The South China Sea is a cauldron of contestation over maritime claims; most notable is the Chinese “nine-dash line” — since a September update, now a ten-dash line — which encompasses the entirety of this sea.
But this is more than a line on a map. The US Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute has monitored China’s gradualist approach that “ultimately allows China to govern contested areas of the South China Sea as if they were Chinese territory.”
China has embarked on a decades-long grey-zone tactic with its paramilitary maritime militia in the vanguard to advance its claims and establish de-facto control of the region. But given recent confrontations, could China’s approach be changing?
Last month, the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and various Philippine government maritime forces had dangerous altercations. This round of incidents triggered the need to resupply and refurbish the antiquated and dilapidated BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded ex-amphibious warship serving as a garrison at the disputed Second Thomas Shoal.
China had been patient as the hulk of this ship rusted into uselessness, that is, so long as the Philippines could not refurbish it.
Second Thomas Shoal Incident
Typically, the most visible and aggressive Chinese presence in such interactions would be its para-military maritime militia. However, during this recent incident, the CCG was most visible and aggressive.
Widely reported in international media were several incidents of water-cannoning of Philippine vessels. That said, the maritime militia remains active in the region, and this event is significant.
The more aggressive use of the CCG in the August confrontations at Second Thomas Shoal and several other recent such interactions should be viewed as an escalation of China’s grey-zone tactics. How will the maritime militia’s role change if this is the case?
Figuring out how China will employ its maritime militia in the future, let’s look at the past.
China’s Cabbage Strategy
In a remarkable series of research papers beginning in 2017, the China Maritime Studies Institute and Center for Naval Analysis began to pull back the curtain on the maritime militia.
This effort was led by Andrew Erickson, whose research details the organizational linkages with the Chinese Navy (PLAN) and Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) in support of the tiered maritime coercive tactic — or so-called cabbage strategy.
The cabbage strategy is a coercive grey-zone tactic designed not to trigger a military response from the target country. This is accomplished using the PLA-N, with its warships stationed typically within accessible transit to the scene, as over-watch, dissuading any escalation by the targeted country.
Next is the CCG, ostensibly acting as a law-enforcement agency but providing direct support to the maritime militia vessels involved in harassment activities. This layered approach, like the leaves of cabbage, has enabled China to coerce and push out other countries from their waters while controlling and neutering the response from its target.
Today, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, China’s maritime militia consists of roughly 300 (likely many more) subsidized fishing boats and crews, including specialized training.
This training has reportedly included small arms training, secure radios, and tactics for interfering with shipping. China’s use of a force that ostensibly looks like a fishing fleet is helpful for plausible deniability. However, as publicity of China’s behavior at sea has spread, plausible deniability is seemingly no longer tenable.
Scarborough Shoal Incident
The most notable and visible success of this cabbage strategy using the maritime militia was in 2012 at Scarborough Shoal. That incident began on April 8, 2012, when Philippines maritime patrol aircraft spotted trawlers anchored at the protected lagoon of Scarborough Shoal.
A couple of days later, when a Philippines frigate arrived and attempted to arrest fishermen in what turned out to be illegal Chinese fishing, Chinese Coast Guard ships arrived and blocked the Philippine vessel in the lagoon.
As time passed, dozens of Chinese fishing boats, many assumed to be militia, gathered at the lagoon entrance. Eventually, the months-long standoff even drew in US National Security Council staff to broker a deal.
However, after the Philippines naval vessel departed, the Chinese maritime forces remained — today, they still retain effective control of Scarborough Shoal.
Since 2012, the maritime militia has been involved in provocative encounters at sea numerous times. Significant events include the 2014 HD-981 clash with Vietnam, a 2016 significant intrusion into Japanese waters around the Senkaku Islands, and the more recent 2021 massing of over 200 fishing and militia vessels in Philippine waters at Whitsun Reef. Of course, these are only a few of the largest and most well-known interactions involving the maritime militia — there are more.
China Getting More Aggressive
A shift to levying reputation costs on China has shifted it to a more aggressive posture.
Since its 2020 release, the tri-Service (Navy-Coast Guard-Marine Corps) Advantage at Sea strategy has emphasized exposing China’s malign behavior. According to this strategy, a particular focus has been on the maritime militia, seeking to “provide evidence of malign activities to U.S. and international officials to expose this behavior and increase the reputation cost for the aggressor.”
A 2016 report by the US Center for Naval Analysis detailed the structure and relationships between the CCG and PLA-N. Since then, there have been numerous indications that the PLA-N and maritime militia coordinate with the CCG in planning and executing specific harassment missions.
This led to the Chief of Naval Operations stating in 2021 that the US Navy would treat the militia as acting with official sanction and be treated as such. If acted on, this threat would break the cabbage strategy reliant on avoiding a hostile response and control escalation.
Since 2020, the maritime militia has remained a force of coercion in the South China Sea. However, under changing approaches by the US and claimant states, where China has the advantage, it will be inclined to aggressively employ the CCG in coercive acts.
This is further enabled by the ability to sustain more CCG vessels at various flashpoints simultaneously since it built an archipelago of man-made island garrisons.
Seemingly walking away from a strategy reliant on plausible deniability, China’s new approach challenges the capacity of maritime nations to outclass or outmaneuver the Chinese presence at a given point of contestation.
So What Is To Be Done?
Exposing China’s malign activities must continue to ensure public support for pushing back against Chinese encroachment. However, this is no longer enough, given the increased activity of the CCG.
This new development means more is needed to match and ostensibly deter future incidents. Notably, investment in more capable Coast Guard vessels, preferably with the ability to carry a helicopter for surveillance and resupply of forces surrounded or blocked in a lagoon — e.g., Scarborough Shoal 2012 or Second Thomas Shoal.
Additionally, naval presence near flashpoints must be better coordinated amongst allied nations such as Japan, the Philippines, and the US to provide a naval force to assure escalation control.
Doing this mirrors the cabbage strategy but cannot match Chinese ships present in a crisis one-for-one. Instead, naval vessels with advanced capabilities, such as those provided by US and Japanese naval warships, will be required in the near term while sidestepping massed maritime militia vessels using helicopters to resupply surrounded ships and garrisons.
China is changing its approach to the disputes in the South China Sea and evolving its grey-zone tactics; the US and its allies must do likewise to safeguard their interests and rights.
- Brent Sadler joined Heritage Foundation after a 26-year Navy career with numerous operational tours on nuclear-powered submarines, as personal staff of senior Defense Department leaders, and as a military diplomat in Asia. As a Senior Research Fellow, Brent focuses on maritime security and the technologies shaping our future maritime forces, especially the Navy.
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