Out of our comfort zone and into the ‘gray zone’
The “gray zone” is generally described as a set of activities that occur between peace and war. While the concept has been around for some time, in the Philippine context, this has gained prominence in view of China’s use of gray zone tactics, operations, and activities in the disputed areas of the South China Sea and the West Philippine Sea (SCS/WPS). It is a way for China to aggressively pursue and achieve its interests in that area short of provoking a conventional war.
Gray zone tactics and operations can take many forms. It can be nonmilitary, quasi-military, or military in nature, and is sometimes referred to as hybrid warfare. The occupation of maritime features, harassment of Filipino fishermen and Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessels, the use of maritime militias as a means of exerting pressure short of a conventional escalation, are prime examples that our country and people have gotten familiar with over the years. Events in recent weeks have once again highlighted that this problem hasn’t gone away. The Philippine government has already filed 77 diplomatic protests since the start of the term of President Marcos, 10 of them in this year alone. The PCG has also stated it will now be more outspoken regarding Chinese aggression in the SCS/WPS area. This is, of course, not enough in terms of a response, and has up to now proven inadequate in terms of changing the situation. But this is a step in the right direction as these can help shape public opinion against China’s gray zone tactics, both domestically and in the international arena.
In an article featured on The Cove, an online platform for the professional development of the Australian Army, gray zone confrontations and activities are described as usually being unseen and insidious. It uses the ambiguity of international law, actions, and attribution, and the impact of the activities that does not justify a response by governments. In this regard, it is important to raise awareness about it so as to galvanize support against tactics and activities in the gray zone, both locally and internationally. It is vital that these actions are constantly challenged and will not be considered acceptable. If left unchecked, China’s gray zone activities and tactics will end up undermining our interests, security, and sovereign rights in the disputed areas in the SCS/WPS.
The Chinese objective in the gray zone is to “normalize” their de facto control of the disputed maritime area and fishing grounds, and establish it as the status quo. As such, reports regarding plans between the Philippines and the US to restart joint maritime patrols in the SCS/WPS, which could also include other allied countries such as Australia and Japan, should be welcomed as it would be a more robust response than simply firing off diplomatic protests and raising public awareness concerning the problem. Some analysts claim that such a move is bound to “anger” China and further raise tensions in the area, and that is exactly the point. Why should China have carte blanche license to do as it pleases in the SCS/WPS and change conditions in the area to its advantage and interests without being challenged to a similar degree?
The conduct of joint maritime patrols and freedom of navigation operations that involve the US, Japan, and Australia would in a way be a form of gray zone tactic and activity. There is definitely that risk of a possible accidental armed incident and escalation, but doing nothing also runs the risk of handing China de facto control over the disputed areas of the SCS/WPS by default. Are we ready to tell our fishermen who are prevented from fishing in our waters and the exclusive economic zone that they are not worth that risk? China will keep on pushing if we don’t push back, that is what the gray zone is all about. So let’s get out of our comfort zone and get into the gray zone. If we can’t afford to take calculated risks to uphold our country’s interests and security in the face of coercive actions by a more powerful country such as China, then perhaps we don’t deserve to be an independent and sovereign nation after all.
Moira G. Gallaga served three Philippine presidents as presidential protocol officer, and was posted as a diplomat at the Philippine consulate general in Los Angeles, and the Philippine Embassy in Washington.