China’s provocative ‘gray zone’ operations in the West Philippine Sea | Inquirer Opinion

China’s provocative ‘gray zone’ operations in the West Philippine Sea

/ 05:01 AM January 14, 2022

It was near midnight on June 9, 2019. The sea was calm, weather was fair and skies were starry with a first quarter moon. A Philippine fishing boat laid anchor at the Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) after a back-breaking day of fishing.

Richard Blaza, the cook, has just finished preparing the provisions for the fishermen for the next day. He was about to doze off when he heard an engine hum that was intensifying to a loud roar. He stood up and saw a big ship swiftly moving toward the port side. Panicking, he roused his sleeping companions shouting, “Barko! Barko! May babanggang barko!” The crew scampered; some laid down on the deck to avoid the metal structures of the advancing ship, others jumped off to the sea.


The crash was so strong that the crew members were thrown into the water; it ruptured the aft. The fishing boat started to sink.

The ship maneuvered away for a few meters, opened its blinding lights on the crew in the water who were frantically shouting for help. Then, the ship dimmed its lights and sailed away leaving 22 fishermen in the open sea in darkness.


This detailed account of the ramming and sinking of fishing boat F/B Gem-Ver was based on the joint Philippine Coast Guard-Marina report on June 20, 2019.

Five days later, the Chinese Embassy in Manila admitted that the vessel involved in the ramming incident was Chinese vessel Yuemaobinyu 42212.

The sinking of F/B Gem-Ver, the standoff at Panatag Shoal in April 2012, and, more recently, the firing of water cannon at Philippine boats on resupply to BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal are instances of “gray zone” challenges by China to advance its baseless claim in the WPS. Hal Brands, scholar of US foreign policy, characterizes gray zone as “coercive and aggressive in nature, but that is deliberately designed to remain below the threshold of conventional military conflict and open interstate war.”

In a webinar hosted on Dec. 11, 2021 by the National Youth Movement WPS under the leadership of Dr. Celia Lamkin, gray zone and its implications on energy, economic, and national security was discussed. Defense consultant and professor at the Hawaii Pacific University Carl O. Shuster detailed the gray zone tactics employed by China in the WPS.

Disinformation and intimidation. Chinese coast guards routinely issue radio challenges to vessels and aircraft to back off from “Chinese territory,” a claim that has been debunked by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Boat ramming. In a ramming contest between a wooden-hulled and a metal-hulled boat that is twice or thrice in size, it is obvious who wins.

Water cannon. High-power water cannon is directed at the captain’s house and the engine exhaust to “blind” visibility and immobilize the target.


Swarming and squatting. About 220 Chinese fishing boats moored at the Julian Felipe Reef on March 7, 2021; more than 200 Chinese maritime militias were observed at Sandy Cay near Pag-asa Island in January to March 2019. The vessels were not fishing but were just “squatting.”

Direction of radar fire control. While on patrol in February 2020, Philippine navy ship BRP Conrado Yap’s crews observed “hostile intent” by a Chinese People’s Liberation Army ship with bow number 514 that aimed its gun control director—a computer that designates and tracks targets— at the Philippine navy ship.

These gray zone activities are provocative and dangerous, to say the least. They could lead to miscalculations and consequently, armed engagement which neither country wants.

Tomas C. Vargas, [email protected]

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TAGS: China, Philippine fishing boat, Recto Bank, territory, West Philippine Sea, WPS
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