The Anatomy Of Competing China And US ‘Gray Zone’ Activities In South China Sea – Analysis



This has not yet happened. But it is likely if China and the US continue with their competing gray zone tactics in the South China Sea.

The U.S. and many of its scholars and pundits constantly criticize China for its “gray zone” activities in the South China Sea – especially its use of ‘maritime militias’.    Admiral John Richardson, the US Chief of Naval Operations is  clearly frustrated with China’s use of maritime militia to disrupt its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations there. He has now informed China that the U.S. Navy will treat China’s maritime militia the same way it treats Chinese warships.  

But following through on this threat could be dangerous and result in an incident like the headlines above – – and the international opprobrium that would almost certainly follow. The U.S. should recognize that China is only responding to what it perceives to be U.S. use of ‘gray zone’ activities there to achieve its security objectives to the detriment of its own.

The term ‘gray zone activity’ means different things to different countries and has many manifestations depending in part on their relative conventional military power and strategic objectives.  It can be defined as one “that is coercive and aggressive in nature but is deliberately designed to remain below the threshold of conventional military conflict”. 

A U.S. Special Operations White Paper says gray zone activities “are characterized by ambiguity about the nature of conflict, opacity of the parties involved or uncertainty about the relevant policy and legal frameworks.”

The use of gray zone tactics is a “symptom of broader regional ambitions and grievances” such as the U.S. unilateral interpretation and imposition of international “rules’ that advantage it. 

Maritime gray zone tactics are determined in part by their geographic, political and military context.  The South China Sea is a nexus of US-China military contention.  China is developing what the U.S. calls an “anti-access/area denial strategy” designed to control China’s “near seas” and prevent or delay access by the U.S. military in the event of a conflict.  The US response is to prepare to cripple China’s command, control, communication, computer and ISR systems.  Thus both are trying to dominate the ISR sphere over, on and under China’s near seas.  US ISR activities in the South China Sea cleverly exploit legal ambiguities surrounding these missions.  They thus fit the US’s own definition of gray zone activities as “competitive interactions among_ _ state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality”

US ISR operations in, over and under China’s ‘near seas’ send a message of dominance and ‘prepares the battle field’ to its advantage.  The U.S. flies hundreds of manned ISR missions every year along China’s coast and undertakes many on and under the sea as well. They collectively include active “tickling” of China’s coastal defenses to provoke and observe a response, interference with shore to ship and submarine communications, violation or abuse of the consent regime for marine scientific research, damage to the environment, and tracking China’s new nuclear submarines for potential targeting. Many of these activities are opaque and legally ambiguous. 

Sometimes international incidents arise from such conflicting gray zone actions.  Incidents in which China allegedly deployed its maritime militia to disrupt US gray zone actions included operations by the US Navy ships Bowditch (2003), Impeccable (2009) and Cowpens (2013) in China’s Exclusive Economic Zone.  

The Chinese military response is based on its theory and practice of ‘people’s war’.   China’s Defense Minister General Chang Wangquan tried to rally the nation “to ready itself for a ‘people’s war at sea”. basic concept of a “people’s war’ is to utilize the support of the population and draw the enemy beyond its supply lines where they will be bled by hit and run tactics. In this context, China’s use of civilian fishing boats as a gray zone asset is perfectly understandable—and predictable. China is using what it has to combat superior US military and technological power. It is the world’s most populous nation and has the world’s largest fishing fleet with a surplus relative to the sustainable capacity of the resource in its near seas.   In keeping with the concept of ‘people’s war’, it is apparently using its surplus boats and fisher folk to overwhelm US gray zone probes.  It also has the advantage of proximity while the US must contend with the tyranny of distance.

For its rival claimants, the issue is China’s use of its maritime militia  to challenge their territorial claims, fishing and petroleum exploitation—for which they have little defense – – except –as Vietnam has done –to build up their own maritime militias.  But the issue for the U.S. is that China is using its maritime militia to respond to and challenge its ISR missions.  So the U.S. is cleverly conflating China’s use of gray zone tactics against its rival claimants and its use against its own military.  The two issues are quite different. – one involves rival claimants to territory and resources- the other involves conflicting strategic interests of great powers.

But the U.S. has launched a gray zone narrative that implies that China is nefarious because it won’t ‘fight fair’ and avoids direct conflict as much as possible – – while employing its natural gray zone advantages of quantity and proximity.   That narrative is reminiscent of the British denouncing the ragtag band of American independence fighters that hounded and harried their regular forces but tried to avoid meeting them on the then conventional open field of battle.

Such conduct violates the “rules of the road” that in this situation advantage the U.S. while it interprets the existing international law including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to its advantage.   These tactics enable China to protect what it views as its security interests while avoiding a military conflict that would jeopardize the well being of the entire region. Perhaps, the originators of this strategy should be congratulated for their cleverness that has so far avoided this worst scenario. Without US modification of its close–in missions, this Chinese gray zone response and incidents are likely to continue and increase.  Worse they may become the response to stepped up US Freedom of Navigation Operations – like the most recent simultaneous challenges to China’s claim to sovereignty over Mischief Reef and its jurisdictional claim in the Paracels. Admiral Philip Davidson, US Indo-Pacific Commander has declared that “Navigation in those waters [the South China Sea] will pick up_ _ ” even further.

The point is that both China and the U.S. engage in gray zone activities in the South China Sea.  US criticism of China for doing so is disingenuous and hypocritical.

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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