China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations is the seventh edited volume in the Studies in Chinese Maritime Development series published in collaboration with the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. In common with its predecessors this book has been produced to a consistently high standard. Collectively the series represents some of the leading available scholarship on China’s maritime power. This most recent volume is both focused and timely, addressing China’s strategy of coercively manipulating changes to the geopolitical status quo in East Asian waters via the employment of maritime operations in the ‘gray zone.’ The book comprises 16 concise chapters plus an introduction and conclusion, and is divided into five parts. The first part conceptualizes the gray zone itself. The next two focus on the primary instruments used in the strategy: the white hulls of the China Coast Guard (CCG) and the ‘blue hulls’ of the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM), respectively. Part four addresses possible scenarios for the next stage of gray zone operations based on analysis of China’s tactics in the two seas thus far. The final part comprises three short analyses: the temporal factor in gray zone operations, deterrence and the gray zone, and the different approaches taken by Vietnam and the Philippines in response to China’s strategy. Well-conceived maps and diagrams complete the whole.
The ‘gray zone’ is one of those trendy terms which periodically take hold within defence circles and associated strategic studies institutions. The intent is to describe situations of political and strategic competition which fall into the gray area separating peace and war; or, more accurately, between ‘normal’ peacetime conditions and outright armed conflict. Like much trendy terminology, the ‘gray zone’ describes a phenomenon which is hardly new, even in the maritime environment: the so-called ‘Cod Wars’ between Iceland and the United Kingdom are obvious examples. However, China’s strategy over the past decade to consolidate, and stretch, its claims to disputed territories, marine resources and maritime jurisdiction in both the East China Sea and South China Sea, has taken the practice of maritime gray zone operations to an unprecedented level of effort and scope of objective. China’s public rationales are couched in terms of safeguarding rights and interests at sea or ‘maritime rights protection.’ At face value, such rationales are neither unreasonable nor illegitimate objectives for any coastal state. The reality of Beijing’s expansive vision of its maritime rights, however, in practice exceeds any reasonable test of legitimacy; and indeed, following the Arbitral Tribunal’s July 2016 decision in the Philippines-China South China Sea case, lawfulness. Beijing’s objective in pursuing ‘maritime rights protection’ is nothing short of total political, strategic and economic control of the seas abutting mainland China’s coastline, to transform those seas into a veritable Chinese lake.
In the first chapter of Part I Michael B. Petersen thus defines the gray zone strategy employed by China to accomplish its objective as emphasizing ‘the nonlethal diplomatic, informational, economic, financial, intelligence, law enforcement, and irregular force means of compellence’ (p. 17). Michael Mazarr’s chapter on the role of deterrence in countering China’s strategy further elaborates on the concept, arguing that gray zone campaigns are attempts at strategic revisionism which avoid ‘crossing key thresholds that would prompt escalation’ (pp. 256–257). Mazarr identifies four key characteristics of gray zone campaigns: an aggressive pursuit of objectives, gradual in implementation, avoidance of escalation thresholds, and a preference for utilizing ‘nonmilitary tools’ (p. 257). Ambiguity and a difficulty in easily attributing responsibility for individual actions also are elements of gray zone operations. That is why China has demonstrated a preference for using the PAFMM as the vanguard of its maritime gray zone operations, supported, often from a distance, by coast guard vessels, which in turn are often supported, at a minimum implicitly, by naval forces usually positioned further away over the horizon from the operation in question.
In Part II Lyle J. Morris explains how four separate maritime law enforcement agencies were combined in 2013 into the CCG under the civilian State Oceanic Administration. He argues that integration has not been fully effective and many limitations remain, although, as the book as a whole demonstrates, this has not impeded the success of the gray zone strategy. Ryan D. Martinson further demonstrates how the CCG has become increasingly militarized, however, with one of the four agencies, China Maritime Police, part of the People’s Armed Police (PAP – an arm of China’s armed forces), taking a more prominent role. That process of militarization was completed in 2018 with the transfer of the CCG to PAP command.
The development of the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia into the frontline force for China’s gray zone operations in East Asian seas is established in Part III. Whilst the PAFMM is not new, with militia playing an integral role in the national defence mobilization system throughout the Communist era, China has placed far more emphasis upon it in asserting its maritime claims over the past decade. Morgan Clemens and Michael Weber explain how the PAFMM operates under a dual military-civilian structure. On the civilian side this corresponds to the Communist Party administrative structures at different levels of government; and on the military side to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) counterpart territorial administrative arrangements. At each administrative level ‘the two halves are bound together’ by national defence mobilization committees (p. 136). With the maritime militia, especially, this structure sometimes encompasses individual enterprises, such as fishing companies or other maritime industry. The use of fishing boats sometimes tasked to the PAFMM for maritime rights protection thus exacerbates the ambiguity and attribution problem, and places the onus on other parties to escalate an incident, in which case China can respond with ever greater levels of coercion. The attribution issue has been particularly difficult in incidents involving Chinese fishing vessels in the East China Sea, as Katsuya Yamamoto’s later chapter explains: ‘ … if a vessel does not display any definitive symbol of militia activities, it can be difficult to determine instantly whether it is an ordinary fishing boat or a PAFMM unit’ (p. 237). Elsewhere, on the other hand, certain PAFMM units are increasingly recognizable, such as the unit from Sansha City in the disputed Paracel island group in the South China Sea, which operates 84 purpose-built vessels exclusively for rights protection duties; not for fishing or other economic activities.
Conor M. Kennedy establishes in more detail the types of operations performed by the PAFMM: presence, in large part to assert China’s claims; harassment and sabotage; escort of purely civilian vessels operating in disputed waters; and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The PAFMM also exists to support the PLA in more intense warfighting missions. However, as Clemens and Weber argue, it is poorly equipped and trained for such tasks; and actions to remedy the situation would paradoxically ‘degrade those very … attributes … that make the maritime militia so useful and effective in prosecuting gray zone missions … ’ (p. 150). Jonathan G. Odom’s chapter assesses the status of the PAFMM under international law. Importantly he concludes that PAFMM actions are ‘legally attributable to the PRC’ and are often inconsistent with several aspects of international law (p. 67). The U.S. Navy seems to be listening, with its chief reportedly warning his Chinese counterpart in January 2019 that U.S. forces would treat PAFMM or CCG actions no differently to those of the PLA Navy itself.
While some chapters identify many weaknesses in both the PAFMM and CCG, as well as in the joint command and coordination effectiveness linking China’s three maritime forces, the book tells an overarching story of the success of China’s maritime gray zone operations in fulfilling its regional objectives thus far, especially in the South China Sea. This collection is without doubt the most comprehensive source available on the subject, providing a uniformly excellent quality of scholarship. As with any work that makes extensive use of foreign language materials, there is the occasional minor inconsistency in transliteration between chapters. And, as is common in dealing with mainland Chinese sources on sensitive issues, it is not clear just how authoritative much of the source material actually is. On the other hand, China’s well-documented actions in disputed waters provide ample evidence to support this volume’s arguments. Given the very recent changes outlined in the book, this is a story that will continue to unfold, but as a guide to understand the slow-burning crisis in East Asian seas so far, China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations is highly recommended.
Chris Rahman, Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources & Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia E-mail address: email@example.com.