Asia China Defense & Security Maritime Politics & Government Security

The U.S. Needs to Rethink its Maritime Strategy in the South China Sea

The Chinese Maritime Militia, dubbed the ‘little blue men’, signifies Beijing’s vision of a maritime ‘people’s war’ where civilian and military structures are integrated in a Maoist fashion that sees the social sphere as intimately connected to the military industrial complex.

The Chinese Maritime Militia, dubbed the ‘little blue men’, pose a significant threat to regional stability in the South China Sea (SCS) and represent a more assertive China in the maritime domain. The Maritime Militia, or what the Pentagon calls the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM), signifies Beijing’s vision of a maritime ‘people’s war’ where civilian and military structures are integrated in a Maoist fashion that sees the social sphere as intimately connected to the military industrial complex. China uses these forces in gray-zone operations in the SCS in an attempt to assert control over the region. This is posing a considerable challenge to both U.S. interests and regional sovereignty in the SCS, and will continue to test these interests during the next decade. So far, China is ‘winning’ the gray-zone and now, more concrete policy options need to be implemented in order to counter this regional challenge. 

The PAFMM and gray-zone operations

The PAFMM has played a major role in asserting Chinese maritime claims in the SCS. Many of these are robust vessels camouflaged as fishing boats, featuring water cannons and oversized rails suitable for ramming, manned by dedicated teams of professional units who report to the People’s Liberation Army. This subcomponent of China’s armed forces is trained and equipped to support the advancing sovereignty claims to disputed features and sea areas, with numbers of vessels conceivably in the thousands. This is well-documented in numerous incidents, such as the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff, where the U.S. and allies, while not adequately responding, allowed China to seize maritime features in this area that denied Philippine sovereignty. In this strategy, China is challenging the established order in the SCS through gray-zone tactics. The gray-zone is well-defined by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies as: 

“a form of conflict that: pursues political objectives through integrated campaigns; employs mostly nonmilitary or nonkinetic tools; strives to remain under key escalatory or red line thresholds to avoid outright conventional conflict, and; moves gradually toward its objectives rather than seeking conclusive results in a relatively limited period of time.”

Gray-zone activities have a long history. However, some have argued that they have increased during the nuclear age as they are attractive to revisionist powers that seek to challenge the existing world order without any major escalation. These tactics have also been likened to those of Russia during its 2014 intervention in Ukraine, where armed forces, known aptly as “little green men,” were strategically-ambiguous so as to not cross the threshold of formalized aggression. 

In contrast, the “little blue men,” named for the color of their ship hulls, are trying to insert China’s ‘nine-dash line’ claims. Under this policy, China declares sovereignty over 90% of the water mass of the SCS, overlapping the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and features of multiple SCS littoral states including: Brunei, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled that China’s nine-dash claim’ did not supersede United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — thus China’s claims are not recognized under international law. This has achieved little to stop Chinese expansion into the SCS.

Beijing asserts its claims with what officials call the “cabbage strategy,” due to its multiple layered leaves. Chinese doctrine places PAFMM forces on the “front line” in China’s campaign to exert presence and control in disputed spaces in the SCS. Behind them, on the ‘second’ and ‘third’ lines, China’s two other maritime forces operate, the China Coast Guard (CCG) and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). This layered approach achieved its greatest success at Scarborough Shoal in 2012, and the recent situation at Whitsun Reef, where 200 Chinese vessels lay at anchor for weeks in Filipino territory, proves this approach is alive and well. Concurrently, China is building artificial islands, which can be used to project military power in the SCS and as a tool to bolster sovereignty claims over this strategically important region. If allowed to continue unchallenged, China could effectively dictate terms to other SCS littoral states on where their fishermen can fish, where oil companies can drill, where they can build their own contested reefs, and so forth. Naturally, this would give Beijing significant leverage in the region and open opportunities to forge political agreements—reducing their scope of military cooperation with the U.S. 

The effort of China to solidify its hegemony in the SCS is a clear example of a gray-zone strategy campaign. It also demonstrates two major tactics reflective of gray-zone conflicts: the ‘salami slicing approach’ and ‘fait accompli’. ‘Salami slicing’ is a key feature of the strategy and involves a gradualist approach to achieving objectives in the SCS, which are ambiguous, instead of a knee-jerk advance. This goes hand-in-hand with the ‘fait accompli’ approach, which is to seize limited gains before the other side can respond, acting suddenly and decisively in a manner that poses the defender with the dilemma of acquiescing or pursuing a dangerous escalation. Both of these approaches of strategic gradualism make the task of deterrence and balancing acts complicated for defending powers. In this particular case, defending powers in the region are also hamstrung by the presence of the CCG, who are positioned to support the maritime militia if an incident escalates. This issue was highlighted in 2012, when two Philippine warships attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen, two CCG and several militia vessels rushed to intervene, leading to a two-month standoff. This acts as a significant deterrence for opposing powers in the region, which not only want to avoid a potential escalation to conflict but also a political and economic backlash from Beijing. 

