A provocation game in the China Sea Dispute Strategy
The repeated act of China lately is to pretend that it is a victim of the crime it didn’t do. In this case, the disparaging statement was that China treats Hongkong and Xinjiang people inhumanly. Therefore, China has to respond firmly in order to not be at a disadvantage and bullied by other countries. That’s how China reacts to the Western and superpower nations like the United States’ critique. However, when looking at the relationship between China and other little Asian countries, the fact that who is bullied and is at a disadvantage seems to be upside-down.
In East Asia, the repeated act of China lately is the use of maritime power to threaten and provoke or even harass nearby countries who have water boundary disputes. There are many troops on the territorial waters where China claimed its ownership over including survey vessels, fishing vessels, sand dredgers, coast guard ships, not to mention battleships, and Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) aircraft carrier. These armed forces concern countries in many areas: the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and Taiwan Strait. This aggressive behavior of China is turning other countries into its victims.
It all is getting worse after China enacted a new law. It gives authority to the coast guard so that they have the power to attack any foreign ships violating China’s territorial waters. The coast guard has the same duties in security and law enforcement as well as the police. However, patrolling the coast guard ship beyond the territorial waters where China claimed its ownership seems like a threat to other countries. The fuel added to the fire talking about the fear for China as the US army commander of the Asia-Pacific region stated that China’s maritime power is increasing to suppress the US. and likely to take over Taiwan in the next 6 years.
As has been noted, the important keyword in this situation is the “gray zone strategy”. It means the asymmetrical tactics to provoke the enemy to be afraid and disturbed but not to cause any violent retaliation or war. These borderline tactics included ways and means from military tactics to economic mechanisms, diplomacy, and intimidation. Not to mention the use of the inexact army force such as sending fishing boats or a fleet of coast guard ships near or in another country’s territorial waters and the naval maneuvers to show off its military force hoping to threaten the enemy.
The main focus of this writing is on China's grey strategies used to achieve its goal, which is to provoke the China Sea dispute with other rival nations. This writing will observe how this strategy benefits China, how it affects China’s enemies, and how those countries handle the situation, especially Japan. Generally speaking, this arousing is not that serious and does not use a fighting force that probably has a big impact, but it happens so often that the enemies get annoyed. That's because the tactic looks for a long-term result changing the situation and order to the way China wanted without any notice of that enemy country. Moreover, it would be beneficial for China to establish its greatness over the region so that it will have more power to put up a fight with the United States.
Grey strategy under China’s silhouette
Gray zone strategy is a popular topic among people who study China’s strategy. It is often mentioned due to the fact that China’s peaceful rising and claiming to be a mighty nation stains with the use of armed force and fear to exploit other countries. China claimed these acts as its’ right to regain what once had belonged to the nation. The reason it is called ‘grey’ is because it focuses on increasing the tension, yet it is not that extreme till the target country has to retaliate with drastic action. The provocation by sea troops instead of maritime force avoiding real battle is one of the tactics, which may proceed promptly with diplomatic games in order to undermine its rival.
Gray zone strategy also reflects its color by using unconventional tactics to confuse the rival causing them to lose their safeguard.
For example, to send a fleet of fishing boats or sand dredgers near both Japan and Taiwan’s territorial waters daily coupled with coast guard ships, battleships, and reconnaissance aircraft. China also builds artificial islands in the Spratly and Paracel Islands. It is one of the grey strategies that has been used for a while. Creating a man-made island is also a problem because the island cannot return to its original state. These are the tactics used in the grey zone strategy, which aims to a long-term result hoping to take over in the region eventually.
The factors that help China using this back-and-forth tactic by waiting to win and changing the situation in that country little by little until they wave the white flag are the resources and economical advantage that benefit its maritime power. China has the potential to invest in and nourish this expensive long-term strategy without any concerns. Teasing and wangling the other country to make them take countermeasures such as sending out the army to watch out for China’s naval troops, driving China’s ships out, or monitoring all the time. These are techniques to undermine the inferior nations causing them to waste their resources handling all the harassment from China.
Another factor is that countries in Asia rely on China in their economy more than China relies on them. Therefore, China can use this advantage to bargain or pressure these countries. Relying on China has its pros and cons, which becomes the variable to determine the behavior of these countries. Due to this economic factor, China expands its gray zone strategy without being afraid of counterattack.
Countries that rely on China are hesitant to fight back because of the fact that they don’t really know what China’s real intentions are, and they don’t want to worsen the situation. These nations prepare a friendly approach with China, so they don’t want to use any drastic measures but handle the problem tenderly.
However, this provoking that is on the borderline between disturbance and aggression is an advantage for China to get on its rivals’ nerves. The question is why China chose this strategy of all the powers that it has. Why can’t China start a war? Because it can win so easily. There are 2 reasons that make this gray zone strategy necessary: the power status between China, countries in Asia, and the United States and the power status of the communist party that wants a sustainable economic growth rate.
