China's gray zone tactics show it's not acting in good faith

By Viet Tuan   April 3, 2021 | 08:00 am GMT+7
China's gray zone tactics show it's not acting in good faith
China's Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying fleet conducts a drill in an area of the South China Sea, December, 2016. Photo by Reuters/Stringer.
China is using militia-run fishing vessels to maintain its illegal presence and exert control over East Sea territory without resorting to direct confrontation, an expert says.

Nguyen Hong Quan, former deputy director of the Institute for Military Strategy, said tensions in the East Sea, known internationally as the South China Sea, have been rising in recent years over conflicts between China and other countries regarding sovereignty claims; between the countries themselves; between China and ASEAN; and between China and the United States.

He said Chinese fishermen, with the help of its coast guard forces, have been claiming several fishing areas at sea and threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions of fishermen from other countries. China has also threatened or sabotaged attempts by countries to survey energy sources in their legal sea areas, instead wanting them to cooperate with it so as to get a handle on energy harvesting in the South China Sea.

In fact, the country has even gone so far as to threaten the use of force if countries don’t stop international cooperation for gas surveys in Vietnamese sea areas that China claims as its own. Such aggression is a factor in the conflicts remaining unresolved, Quan said.

In its relationship with ASEAN, China has always been avoiding issues regarding conflict resolution when discussing the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea (COC). ASEAN fears that such a stance means China plans to use the COC to create opportunities to seize control of South China Sea territory. For example, China may resolve conflicts with other countries through negotiations and consultations based on "historical facts," but such an approach would exclude the role of either an arbitration court or another mediating party, devising ASEAN itself on issues related to the South China Sea, said Quan.

He reiterated that it was China’s desire for control over the South China Sea that is the root of all conflict in the area. China wants to use the sea area as a starting point for its fleets to reach other oceans and realize its dream of becoming a superpower. But the U.S. and other countries are not likely to allow any international sea area to have travel restrictions. The U.S., in particular, considers the South China Sea as a major point in its Indo-Pacific strategy.

The ensuing conflict of interest between the two giants can get worse and involve other countries in the future, as can be seen in the recent presence of warships and fighter jets in the South China Sea.

The gray zone

To carry out its game plan, China is stepping up its presence in the area with fishing vessels manned by the militia. Unlike ordinary fishing vessels, these are designed with steel plates and the capability to operate far away from the shore. The militia members are well trained and well equipped, capable of responding to both wartime and peaceful situations, including the use of weapons. They are frequently deployed to several areas of the South China Sea, Quan said.

And their presence is not just for show. China’s militia-run fishing vessels have been implicated in several notable confrontations at sea with the U.S., Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia, among others, since 2009. China's tactic is to use such vessels as a way to maintain a constant presence and dominate conflicts at sea, without ever making a direct confrontation with any country, Quan said.

He noted that less than 5 percent of these vessels turn on their automatic identification systems (AIS), allowing China to explain away collisions and sinking incidents involving its ships as "maritime accidents." Since other countries have no way of confirming whether a vessel is an ordinary fishing vessel or controlled by the Chinese militia, they cannot escalate tensions and risk China accusing them of "violating the human rights" of its fishermen, he explained.

However, the involvement of China's militia-run vessels in the "accidents" is highly likely as they have no communication and de-escalation mechanisms that a naval vessel would have. They are also not included in the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea signed by global naval forces in 2014. This situates them at the center of China's "gray zone" strategy, where it can exert control over sea and island areas of other countries without resorting to direct, large scale military force. This strategy works by not allowing conflicts to escalate into full-blown wars, Quan said.

When China passed its Coast Guard Law in January, Quan's institute had expected coast guards to support militia members in illegally invading the fishing areas of other countries. That has happened, with China deploying 200 fishing vessels to Whitson Reef near the Grierson Reef, which is part of Vietnam's Spratly Islands.

These vessels kept their lights on for entire nights without actually catching fish. The vessels were merely a "test" by China for applying its new Coast Guard Law on the South China Sea, and them keeping their lights on was a show of power, Quan said.

China might also be using the fishing vessels to take control of the Grierson Reef, then using that as a stepping stone to create new artificial islands, then new military-civilian bases, a tactic it has already used in the past, he added.

The new Coast Guard Law, which allows coast guards to use weapons to "prevent and remove threats" when foreign organizations and individuals infringe upon "China's sovereignty," would allow them to escort fishermen to invade fishing areas of Vietnam and other countries, as also disrupt energy surveys and harvests, among other actions.

It would also escalate the risk of armed conflicts that undermine regional security and contravene international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China may even take this further and claim most of the South China Sea as its own "domestic waters" and "airspace," said Quan.

All these factors show that China is a negotiator in bad faith, as far as the COC is concerned, Quan stressed.

What Vietnam should do

He said Vietnam should continue affirming its sovereignty over its waters and islands on multiple fronts, including political and diplomatic. This means playing a key role in ASEAN to ensure an effective, international law-abiding COC.

Vietnam also needs to cooperate with major powers, both in the region and the world, especially in intelligence and equipment sharing. When it comes to China, Vietnam should continue to maintain a peaceful and stable relationship, and both countries should agree to the general (non-nuclear) equivalent of the "no-first-use" policy on using military force, Quan said.

Vietnam needs to use international platforms not only to affirm its sovereignty over its waters and islands, but also to raise issues that it has with China’s new Coast Guard Law, its implications and China’s "gray zone" tactics. Vietnam should also participate in international military drills to strengthen defense relations, he added.

In negotiations with China on maritime issues, Vietnam may enlist the help of international jurisdictions, preparing all relevant documents and evidence to take the issue to an international court if necessary.

Vietnamese authorities need to invest more in its navy, militia and air forces so that they are well trained and well equipped. That includes newer, better ships and equipment, Quan said.

He added: In the long run, the best way for Vietnam to protect its sovereignty over its waters and islands is to become a country with a strong maritime economy and strong commercial and military fleets.

 
 
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