It also poses a unique challenge for the U.S. Ross Babbage of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments astutely notes that the U.S. “political and hybrid warfare arsenals are weak at best, poorly organized, and grossly under-resourced. There is clearly a strategy mismatch between China and the Western allies.” In other words, the United States currently has no credible strategy to counter Chinese gray-zone actions in the region. Essentially, the PAFMM are evoking Sun Tzu to “subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Regional implications

There are few options to avoid confronting the PAFMM. Circumventing confrontation will mean effectively surrendering territory and accepting the dissolution of international law governing the SCS, which would have significant implications globally. This is not tolerable to both the regional powers or the United States. Moreover, failing to confront the PAFMM normalizes Beijing’s presence and reach in other nations’ territorial seas. Consequently, the question that must be understood for SCS littoral states is, not if and when they should, but to what degree they confront Chinese gray-zone operations and defend their territorial waters.

These gray-zone operations also pose significant challenges to long-established international norms and laws. One area that this is immediately clear in is the four hundred years of custom and State practice embedded in the law of naval warfare, which may be upended by China’s unorthodox approach to maritime power. China, in turn, utilizes the PAFMM due to the very nature of these laws of naval warfare, as “fishing boats” are protected unless they are involved in a war. This poses valid concerns over identifying what is a legitimate fishing boat and what vessel is a part of the PAFMM. This plays into the hands of China, as if their vessels—even operating solely as civilian economic actors—operate unchallenged, their presence helps to solidify CCP claims. Furthermore, as China does not officially acknowledge their existence, referring to them as a “so-called maritime militia,” it allows the vessels to harass and intimidate foreign powers while leaving China room to de-escalate by denying its affiliation with these activities. However, the same factors that make the militia a deniable force also raise the risk of accidents and escalations. The more frequent its operations, the greater the likelihood of interactions with foreign vessels that could spiral out of control. Overall, the actions of China in the SCS have contributed to the weakening of international law, the international rules-based order, and the deterioration of regional stability.

Most importantly, for the United States, this threatens its credibility with allies and emerging partners in the region, which are already materially suffering from China’s expanding presence. If the U.S. continues to appear unwilling or unable to deal with territorial disputes in the SCS, it will heighten the concern among claimant states like the Philippines and Vietnam that the U.S may not intervene on their behalf. It would also play into China’s narrative that Southeast Asian states would be wise to accept its ascension as a regional hegemon. Washington’s lackluster response to China’s gray-zone activities in places like the Scarborough Shoal erodes more than U.S credibility. It also increases the likelihood of a traditional military confrontation by permitting China to solidify its gains while neutralizing U.S diplomatic and economic leverage. Through this process of elimination, military force becomes the only viable option to resolving hardened disputes, something the U.S would be reluctant to do. Thus, it is essential for U.S and regional policymakers to confront the PAFMM and gray-zone operations in the SCS, as it is undermining national sovereignty, international governance, the U.S alliance structure, and making conflict more plausible.

Countering the PAFMM

A fundamental shift in thinking within defense circles is required to challenge the PAFMM. One of the eternal principles of war, espoused by Sun Tzu, is to seize the initiative. For too long, maritime nations in the SCS have simply been reacting to Chinese moves, playing into Beijing’s script. There is a need to put the onus back onto Beijing by seizing the initiative, and forcing China to react. This has already happened in a few instances, such as the Philippines lawsuit under UNCLOS in 2016, but it must now become the norm, not the exception. For one, China is banking on U.S prioritization of traditional deterrence at the expense of a robust, and likely more effective, asymmetric strategy. Building a stronger deterrence in the region not only requires a new approach for the US, but for regional powers in Southeast Asia, which collectively need to build asymmetric and traditional capabilities against China’s gray-zone strategy.

One traditional way the U.S. can achieve this is through the build-up of national coast guards trained to enforce international maritime governance in the SCS. In their new maritime strategy manifesto, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) made a compelling case for a bigger presence in the SCS. In it they argued that the coastal service, with its lightly-armed, high-endurance vessels and law-enforcement expertise, has the potential to function as America’s  own gray-zone maritime force. Moreover, coast guards can provide first responder capability and law enforcement legitimacy without the negative aspects of coercion. In contrast, U.S. warships are not particularly well-suited for maritime policing tasks, as their presence would bolster Chinese claims that the U.S. Navy is the true aggressor in the region. 

However, there are significant issues with using the USCG to patrol the SCS more frequently. It would take time, money and effort to adapt the service to a gray-zone mission. Over the last several years, USCG funding has declined, and it would still have competing demands across the world, including in the US. It would also mark a substantial shift in U.S tactics and appetite for risk. As it stands, there is little evidence that the U.S “white hulls” will be attempting to pacify the waters en masse anytime soon. 

