The gray zone darkens: The continuous spiral of action-reaction?
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, China increased sensitivity to sovereignty issuescoupled with his growing military and paramilitary capabilities and a higher tolerance for risk has likely contributed to the increased number of incidents that China has provoked in the disputed maritime space in the South China Sea. The back-and-forth spiral between China and the other claimants continued over the past year and into 2022, making the gray area darker than ever.
In March 2021, the Philippines reported that hundreds of Chinese fishing boats, some of which were believed to belong to the maritime militiaswarmed the Whitsun Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. In April, as the tense standoff at Pentecost Reef continued, a Filipino news crew was reportedly chased by two fast attack boats of the People’s Liberation Army Navy in the disputed waters off the coast of Palawan, marking the first time China’s naval assets were deployed to directly confront civilian ships of another claimant country. Rising concerns about China’s behavior prompted Manila to cancel the process to end the US-Philippines. Visiting Forces Agreementthat Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had previously pledged to repeal.
But the spiral did not stop there. In November, three Chinese coast guard ships blocked and used water cannons in Philippine resupply ships headed for Second Thomas Shoal, which the Philippines had occupied in 1999 by intentionally running a naval ship aground and since stationed with a small military force. It should be noted that this incident occurred on the eve of the finalization of the candidacies for the 2022 elections. philippines presidential election. In December, the Philippines sealed a deal with India to acquire the short-range anti-ship cruise missile system. BrahMos, as part of what Manila envisions as a denial-oriented, asymmetric defense strategy to counter China’s gray zone activities in the South China Sea. According to reports, in April 2022, two Philippine resupply ships to the Second Thomas Shoal blocked by Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels using fishing nets and buoys. The resupply was completed under the close watch of the Chinese ships.
The Philippines is not the only claimant to have hardened its position on China amid the darkened gray area. Vietnam joined the Philippines and issued a strong statement statement opposing the presence of the Chinese fishing fleet at Pentecost Reef. In June 2021, Malaysia, a claimant that traditionally tends to keep disputes with China low-key, sent fighter jets after detecting 16 aircraft of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force flying over the disputed waters off the coast of Borneo and summoned the Chinese ambassador to lodge a diplomatic protest, a rare strong response in the context of China-Malaysia relations.
Reputational costs and deterrence: Does Beijing still care about image?
China has clearly changed from its traditional pattern of reactive assertiveness, becoming less reluctant to initiate incidents at sea. At the same time, Beijing appears to have generally refrained from escalating recent incidents. Unlike the Benigno Aquino era, when the China-Philippines bilateral relationship fell to its lowest point and Beijing coerced Manila at will by imposing economic sanctions, freezing most bilateral diplomatic exchanges and seizing control of land features. disputed, Beijing appears to have consistently avoided employing punitive measures against Manila in recent incidents.
Some may speculate that a stronger US stance toward the Indo-Pacific region, with a stronger commitment to multilateralism under the Biden administration, has led Chinese decision-makers to second-guess. But the one in Beijing propensity employing punitive measures against other parties considered to be infringing on China’s sovereignty has not yet been dampened in the past year, as evidenced by the economic sanctions imposed on Taiwan Y Lithuania.
Rather, as I have argued elsewhereChina often weighs and balances the potential costs of escalation and de-escalation in handling incidents arising from South China Sea disputes. Strong bilateral ties between China and the rival claimant involved in a particular incident may increase the opportunity cost of Beijing choosing to escalate.
Improved Sino-Philippine ties under Duterte have arguably created incentives for China’s detente, although this alone is not a strong enough factor to completely eradicate such provocations. During the Whitsun Reef standoff, as part of an international public information campaign, Manila released photos and videos of the Chinese fleet. As embarrassment and diplomatic tension forced the incident to Beijing’s attentionthis month-long standoff is over without incident with Chinese fishing boats leaving the area. This is in stark contrast to what happened during the Scarborough Shoal confrontation in 2012, when China justified its use of coercion against the Philippines with Manila’s decision to publish photos of detained Chinese fishermen.