We can say that the gray zone strategy is a part of the asymmetric strategy used by China to put off the United States’ intervention. Even though this strategy seems to focus more on Asian countries, those countries have the United States as their back up, such as Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Thus, China can only harass these countries because it doesn’t want to direct war with the United States. With the power asymmetry, China insists on using the anti-access, area-denial: A2/AD to deter the United States from this provocation. Using armed force to disturb the United States allies glaringly is nothing but to hasten the US. to play a role in the region, and it also is the obstacle of China to expand its influence.
Additionally, China also wants to guarantee its communist party power by having performance legitimacy. Moreover, the strong action and the concern about the territorial dispute are also good for this performance legitimacy. It is the performance of legitimacy in order to respond to nationalism in Chinese society. However, the party prioritizes the sustainable economic growth rate and the increasing wealth of the people in the country. China aims at being a self-reliant state, yet it can’t deny the fact that it is involved with the global economy that it is difficult to withdraw. Therefore, confrontation, blockade, and starting a war can break regime stability and make the power of the communist party unstable.
As can be seen, the grey zone strategy is the China invasion, while it tries to balance the limitation to not confront the US. and has to be concerned about its economy.
Small and large goals in the back-and-forth strategy
The next question is what the purposes of China or even its expectations from the provocation in grey zone strategy are. Our assumptions can be divided into 2 : the medium-term small goals that it wants to defeat the rival countries and long-term big goals that it aims to change the regional system and fight with powerful countries like the United States.
The medium-term contains the threat by a fleet of ships, patrolling and invading other countries’ territory, and maneuvering in the disputed sea. China has made the point clearly through the confirmation of its ownership showing all the powers and abilities. The reason that China prefers fishing boats and coast guard ships to battleships imply that it is an internal matter in China that no one should interfere. By doing this, it will limit the action to occur only in the gray zone and won’t provoke the other nations that much. However, the strategy will achieve its goal, which is to intimidate the enemies, so that they cannot change the status quo.
As the government of Japan had bought Senkaku island or Diaoyudao Islands in 2012, it is the turning point that makes China use the grey zone strategy in the East China Sea heavily. After that year, many Chinese ships had been detected near the disputed sea by making records in terms of the number of visits and the length of time hanging around in Japan’s territorial waters. With this intention, China may hope for the short-term result to dissuade Japan from taking any actions about the proprietary right, especially the buying of the island. Moreover, this tactic may force Japan to accept the frequent appearance of Chinese ships in the area. Some experts said that the territorial waters around Senkaku island seem like a joint patrolling area of Japanese and Chinese coast guard ships.
The last topic reflects the truth that making another country stuck with the status quo is just the beginning of the process. Then, China will advance on the rival countries and pressure them to slowly back down. The rival country may feel that it can chase Chinese ships out every time and can protect its ownership and border security. Somehow, this beginning process will cause Japan to view those violations as a 'Normal situation' and choose to keep military power and resources for more critical cases. Therefore, this may be the next stage of the grey zone strategy by normalizing the violation.
While China is so eager about the disputed area, Japan cannot fight back fully. It is a dangerous situation that Japanese strategists had warned about. China can claim the right as the effective control because those islands are abandoned and don't have the owner and developer. It is the reason why the government of Japan bought the Senkaku island a decade ago, yet the concern lasts long until nowadays. As China's invasion happens routinely without any retaliation from Japan, it may succeed in its goals in one day as it becomes the owner in the area practically.
The continued provocative operation is making China have advantages over its rivals. Beyond the intervention in the disputed area, it makes other countries have to mobilize the military even though it’s not a battle, yet it’s still a waste of resources. There is a budget report from Taiwan Defense & National Security complaining about ways to handle China’s harassment. It causes a burden on the maintenance budget and fatigues the troops. However, the invaded countries cannot stay still because China may increase efforts on the operation. All in all, this strategy aims at decreasing the credibility of the US allies and other countries.
The movement in the grey zone blurs the threats and causes unsystematic threat perception between the invaded countries and the alliance like the United States. The unsystematic threat perception will make these two countries handle China differently. This threat will make countries see the importance of the alliance, while it can also be the test for the harmoniousness between countries. The United States may be called upon by its allies to step forward and react more than needed. How the US chooses to react to the situation and whether it is enough or not depends on many factors on the US side. It also contributes a lot to the trust of the partner nations.
This aspect may link with the long-term goal of the grey zone strategy, which aims to change situations in the region conducive to China's power and limit the US power in Asian countries. If allies lose faith in the United States, there will be more tendency for those countries to move towards and compromise with China. Each country has to surrender to China’s demands in order to avoid the pressure. It can be implied that the inferior countries will have to admit that the Chinese invasion will change their country's situation and orders. Even though these countries can maintain its original maritime borders, it’s still hard to resist the expanding operations of Chinese forces in its territorial waters.