While any presence of the USCG in the SCS will remain limited, they may be highly effective in training and assisting foreign coast guard services in Southeast Asia. This would not only lead to a more multinational process in confronting Chinese aggressions, but would also allow the USCG contributing forces to remain somewhat limited. Southeast Asian powers are increasingly using their coast guards to support their territorial claims against the PAFMM, and a general trend shows considerable growth in white hulls across the region. U.S. policymakers should encourage and assist with this trend in the region, and act multilaterally in upholding maritime governance in the SCS against the destabilizing force of the PAFMM. In particular, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines should be assisted by U.S policymakers. Japan, while the strongest U.S ally in the wider region, has constitutional barriers that pose a significant challenge to enhancing their presence in confronting gray-zone operations in the SCS. Furthermore, Tokyo is more concerned, with PAFMM operations in the East China Sea, while less common, appear to be increasing. In contrast, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines have less technical expertise and have shown a willingness to combat the PAFMM. The Philippines should be prioritized first in assistance as it is the weakest of the three, a formal U.S ally, and the most vulnerable to gray-zone operations. Moreover, supporting a U.S ally would provide a legal basis to enhance military forces in the Philippines and would have the extra benefit of boosting U.S credibility.

The USCG can also assist in building asymmetric capabilities of regional powers along the SCS to combat China in their own game. This must involve assistance in building up these powers’ own maritime militias to compete against the PAFMM. The USCG may be utilized to provide law enforcement and maritime safety training to support these national militias. This option carries a risk that it would be expanding a concept that is already damaging the rules-based order, but it will provide some level of parity for states facing the PAFMM. This is a capability that Vietnam has already developed and is being taken seriously by other states in the region. 

The USCG and other regional coast guard forces should also be empowered to document and make public harassment by the PAFMM known, removing the veneer of plausible deniability that it gives Beijing. China wants to prevent being labelled as ‘the aggressor’ in the SCS, and documenting militia activities could help the U.S. and its partners win the information war and unite global public opinion against Beijing. Moreover, by maintaining visual presence on the PAFMM when operational, it can be demonstrated that they are being constantly observed, while collecting vital intelligence on how the PAFMM operates. This was used to great effect by the Philippines during the recent incursion in the Whitsun Reef, where valuable intelligence of the PAFMM was gathered, including: its operational patterns, the government support for the operation, the key units operating in contested spaces and where they originated. These findings prove that Beijing’s public messaging regarding Whitsun is disprovable with open sources alone. This is perhaps the best option for how other Southeast Asian states can contribute in shaping the global narrative of the SCS. It places China on the defensive—forcing them to issue weak, unconvincing denials — and limits their ability to portray themselves as a victim if and when an incident occurs. This will not be enough to convince Beijing to fully scale back its operation, but it is a bigger deterrent than it currently faces. This needs to be supported by diplomatic initiatives by U.S and regional policymakers, to express support for the 2016 verdict on the illegal basis of China’s maritime claims. Through this approach, U.S and regional policymakers can shape and win the competing narrative over the SCS. 

Lastly, policymakers should continue to promote intelligence assets in this space. With few exceptions, most states in the SCS possess an incomplete patchwork of sensors capable of surveilling only parts of their territorial waters. However, sustained capacity building efforts from several powers in the Indo-Pacific have made significant strides in providing access to commercial surveillance tools that allow states to have a vastly improved picture of the ‘battlespace’. This will give states greater power in locating and disrupting illicit activity in their EEZs and will make it harder for PAFMM to operate stealthily. Utilizing these intelligence assets will also make it more challenging for Beijing to maintain deniability in its gray-zone operations. 

What is the future of gray-zone operations in the South China Sea?

There is increasing risk that a gray-zone operation will spiral out of control. As of January 2021, the CCG ‘rules of engagement’ have changed and they are now authorized to fire on foreign vessels if a threat is perceived. This recent change has significant implications. While it remains unclear whether the CCG or PLAN vessels will actively defend the PAFMM, there is now a greater potential for miscalculations to occur. The Pentagon’s statement that the PAFMM vessels will be treated like warships has also reinforced this possibility and increased the chance of a significant escalation leading to war. 

This points to a clear need in the region to deter the PAFMM from continuing to expand gray-zone operations in the strategic waters around China. Nevertheless, China will inevitably double down on expanding the PAFMM, as it provides a cheaper and lower technology alternative tool in sovereignty disputes and coastal defense than the PLAN. The PAFMM are also suited to wage a guerilla war style “people’s war at sea” armed with sea mines and anti-air artillery and missiles, This means that practically, whether in peace or war, it will be a force to be reckoned with. While the future of the rules-based order is threatened in the SCS, there are no predetermined outcomes, and Chinese hegemony is not a given. However, American  and regional policymakers must implement more effective policy solutions—empowering the Coast Guard, providing intelligence support to regional actors, and initiating a comprehensive information warfare campaign—to impede PAFMM gray-zone operations. While it is highly unlikely that there are any solutions short of full-scale war to fully prevent these operations, policymakers can make it more challenging for these services to continue to operate in this way. Without more concrete policies, states reliant on the international rules-based order will find themselves subject to the whims of a volatile and menacing power at sea.

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By Cameron Smith

Cameron is a graduate of a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in History and International Relations from the University of Wollongong. He serves at the Parliament of Australia and co-founding and acting as Chief Operations Officer at the Australian Pacific Youth Dialogue. He has strong interests in U.S. global affairs, international security and Australian foreign policy.

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