Book Review: China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations

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China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations 

It’s a book, edited by Andrew S. Erickson and Ryan D. Martinson, and a joint publication by the China Maritime Studies Institute and the Naval Institute Press. It takes a close look at the Chinese navy, coastguard and the maritime militia.  The Gray Zone, referred to by its authors and editors is that place somewhere between peace and war where the Chinese Navy operates.

Whenever I review a book or reference a book, the reaction of many readers who don’t share a keen interest in maritime topics or in China’s naval adventures is “should I read this book”? My sense is that if you have an interest in the future of geopolitical affairs, particularly in Asia, the book provides a cornerstone of what is happening now in addition to where things are likely headed.

Gray zone competition presents a series of paradoxes. While clearly a challenge to US-led international security architecture, gray zone activities are also indicative of a broader and arguably more positive trend in the history of human conflict… (p.26)

Michael B. Petersen argues that the use of ALL Chinese shipping as an instrument of military activity to greater and lesser degrees creates a danger of engagement. However, historically, there has been remarkably little loss of life during the execution of their naval strategy (largely because neighbor nations have been unwilling to take on China). 

China’s Naval Ambitions (a current example – not in the book)

A close up of a map

Description automatically generatedThe People’s Republic of China’s People’s Liberation Army’s Navy exercises muscle in a number of ways on its neighbors. Recently the maritime militia made its presence known (again) in the Philippines.
On 4 April, the Philippine foreign affairs department accused China of violating its sovereignty and jurisdiction by allowing hundreds of vessels to sail close to Thitu Island in the Spratly Islands.
The Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila said the Philippines “has consistently manifested its position on Pag-asa … and its objections or concerns over illegal, tension-raising or coercive activities, through diplomatic actions … and in meetings with the Chinese side”.
The statement came just three days after Philippine Defense Secretary Lorenzana described China’s growing presence in the disputed waters as “very concerning”, saying on a trip to Washington that it was encroaching on the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
The Philippine complains that over 200 fishing boats are operating near Thitu. They are escorted by Chinese coast guard and navy ships in a demonstration of Chinese ownership of the fisheries.

Philippine statements seem to swing between conciliation toward China and stern defense of Philippine rights, depending on the closeness of US relations and the presence of US naval ships. The USS Wasp Amphibious Ready Group with 10 F-35’s arrived at Subic Bay on 30 March for the 35th annual edition of joint Exercise Balikatan with Philippine and other regional forces.

Chinese behavior is duplicitous, depending on whether diplomats are engaged or whether maritime law enforcement and naval authorities are engaged. 
Chinese actions in the South China Sea tend to belie the diplomatic assurances. The Chinese have harassed Philippine islands and supply operations. They have militarized the seven islands they built and occupy. 
The use of fishing boats is not benign, and their concentration is a deliberate intimidation tactic. For one thing, the Chinese boats deny Philippine boats access to fishing grounds. In addition, the Chinese fishing fleet comprises most of the maritime militia and is placed under navy control in crisis or war, or when the Chinese leadership orders it. 
Back to the Book
Conor M. Kennedy, a contributing author argues in “Gray Forces in Blue Territory: The Grammar of Chinese Maritime Militia Gray Zone Operations”, (p. 168, etc.) that, “(in a presence mission) It involves sending militia forces to disputed waters in the guise of civilian mariners, generally fishermen, to show the flag and uphold a narrative of Chinese ownership.”
Naturally these “innocent fishermen” are backed by the Chinese Coast Guard, as illustrated in the incident in the Philippines.
Should you read the book? Up to you. It depends on how knowledgable you want to be on the subject, but China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations is certain to enlighten you.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations

  1. I've been following this.
    Duterte told China to lay off Thitu, his men were prepared to die for it.
    Then he says that to go to war with China would be suicide.
    I am reminded of Japan in the 30's.

  2. The same and not the same as Japan. The bullying is felt throughout Asia. Bend a knee or fight. Japan is building aircraft carriers.

  3. Clever devils, those Chinese. Seems they are now putting cruise missiles in modified shipping containers on merchant ships.

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