If China can use types of fleets to expand its reconnaissance scope without any obstructions from neighboring countries including in the East China Sea, Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea, it means that China has achieved a grand strategy of managing obstacles and restricting external powers from entering 'China Influence Region'. The 'China Influence Region' is the first island chain located in Taiwan and the disputed sea in a radius that China can easily access and always be under surveillance by Chinese forces. Reinforcing the area makes the A2/AD strategy effective in deterring and slowing the intervention of enemies outside the region. Therefore, the United States may have to be concerned about sending forces to intimidate China or support its allies.
The fact that China can take over the first island chain makes China's border safe and be a base for spreading power in the Pacific Ocean. About the Eurasian side, China tries to expand economic and diplomatic influence under the BRI Project. Additionally, the total control of the East China Sea with the forces will give China more bargaining power and pressure due to the waters in this area are maritime routes that support the commerce and lifeline of the nations. Eventually, China's ability to dominate all of the areas may be the result of seemingly insignificant behaviors like the repeated provocations.
When Japan has to cope with the grey strategy
The China provocations affect nations, but none of them face the severe situation as much as Taiwan does. That’s because Taiwan is the first important area for expanding Chinese influence. However, I would like to bring the Japan case as an example illustrating the problems that nations face when dealing with a gray tactic, which lies between harassment and aggression. I’m going to focus on the analysis of new movements after China adjusts the law to allow the coast guard to use armament against foreign ships.
This latest movement seems to be the upgrading of Chinese advances by sending the signal that it will be taking it seriously about intensifying ownership. China hopes to cause its rivals a reluctance to take measures to intercept Chinese ships and be more restrained if those countries don't want to escalate the situation. With China's advantages, these nations may not want to provoke China as much due to the risk of being punished by China in various ways. When the tension between them increased, the debate in Japan over appropriate countermeasures reflects the challenges faced with such strategies.
Not following China’s measures may have negative psychological consequences, which is a sign of weakness that only invites China to get more and more aggressive. However, an overly active reaction risked a collision and became a pretext for China to move harder. Finding evenly matched measures that do not go beyond the gray zone is a delicate matter. The middle way the government of Japan chooses to act in response to this latest case is to allow the coast guard, which used to use force limited only in emergencies and in self-defense, to be able to use force if any party attempts to land on Senkaku Island.
As mentioned, it is a middle way measure because there are way more extreme proposals, such as the deployment of a military-like Self-Defense Force (SDF), which have also been put in place to deter Chinese ships. During the reign of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the SDF has already been adjusted to a certain extent to protect the law and safety when the situation exceeds the coast guard's ability to handle it. However, Japan has always been reluctant to use the SDF against China in the event of blatant use of force. After the latest movement of China, there have also been calls in Japan that the SDF should be patrolled along with the coast guard rather than waiting for a random incident to occur.
In fact, a law amendment in 2015 during the Abe government reflects Japan's sway towards potentially facing a battling tactic in the gray zone. Japan divided its military crisis into three ascending levels: significant impact situations, survival crisis, and force attack. The first two levels can be called a grey zone in the old law as the SDF has no management authority. However, there was a consideration of the amendment of the law during the year in order to handle the situation timely.
Japan understands the goal of the game in the gray zone that aims to take over the region. An important strategist, Shinichi Kitaoka, called the situation a low-intensity conflict that has to be well prepared to deal with. Somehow, finding a central approach, which is not too soft or too hard is not easy to come to a consensus. Therefore, Ken Jimbo, an expert, has expressed his disagreement with the consideration of the use of SDF. He warned that it might be a provocation for China. China may have taken this stance to point to Japan's transition to a military state. Moreover, it can be used as a reason to increase the armed forces and block Japan.
Another indispensable tool is to encourage the United States to participate in the reaction. Therefore, China's coast guard law was the first test of the alliance for the new US government. The serious stance of Joe Biden and the strategist team seems to give Japan peace of mind and believe that the US will continue to be a Japanese shield. However, the battle in this gray zone will go on for a long time. That means more and more proof of the strength of the alliance will come. Additionally, it depends on the US reaction toward the China intervention. Thus, the alliance will not lose faith in the US. and also undermine China's influence.
After all, we have to continue monitoring which side will win in this long-range aiming game. China with the resource and economic advantages that sustain its maritime power and the determination to retake the territory and protect the sphere of influence. The smaller states in the region, which are exhausted and scrambling for survival measures. Or the external powers, such as the United States, which has a strategy to maintain the balance of power in Asia so that no enemy nation would rise and challenge its status.