Is There Any Way to Counter China's Gray Zone Tactics in the South China Sea?
China and India’s moves to de-escalate tensions over the Doklam standoff inspired commentary about how Beijing’s coercive strategies can be countered. Some may argue that after all, India can be deemed a peer competitor to China in terms of relative power, especially militarily. Both countries are nuclear-weapon states and if push ever comes to shove in renewed border hostilities, they might be mindful of escalating armed action beyond the threshold of outright war and, worse, cross the Rubicon into nuclear conflict.
India’s lessons on dealing with China’s coercion are indeed interesting. But what about looking at Beijing’s rivals in the context of an obvious power asymmetry? Its Southeast Asian adversaries in the South China Sea immediately come to mind. That region is made up of smaller, weaker nation-states, which do not have India’s array of power tools and other forms of strategic leverages. It might be tempting to conclude that these Southeast Asian countries are easy pickings for Beijing to successfully exercise its coercive strategy.
Southeast Asian Rivals as Easy Pickings for China?
In fact, not too long after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued a joint statement about the South China Sea that amounted to no more than a slap on Beijing’s wrist. Additionally, both parties formally endorsed a framework for a proposed code of conduct to manage disputes after there were revelations about the presence of several Chinese vessels spotted close to Philippine-occupied Thitu Island. A Philippine fishery patrol vessel was allegedly harassed as well.
This is where Manila’s reaction differs from New Delhi’s swift and decisive counter against a perceived Chinese attempt to alter the status quo in Doklam. True to the typical fashion of a pro-Beijing Rodrigo Duterte administration, Philippine foreign affairs secretary Alan Peter Cayetano neither confirmed nor denied the report. Instead, he downplayed its significance. “The presence of ships alone does not mean anything,” he remarked.
One may be tempted to empathize with Manila’s attempt to overlook China’s new antics in the disputed waters, for the country needs to confront other teething security challenges posed by terrorists and drug lords. Duterte has shifted away from Washington to Beijing for aid and investments to feed socioeconomic development, including his much-touted “Build Build Build” nationwide infrastructure program, which he promoted during the Belt and Road Forum hosted by his generous new friend, Chinese president Xi Jinping.
Simply put, a flare-up in the South China Sea does not serve his administration’s interest. Duterte and his close associates, such as equally pro-China Cayetano, do not wish to rock the boat and risk Beijing withholding those carrots it promised Manila. It thus appears inevitable for the Philippines to capitulate to China, not just shelving the arbitral award that rendered it overwhelming legal victory over its much larger and more powerful northern neighbor; but if necessary, it must suffer in silence from what Robert Haddick argued as “salami slicing” gray-zone strategies customarily utilized by Beijing to wear down opponents in the disputed waters.
China’s Gray-Zone Tactics
Duterte isn’t alone. He can find a close confidante in Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak who, as a general election looms, has also turned to Beijing for aid and investments to shore up his ruling party’s standing. Najib tries hard to ingratiate himself with China, such as through his “durian diplomacy.” He shuts up domestic critics who fear that he is selling out Malaysia’s sovereignty for Chinese largesse, even to the extent of exhibiting ambivalence—in the name of being nonconfrontational—about frequent Chinese coastguard incursions near features located well within Malaysia’s sea jurisdiction.