South China Sea
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The US conducted at least five so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea last year. Photo: AFP

‘Grey zone’ tactics are raising risk of military conflict in the South China Sea, observers say

  • America’s freedom of navigation operations and drills in disputed waters designed to challenge China’s rise and excessive territorial claims, analyst says
  • And promises Washington makes to other nations in region could lead to an ‘unwanted conflict’ with Beijing, he says
The United States’ increased use of “grey zone” operations in the South China Sea to counter Beijing’s rise in the disputed region has significantly increased the chance of military conflict between the two powers, Chinese observers say.

In 2018, the US conducted at least five so-called freedom of navigation operations in the sea and more than 1,000 military flights over it, Chen Yong, an assistant research fellow with the Institute of International Relations at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said in a recently published academic paper.

On any given day, at least three US naval vessels could be found in the disputed waters, he said.

“As China’s military might increases, so the US will turn to ever more dangerous grey zone operations,” he said.

Grey zone is a term given to the state of being between war and peace, and in which a nation seeks to make political or territorial gains against another without resorting to actual combat.

On any given day, at least three US naval vessels can be found in the South China Sea, according to a Chinese researcher. Photo: AFP

Chen said that as the rivalry between China and the US in the security arena had grown, so Washington had employed the “full spectrum of grey zone activities to suppress Beijing”.

For many years the United States has accused China of using such operations to challenge the existing (US-led) order in the strategically important South China Sea, which is a vital trade route in the global supply chain.

While Beijing claims sovereignty over about 90 per cent of the waterway, based on its “nine-dash line”, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan hold competing claims, while the US says it has significant political, military and economic interests in the region.

According to military officials and observers in the US, Beijing’s grey zone tactics in the South China Sea include building artificial islands and militarising them, deploying its coastguard to patrol disputed reefs, and recruiting fishing vessels to work as an ad hoc maritime militia.

China began restructuring its coastguard in 2013 and since last year it has been under the administration of the People’s Armed Police, which in turn falls under the Central Military Commission chaired by President Xi Jinping.

According to a US Congressional Research Service report published this month, China’s coastguard fleet comprises 248 vessels, up from 185 in 2017.

Vietnam again accuses China of violating its fishing rights

Chen said, however, that the claims made about the maritime militia had been overstated and that the US’s countermeasures were therefore excessive.

The grey zone activities adopted by the US included a narrative war to label China a “revisionist” nation, increased coastguard patrols, freedom of navigation operations and naval exercises in the South China Sea, he said.

“All of these are designed to undermine China’s grey zone advantages and force it to accept the US version of the international maritime order.”

Most dangerous of all, Chen said, were Washington’s efforts to build military alliances in the region.

“The security promises it makes to South China Sea countries are too high,” and that could lead the US and China “into unwanted conflicts”, he said.

Professor Hu Bo, director of the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, a think tank under Peking University’s Institute of Ocean Research, said that for China to counter the US’s actions it needed to hit back hard.

“In this game an effective response is to escalate the level of confrontation and raise the stakes,” he said.