the largest features in the Spratlys.
China’s Coast Guard vessels blocked Filipino civilian vessels conducting a resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal, where the navy’s BRP Sierra Madre is grounded, according to the Department of National Defense.
“The United States and the Philippines should issue a joint statement on an elucidative and effective MDT that addresses gray zone threats and upholds the tribunal decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration,” the portal said, quoting analysts, Adrien Chorn and Monica Michiko Sato of the CSIS Southeast Asia Programme.
The National Interest analysts, James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara urged Washington to be wary about Beijing’s intentions in the disputed area describing ‘Five Shades of Chinese Gray-Zone Strategy’ in an opinion piece in 2017.
“First, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership codified its claim to offshore territory in domestic law in 1992, proclaiming that China held jurisdiction over disputed land features in the East and South China seas along with the surrounding waters.
“Second, China’s “smile diplomacy’ commenced in the early 2000s where Beijing fashioned a diplomatic narrative drawing on the charisma of China’s ancient mariner, Zheng He. Officialdom took pains to reassure fellow Asians that China would follow Zheng He’s pattern. It would make itself a potent yet beneficent sea power. It could be trusted not to abuse lesser neighbors.
“Third, gray-zone tactics tended in a darker, more coercive direction after Beijing unveiled the nine-dash line in 2009. Rather than flourish the big stick of naval power, that is, CCP leaders unlimbered the small stick of maritime law enforcement coupled with militiamen embedded within the fishing fleet.
“Fourth, China attempted a variant of small-stick diplomacy in the East China Sea but found the setting far less permissive since 2010 or thereabouts.
“And fifth, CCP chieftains have discovered that building artificial islands – or fortifying existing ones – constitutes an effective gray-zone strategy,” they said.
It remains to be seen whether claimants of the South China Sea will act to counter China’s with the role of the US also seen to be important.