In the Second Thomas Shoal episode in November 2021, Beijing will soon modulated his stance and rhetoric and allowed the Philippine reinstatement, citing “humanitarian considerations.” Attributing the change in Chinese behavior mainly to the backlash of the USA Y European Union It might be a bit of a stretch, considering Beijing’s uncompromising stance vis-a-vis the West on other key issues like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang. But given the Philippine presidential election (which took place in May 2022), Beijing apparently found it necessary to avoid hardening the incoming administration’s approach to China, prompting the swift decision to de-escalate. In a speech delivered at a virtual forum held by the Chinese embassy in Manila in January, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi vowed that China he would not use his skill to intimidate its smaller neighbors over the South China Sea and urged the Philippines to continue Duterte’s pro-China policy. After the Second Thomas Shoal episode in April 2022, in a phone call between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Philippine President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in mid-May, Xi reiterated Beijing’s desire to maintain bilateral ties. positive with Manila built during Duterte’s mandate.
Meanwhile, facing a real and strong blowback from Malaysia in the air intrusion incident, Beijing appears to have sought to mend ties with Kuala Lumpur and somewhat modulated, without suspending, its activity off the Malaysian coast as of this writing. the The Chinese embassy and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs he stated that the flyby was part of routine training and was not intended to target any country, calling on both sides to “continue friendly bilateral consultations.” During the first half of 2022, China appears to have reduced its activities in waters claimed by Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur expressly noted the absence of major Chinese intrusions.
With regard to Vietnam, Hanoi made it clear first in 2014 during the HaiyangShiyou 981 oil rig incident and again in 2019 in the middle of the Haiyang Dizhi 8 outbreak I was considering arbitration. While Chinese analysts have openly discussed possible countermeasures that China might take if Vietnam were to initiate arbitration, the prospect of another arbitration being initiated against China, and the high international reputational costs that China risks paying seem to have contributed to Beijing’s decision in both cases to avoid further escalation. . Furthermore, in response to Hanoi’s strong statement during the Pentecost Reef showdown, Beijing issued only one short statement through its embassy in Hanoi reiterating its position without explicitly mentioning any country by name, suggesting that China was not seeking a diplomatic escalation with Vietnam over the standoff.
Looking ahead: a reputational deterrence strategy
A paradigm shift it has been underway in China’s foreign and security policies since the outbreak of the global pandemic, as manifested in Beijing’s wolf-warrior diplomacy and growing propensity to initiate incidents at sea in the past two years. However, China’s long-term aspiration remains unchanged: it wants to become not only strong and rich, but also influential and respected on the world stage, like my colleague from Brookings Ryan Hass notes To the extent that Beijing is still concerned about undermining its reputation for non-belligerence and galvanizing a counterbalancing coalition in its immediate periphery, its smaller neighbors will continue to wield significant diplomatic and geopolitical leverage that, if used well, can push Beijing to restrict their activity in the gray area. at sea.
For claimant countries, they must walk a fine line between responding to China’s growing gray-area activity by developing denial-oriented and asymmetric defense capabilities, on the one hand, and maintaining positive and stable bilateral ties overall. with Beijing, on the other. These are two sides of the same coin that could help stabilize the South China Sea by increasing the potential costs of escalating Beijing. In particular, now in light of the war in Ukraine, the delivery of BrahMos, which India produces jointly with Russia, could be compromised by sanctions imposed by the West on Russia. This will leave the Philippines in the position of having to choose between waiting and seeing, or considering hosting US Sea Attack Missiles. Manila needs to clearly communicate to Beijing that it would not be in China’s interest to maintain its gray zone pressure and eventually pressure Manila to host US missiles.
For other actors in the region, especially the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as I argued in a previous article, a concerted and proactive approach that leverages its unique regulatory and collective bargaining power with Beijing can add further weight to deterrence. reputational. against pressure from China’s gray area.
For Washington, in implementing its Indo-Pacific strategy, it must go beyond a singular focus on major powers and empower smaller stakeholders in the region with the aim of increasing the resilience of the latter against Beijing without pressure them to choose a side. Beijing’s cost-benefit calculation with respect to the South China Sea is shaped as much by America’s broad strategy as it is by how smaller stakeholders in the neighborhood respond and they can respond to China’s behavior. Ignoring this and relying heavily on minilateral security-focused groupings can backfire by marginalizing ASEAN and thus undermining the organization’s unique influence with Beijing.