Philippines should take action vs. China's 'gray zone' tactics —experts
Experts on Wednesday called on the government to stand up against China’s "gray zone" operations in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) and rally support from other countries.
Gray zone has been defined as “an effort or series of efforts beyond steady-state deterrence and assurance that attempts to achieve one’s security objectives without resorting to direct and sizable use of force. In engaging in a gray zone strategy, an actor seeks to avoid crossing a threshold that results in war," according to the National Defense College of the Philippines.
Maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal said the government should not be afraid to consider “proportional and reasonable responses” to China’s actions in the WPS.
“We should not shy away every time they make threatening moves and then we retreat for fear of provocation,” he said at a forum hosted by the Stratbase ADR Institute and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.
“We need to begin erasing the gray zone. We need to begin acting and standing up for our lawful maritime rights. This is the only way we can move that forward. Otherwise, we might as well retreat and give up everything,” he added.
International studies professor Renato De Castro said the Philippines and ally countries should show commitment to mutual assistance through security agreements, troop deployments, arms transfers, and multinational exercises.
He suggested establishing a surveillance system to continuously monitor Chinese gray operations.
“This requires the development of a regionwide surveillance network that can detect, identify, and monitor Chinese vessels that are positioned for gray zone operations in the West Philippine Sea,” De Castro said.
Without naming China, German Ambassador to the Philippines Anke Reiffenstuel said "gray zone" operations in the South China Sea, where parts of it Manila refers to as the West Philippine Sea, are meant to assert ownership in the waters through non-military means, such as the deployment of coast guard vessels and maritime militias and the fortification of islands and elevations—activities that the Chinese government has been doing in the past several years.
“Such actions violate international law and threaten stability in the region,” Reiffenstuel said as she praised the efforts of the Philippine government and its coast guard to counter activities that undermine international rules-based order.
Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation fellow Raymond Powell urged the government to engage the public and work with independent analysts, storytellers, influencers, and the media to stop China.
“Exposure is key to deterring and building resilience against them. Governments control the best gray zone information, but face barriers to release it,” he said.
To address this, Powell suggested to "light up the maritime gray zone" and give access to commercially available maritime data to credible independent analysts, influencers, and the media.
Meanwhile, Stratbase president Dindo Manhit urged the current administration to cooperate with like-minded states through joint patrols and maritime domain awareness.
“The Philippines and other Indo-Pacific states must engage in strategies that will ultimately change China’s behavior to be symbiotic with the internationally established rules-based order. Instead of coercion, states must strengthen cooperation in bilateral, multilateral, and minilateral means,” Manhit said.
Manila last week said it was in the process of "crafting guidelines" on maritime activities, including joint patrols with allies, in the South China Sea – a multilateral security initiative frowned upon by China, which considers the territorial disputes a purely Asian issue.
Reiffenstuel said Germany backs multilateral efforts to ensure regional peace and stability, adding that Germany will continue to provide assistance to the Philippines, which she called a “very important partner” in the Indo-Pacific, in bolstering the capacity of its Coast Guard.
“The traditional alliance the Philippines has built with the US is very valuable and it’s good to see that there is effort to reach out to other allies in the region. Multilateral is really the way how to address global issues,” Reiffenstuel said in a separate interview.
During the forum, Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) spokesperson for WPS Commodore Jay Tarriela gave his policy recommendations to address China’s actions in the area.
“First, the national government should support the modernization of the Philippine Coast Guard,” he said.
Second, Tarriela said the government should maintain the patrols led by the PCG with the support of the Philippine Navy.
“We should learn from what happened in the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff. We cannot allow ourselves to fall again in the gray zone trap of China to paint the Philippine image as a warmongering nation,” he said.
“The current approach for now is to tap our white ships, the strategy is in accordance with the regional norms so that we can deescalate the tension among other claimant states and at the same time does not provoke other countries,” the Coast Guard official added.
Tarriela said Chinese gray zone activity in the WPS should be exposed.
“Let us not allow ourselves to suffer silently because of their harassments and hostile actions,” he said.
“I believe that majority of the states in the world remain to embrace international order that was established after the Second World War, where international laws are respected, and human rights are protected,” he added. —with Michaela del Callar/LDF/VBL, GMA Integrated News