China’s actions in the South China Sea have been deemed as building a maritime ‘Great Wall’ for dominance by analysts following the country’s aggression in the disputed waters. China’s structures in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) began in the 1990s, sparking protests from the Philippine government, which filed a case against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2012.
The court ruled that the Philippines has exclusive sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea and that China’s nine-dash line assertion had no legal basis. China, however, persisted, expanding its maritime militia, whose vessels ostensibly engage in commercial fishing, but are deployed to achieve political objectives in disputed waters. These vessels, along with Chinese law enforcement and military, form part of China’s gray zone tactics, which are tactics beyond diplomatic activities but short of armed conflict. These tactics have enabled China to build island fortresses in disputed waters without starting a war.
Dr. Francis Domingo, an assistant professor at De La Salle University, stated that China’s use of maritime militia is part of gray zone tactics. He said China is demonstrating that it can advance its national interests without using military force or triggering an armed conflict. Gray zone tactics are part of China’s strategy, allowing the country to have all options available at its disposal. Jay Batongbacal, a lawyer and director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea, explained that in the West Philippine Sea, gray zone operations are occurring daily, with two dimensions. The first is visible seaborne operations, which include the activities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy in the background, the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) asserting China’s massive claim over the South China Sea, and the deployment of maritime militia vessels. The second dimension is the narrative of powerlessness, where claimant states believe they cannot do anything about these competitive actions.
Dr. Elaine Tolentino, an international relations analyst, and Dindo Manhit, president of Stratbase ADR Institute, a think tank, both emphasized that China’s militia vessels play a significant part in achieving its strategy of contesting other Southeast Asian claimants without provoking an outright conflict at a minimum cost to the government. From the perspective of regional powers with naval capacity, they will not engage with these fishing vessels directly as it would only escalate the issue further. Meanwhile, smaller claimant states lack the maritime capability to thwart these boats.
While the Philippines has protested the presence of Chinese militia vessels, President Rodrigo Duterte has not actively asserted Philippine sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea, stating that the country cannot win a war with China. The Philippines’ lack of capacity to confront Chinese aggression and the unwillingness of regional powers to engage with Chinese fishing vessels have allowed China to continue its gray zone tactics and expand its control over disputed waters.