10 June 2024

How to Respond to China's Tactics in the South China Sea

Derek Grossman

The odds of armed conflict in the South China Sea are high and rising. China's relentless assertiveness against the Philippines—harassing ships inside Manila's internationally recognized Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), most notably at Second Thomas Shoal and Scarborough Shoal—has led to a situation where war in the South China Sea now seems more likely than at any other Indo-Pacific flash point, including the Taiwan Strait and Korean Peninsula.

To be sure, the Philippines' security alliance with the United States has so far deterred China from more serious attacks on the Philippine military or other government assets. But the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty—which commits Washington to come to Manila's aid if the latter is under military attack—has utterly failed to deter Beijing from escalating its coercive gray-zone tactics—aggressive actions designed to irreversibly change the status quo without resorting to lethal force. These tactics have included ramming, shadowing, blocking, encircling, firing water cannons, and using military-grade lasers against civilian ships and military vessels. China also relies on its formidable coast guard and so-called fishing militia—comprised of fishermen who are trained and equipped by the military—to patrol, loiter in, and occupy disputed areas, establishing a quasi-permanent presence that the targeted country cannot easily dislodge.

On June 15, moreover, Beijing is reportedly planning to implement a new policy that would authorize the Chinese coast guard to detain foreigners crossing into waters claimed by China. These waters include most of the South China Sea—based on Beijing's own expansive historical claims rather than international law, which in this case is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. (For comparison, imagine if Germany claimed the entire North Sea, or if the United States claimed the entire Caribbean right up to the South American coast.)

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