Grey zone warfare at sea and Japan’s response

Sailors stand on the deck of the Izumo warship as it departs from the harbour of the Japan United Marine shipyard in Yokohama, south of Tokyo March 25, 2015 (Photo: Reuters / Thomas Peter).

China’s Military Strategy states, “The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned.” However, China is a continental power after all; it interprets the international law of the sea with a continental mindset.  A typical example is its concept of maritime territory, which includes an exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. China does not seem to share the concept that the seas and oceans are part of the global commons.

Ryan Martinson argues that China has used maritime law enforcement ships to nonviolently control access to and from islands and other features, especially in the South China Sea, daring other states to fire the first shot. In 2012, Chinese trawlers were illegally netting endangered species at Scarborough Shoal, but when a Philippine vessel boarded two of the trawlers, the militia onboard the Chinese ships radioed for help.  And the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) rode to the rescue.

According to Andrew Erickson, Zhang Jie uses the phrase “Scarborough Shoal Model,” an indication of the premeditated tactics Beijing has developed to increase its maritime reach and control.  Erickson, moreover, points out Zhang’s emphasis of this model being explored vis-à-vis Chinese grey zone incursions in Japan’s waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands.

What does it mean to Japan and the region?

Japan’s national security remains based on its alliance with the US and President Trump has confirmed that Article V of the Japan-US Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security covers the Senkaku Islands. But China’s use of grey zone tactics appears to be intended to circumvent the US defence commitment by using only the CCG and fishing boats (maritime militia?) to ensure its intrusions into Japan’s maritime territory do not amount to an armed attack against Japan.  Meanwhile, Japan Coast Guard (JCG) ships continue to be outnumbered by CCG ships, and the gap is widening. In addition, many new CCG ships are of military grade, and are equipped with an increasing degree of lethality.

There are, furthermore, a number of reports on Chinese vessels’ harassing the civilian and law enforcement vessels of foreign countries. Indeed, although law enforcement vessels must comply with the proportionality rule, China does not seem to be willing to abide by this principle but exploits it in the course of its grey zone operations.

The role of China’s maritime militia also should be highlighted in this context.  Chinese fishing vessels are being used as proxies of the CCG and PLA Navy. Yuji Sato, former JCG Commandant, for example, observed in 2016 that Chinese fishing boats carried out illegal operations in other countries’ EEZ or territorial waters, gradually invading other countries’ sovereign rights as if they were Chinese territorial waters and EEZ to create an accumulation of fait accompli type outcomes.  Sato says that such non-military coercive means is a new tactic “invented by China”, implying that this behaviour is directly attributable to the Chinese authorities.  He also believes that Chinese fishing boats are connected to the Chinese government by the Chinese version of a GPS system with a mailing function, and that there are possibly crew members who are acting as maritime militia rather than only civilian fishermen. By using private vessels as proxies, the Chinese government thus is able to create, and then exploit, ambiguity over its behaviour and intentions in order to avoid charges that it is in breach of international maritime law.

Measures Japan Should Take

China’s actions against neighboring countries’ vessels and fishing boats in the South China Sea have become more aggressive than its behaviour to date in the East China Sea, and this is almost certainly the result of the different power and balancing capabilities China faces in both regions.  While the joint Japanese and American military presence in Northeast Asia is considerable, there is no longer a permanent US military presence in Southeast Asia and regional military capabilities are very limited.  Thus, the first step towards upholding the maritime and sovereign rights the existing order guarantees is to maintain the balance of power in East Asia, which should include Japan’s own military buildup, alliance capability enhancement, and capacity building assistance to Southeast Asian countries.

Second, JCG capabilities must be strengthened to control any further escalation of tension, because otherwise the Japanese government will have little choice other than to involve its military in defence of its territory, which is what Beijing seems to be attempting to provoke.  If necessary, Japan’s defence forces should help JCG improve its surveillance and maritime enforcement capabilities.

Third, a maritime crisis management procedure which covers both military and law enforcement organizations also should be developed; Applying appropriate elements of the naval CUES to coast guards would be worth exploring.

Fourth, regarding maritime militia, Erickson is right in emphasizing the importance of disclosing the truth about them to deny China the ambiguity it seeks. Increased intelligence cooperation among like-minded countries will serve this objective.

Fifth and finally, the authority of existing international law, norms, and principles must be reasserted and clarified.  International law is the bedrock institution of the “rules-based” order, and thus its rules must be more clearly articulated and given strong political and diplomatic support. Ambiguous rules encourage rather than prevent the ambiguity that grey zone coercion relies on for its effectiveness.

Hideshi Tokuchi is a member of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS). This article is an edited version of a paper presented at the 2018 Australia-India-Japan Trilateral: The evolving strategic dynamics of the Indo-Pacific. The trilateral was hosted by the Griffith Asia Institute and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Japan on Monday 5 February.