China’s Expansion in the South China Sea: A Grey Zone Tactic

‘Grey zone’ refers to an operating environment where aggressors use coercion and aggression up to a limited extent and chooses to avoid conventional military operations and a fell fledged war. The goal is to achieve strategic objectives based upon the operating environment while limiting counter actions by other state actors. Grey zone involves intensified interaction among various state and non-state actors of world politics, where none is monopolized for ‘‘use of force”.

The definition clearly explains why and how nations pursue grey zone tactics to fulfil its objectives instead of going into full-fledged war. The leading perpetrator of grey zone conflict in Asia is none other than China that has been trying to assert its dominance over resourceful and strategically important islands and reefs of South China Sea. It’s a major point of dispute between US and China which has led to straining of geopolitical tensions among other nations concerning South China Sea as it breaches United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The law provides for full monetary rights to countries for a 200-mile zone by their coastline. This zone is regarded as Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and can be used by any nation for its economic utilization.

The South China Sea has been converted into a grey zone because of China’s expansion in the sea up to 1.35 million square miles and further militarization of the region, and growing territorial claims by different nations as it’s a significant strategic and commercial sub-division of the Indo-Pacific and traditionally known as “the third golden waterway in the world”.

That’s why when one is approached to distinguish Southeast Asia’s catch-22, the South China Sea constantly positions at or close to the top on the rundown. The persisting territorial conflict among Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, China and the Philippines over the South China Sea doesn’t seem ready for any near term resolution. An inability to calmly resolve the conflict, particularly if it prompts renewed military activities by any of the claimants, would have a lot more regional and worldwide consequences.

The Spratly Islands are situated on the either sides of the SLOCs (Sea Lines of Communication), which are important trade routes for the whole world, linking the Malacca Strait, which gives sea traffic moving towards Southeast Asia, Indochina, Northeast Asia, and the West Pacific. Others world powers like India and Japan, need to utilize sea lines for huge import of oil and merchandise through this region, including the United States of America for securing a route  for the US fleet between Indian and Pacific Oceans. Nevertheless, an economic perspective in the Spratlys is the race for natural resources, especially oil and natural gas. So a country with control over the Spratlys region would have power and an ordering position to influence exchange and geopolitical strategy all through this area. Further, we must be mindful of the fact that the South China Sea dispute poses a major challenge not just economically, but ecologically as well.

Chinese dredgers in the Spratlys extricated the sand and pebbles from inside the shoal and reef flats at land reclamation zones—a procedure called shallow-water dredging. Apart from sand and gravel, the shallow-water dredging also expels reef flat and the entire ecosystem of the shoal. Furthermore, dredgers damage crest of sand and sediment that harm coral tissue and prevent sunlight from reaching to the organisms like, reef-building corals, which depends almost entirely on sunlight for survival.

In spite of the fact that information about the extent of the ecological harm brought about by Chinese dredging and land reclamation is restricted, Chinese artificial island building exercises in the Spratlys unquestionably have adversely affected fisheries in the immediate regions of the land reclamation zones. According to John W. McManus, professor at the Miami University, deposition of sand and sediment on the coral reefs either kills fish or remove them from the coral reefs. Most of these little ousted fish are eaten by other water species as they lose the protection of the shoal and get exposed to predators. Militarily too, the South China Sea dispute has adverse impact.

Chinese land reclamation activities could improve its capacity to continue its military objectives by maintaining ships and aircrafts in the South China Sea on an everyday basis, and could conduct military operations whenever needed. These military installations can enforce China’s sovereignty claims over different claimants of the region. It could also empower China to adopt offensive foreign policy against other claimants in the South China Sea. By expanding its operational capacities in the region, China can debilitate rivals from challenging its actions. Thus, we have assessed the threat posed by China militarily, but what about the implications of the South China Sea dispute to diplomacy and diplomatic relations across the world.

China’s aggressiveness has also led to new strategic and diplomatic relations. In 2014-2015, it led to a strategic partnership among the Philippines, Vietnam, & Malaysia, leading to more data sharing, and training. Vietnam and Japan concluded a military alliance for capacity building. India and Vietnam jointly pledged for military cooperation and shared interests in the South China Sea region. The USA and Vietnam have consented to extend military cooperation. Malaysia and Indonesia made strides towards improving bilateral relations. In May 2015, Malaysia and Japan established another strategic partnership, incorporating coast guard capacity enhancement and technology transfers. In April 2014, President Obama visited Malaysia, as a first visit by an American president in fifty years, and the two nations have overhauled their relationship to an extensive partnership. Nations in the area have likewise responded to China’s aggressiveness through multilateral mechanisms such as the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has over and over called on meetings to implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC-SCS).

On the off chance that China succeeds in removing United States of America from the Western Pacific and the expansionist policy of China in the South China Sea gets realized, geopolitics will set its foot in a phenomenal time. Southeast Asia will be remained subordinate and submissive to China’s will. Moreover, Australia will be secluded with an uncertain future. Japan and South Korea will clash on another topic with China accountable for the seaborne lifeline of the two countries. The credibility of the USA as a strong supporter, ally and partner in the world order will be wrecked. India will lose its chance of access into the South China Sea region and a great deal of Southeast Asia. This will occur in a region that is increasingly the vibrant focal point of the world economy. The gist will be clear that the time of US predominance and leadership in the world order is over and a new Superpower has assumed control over its place.

Also, discovery of more oil deposits, buried treasure or other seabed resources would act as a catalyst and build the motivating force for claimants concerning South China Sea to more energetically monitor and lay their claims. All the more hazardously, it may expand the inclination of certain countries to risk armed confrontation by endeavouring unilaterally to extricate oil in contested regions. Even if there were no major findings, the dispute would be still there as the core issues are sovereignty of littoral states and strategic location of the South China Sea, not resources.

Therefore, there is a need for trust building measures directing towards increasing military transparency, declining misinterpretation, and clearing intentions. Such measures may incorporate prohibiting military developments, diminishing the number of troops positioned on the islands, and making a deal to avoid deployment of long-range weapons. Consent to forego any further development in the existing military installations in the Spratly Islands also appears to be central to the peaceful settlement of the conflict.

According to B.M. Hamzah (Maritime Institute of Malaysia), “military transparency should be established through an efficient, independent and neutral checking and verification mechanism in the South China Sea including, tracing the installations of offensive weapon system to avoid any shock and sudden attack.  Nations can use satellite imagery of the region periodically, to screen major events. These satellite images should be confirmed and verified by an independent body.”

A fair solution for the conflict in the South China Sea can only originate from claimants themselves with forthrightness and a sense of compromise and mutual support. All claimants must understand that military confrontation, while maybe far-fetched, is possible and likely to occur in such circumstances and is having broad worldwide consequences.

Note: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the Political Chronicler

Arshi Jawed

Arshi Jawed is pursuing her graduation from Galgotias University in BA (Hons) Political Science. She is a keen observer of International Relations. She has attended many seminars and workshops on the Geopolitics and IR.

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