Reality has set in on both sides of the Pacific with respect to Communist China. The Philippine Star is reporting that joint U.S.-Philippine coast guard patrols will take to the sea by year’s end.
It’s the feel-good story of midsummer.
This news marks the end of a bad era. Manila has stopped flirting with China’s ruling Communist Party the way it did during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte. Philippine leaders have accepted they need allied help to guarantee their nation’s territorial integrity, as well as its sovereign rights and privileges under international law.
For their part U.S. leaders have, at last, embraced two basic strategic realities.
Shared Investments in Sovereignty
First, alliances work best when all of the allies are invested in the common defense. What better way to show you have skin in the game than by sending your sons and daughters in harm’s way? Deploying U.S. coast guardsmen to prowl the Philippines’ territorial sea, contiguous zone, and exclusive economic zone alongside Philippine comrades telegraphs that the U.S.-Philippine alliance is indivisible and resolute. It is a token of good faith in a relationship stretching back over a century.
The message is clear: The allies will uphold Philippine sovereignty against depredations by China’s maritime militia, coast guard, and regular military.
The second important strategic reality is that you have to be there — meaning you have to be where the action is — to compete with an aggressor and succeed. You don’t win if you don’t show up. U.S. naval task forces do make the occasional appearance in the contested South China Sea. Their endeavors announce that America, its allies, and its partners have a viable military option should war transpire. It is possible that Chinese President Xi Jinping finds such maneuvers daunting. If so, periodic displays of marine force should deter the red team from resorting to arms in the China seas or the Taiwan Strait.
But war is not the only way to succeed in international competition. Even the most impressive military exercises geared to warfare do little to help the Philippines preserve its sovereign rights in day-to-day strategic competition with China. The competition rages in that murky arena Westerners have dubbed the gray zone, where China wages what it calls “war without gunsmoke,” working every single day to purloin territory and resources from its neighbors.
Now as throughout its strife-torn history, the Chinese Communist Party regards peace as war without bloodshed. Everything it does is warlike. China prevails by default in the gray zone if its opponents decline to stride onto the field of competition and stay for the contest’s duration. It wins, the absentees lose. Multinational coast guard patrols will help the Philippines make a game out of the situation.
Showing up is the first step toward success. Staying is the next.
So the logic of gray-zone competition has taken hold in Manila and Washington, along with other regional capitals such as Tokyo, which is likewise contemplating lending its coast guard to help enforce the law in Philippine waters.
But what about the grammar of gray-zone competition? In other words, how — in actionable terms — can partners use the tools at their disposal to accomplish their own goals without gunsmoke?
The devil is in the details when executing any strategy.
First off, the allies should clarify their treaty commitments. They need to have a frank discussion about what constitutes an “armed attack” under the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty. Article V of the treaty declares that “an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”
Has China crossed the line thus drawn?
Up to now, Chinese ships and aircraft have refrained from measures involving gunsmoke. They have fired neither guns nor missiles, the coin of the modern combat realm, in gray-zone encounters. It is fair, though arguable, to say they haven’t used violent force for strategic and political gain. But they employ force against regional neighbors as a matter of routine, and sometimes against outsiders as well. That they have stopped short of armed attacks is far from clear.
It’s up to the allies to decide through diplomacy.
Defining terms is key. One textbook definition of force drawn from the sciences is “the push or pull on an object with mass that causes it to change velocity.” Applying sufficient force makes the object move in the direction and speed you want it to, much as sufficient military force compels an enemy to do your bidding. I personally would define using the bulk of one ship or plane to block another’s path, thereby compelling its operators to change course or collide, as a use of force. Discharging high-pressure water cannon at one Philippine Coast Guard cutter, aiming a laser at another, or dropping debris into an Australian jet aircraft’s delicate turbines likewise qualify as uses of force in my book. And this is just a partial list of Chinese offenses.
They doubtless appear mighty forcible to their targets.
Refining Resource Protection
Whether such low-grade uses of force meet the test for a casus belli is another question. Redefining a gray-zone offensive as an armed attack — as an attack deploying violent force — would deliberately lower the threshold triggering mutual self-defense against aggression. Doing so would confront Chinese commanders and their political masters with a choice between instigating a fight they might not win and exercising new self-restraint at sea or in the sky.
If Washington and Manila chose to reinterpret armed attack in such a fashion, they would have to follow through on their implicit threat. Beijing would doubtless test the new regime to find out where the boundary justifying military action now lay — or if the boundary had really moved at all.
Issuing a threat and then failing to live by it would discredit the allies in future confrontations. Never again would their efforts at deterrence and coercion be believable. Hence the need for a serious discussion about what would be a serious move in the South China Sea.
The allies also ought to clarify whether the defense pact extends to waters and skies beyond the territorial sea. The exclusive economic zone is not sovereign territory, but the water and seabed there contain natural resources apportioned to the Philippines by the law of the sea for their sole use. Those resources belong to the Philippines as surely as do mineral deposits and other resources on land, which is indisputably sovereign territory. Manila and Washington ought to decide whether the treaty calls for defending offshore resources and the Philippine nationals, chiefly fishermen, who harvest them.
It is not entirely clear that it does. But maybe it should.
Enforcing national law is a coast guard’s remit, and no nation neglects to protect natural resources. Supporting Philippine law enforcement would be the point of dispatching the U.S. Coast Guard to Southeast Asia.
The treaty exists to guard against outside military aggression, and a Chinese trawler poaching natural resources from the Philippine exclusive economic zone is not conducting an armed attack under the terms of the treaty. But it is guilty of theft. (The same goes for craft searching out and extracting oil, gas, and other resources from the seafloor.)
That these interlopers are despoiling Philippine resources under the protection of the China Coast Guard and the People’s Liberation Army Navy is a complicating factor of colossal proportions. These are not mere lawbreakers; they have state backing from the world’s largest coast guard and navy. Philippine and American emissaries need to determine precisely how joint coast-guard patrols are going to handle Chinese offenders and their paramilitary and military protectors, and how regular Philippine and U.S. military forces are going to back up their coast guards.
Sorting out command arrangements, rules of engagement, and other operational details could prove nettlesome. It is best to start now rather than wait for a crisis.
Send in the Coast Guard, and the Drones
As operations and tactics go, Chinese mariners wrote the rules of the game for the gray zone. The allies should play by those rules. They should back up their coast guards with military force, as Beijing does, depriving China’s maritime militia and coast guard the chance to act with impunity. Make Xi send the navy, over and over again. Document the navy’s abuses every time, and remind everyone who the aggressor is against its neighbors and the rule of law. Let China’s reputation suffer.
All of the methods and implements China has deployed in the gray zone should be on the table as well. Reciprocity is fair play.
Blocking Chinese vessels’ pathways with allied vessels is legitimate, as is squatting in China’s exclusive economic zone. Meanwhile, nonlethal weaponry of all types should find its place in the allied armory. Allied coast guards have a lot of sea space to monitor, so flooding the zone with ships and planes probably means many units will be unmanned. That’s fine. A Chinese poacher probably doesn’t want to collide with a surface-skimming drone obstructing its path any more than it wants to collide with a crewed coast-guard cutter.
Unmanned surface vessels have been busily proving their worth for many missions. An explosives-laden Ukrainian USV recently disabled a Russian amphibious warship, punching a hole in the ship’s side. The specter of suffering a catastrophe of similar amplitude could well deter Chinese crews from misadventures in the gray zone. Surface drones can also act as skirmishers for crewed ships. In fact, USVs have lately been performing escort duty in the Strait of Hormuz. They could render similar service to fishermen and coast guardsmen in the South China Sea.
This is to say nothing of the tactical, operational, and strategic value the allies might wring out of unmanned submersibles and aircraft. Allied forces should proliferate all of them.
Is this all provocative? Sure. Taking drastic measures to reply to repeated provocations from a provocateur is provocative. No one made China construct the maritime and military forces it has, and no one made party magnates use those forces to bully China’s neighbors while wresting territory and resources from them. They did all of this on their own. Nor is anyone forcing Beijing to continue its predatory policies and strategies. It could halt its domineering conduct at any instant and resume abiding by international rules it helped write and to which it long ago consented.
Sadly, that is not going to happen. In all likelihood it cannot.
Xi Jinping has linked the South China Sea to his Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation. He has sworn to the Chinese people, loudly and often, to deliver that body of water to Chinese sovereignty. Solemn promises are irrevocable once made. Renewed obedience to international law would mean admitting that China’s dream of renewal and grandeur will not come true. It would mean conceding that Xi will not make China great again, at least not as he has defined greatness.
And that is something the party supremo will not do. This is the unpleasant reality. Mutual defense at sea is the best option available to America and the Philippine Islands. Let’s get to it with imagination and zeal.
Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.