Category Archives: Indo-Asia-Pacific

Deep Dive: The Second Belt and Road Forum 

By Tuan N. Pham

China just concluded the Second Belt and Road Forum (BaRF) in Beijing 25-27 April. The theme was “Belt and Road Cooperation, Shaping a Brighter Shared Future.” The forum aimed to bring greater and improved cooperation under the ambitious and expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) consisting of 126 countries and 29 organizations that have signed cooperation agreements with China, and generated a total trade volume of $6 trillion to date. 36 foreign leaders attended this year’s forum – up from 29 two years ago. However, notably absent were the heads of state or government from Washington, Tokyo, Seoul, Canberra, New Delhi, London, Paris and Berlin.

In the keynote speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to recalibrate the global infrastructure program and enhance transparency to ensure the financial sustainability of the many BRI projects and respond to the growing chorus of international criticism that they burden and exploit developing countries with onerous debt. The content and manner of the conciliatory speech marks an acute departure from past confident tones to promote and advance the program, and perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that his signature initiative lost ground and momentum in 2018 both abroad and at home, requiring a reset (BRI 2.0). What were the key takeaways, what has changed since the inaugural BaRF in 2017, and more importantly, what’s next for Washington?   

Key Points of Xi’s Speech

 Xi began his speech with a line from a classical Chinese poem – “spring and autumn are lovely seasons in which friends get together to climb up mountains and write poems” and an old Chinese proverb – “plants with strong roots grow well, and efforts with the right focus will ensure success.” Xi then proceeded to assure the audience and the broader international community with familiar BRI themes that were pervasive throughout Beijing-controlled media before, during, and after the forum, “we need to be guided by the principle of extensive consultation, joint contribution, and shared benefits; seek open, green, and clean cooperation; and pursue high standard cooperation to improve people’s lives and promote sustainable development.” Xi next promised structural reforms – similar to those discussed in the ongoing U.S.-China trade talks – “to expand market access for foreign investment in more areas; intensify efforts to enhance international cooperation in intellectual property protection; increase the import of goods and services on an even larger scale; more effectively engage in international macro-economic policy coordination; and work harder to ensure the implementation of opening-up related policies.” 

Xi concluded his remarks with another Chinese adage “honoring a promise carries the weight of gold”while making commitments to “implement multilateral and bilateral economic and trade agreements reached with other countries; strengthen the building of a government based on the rule of law and good faith; put in place a binding mechanism for honoring international agreements; revise extant Chinese laws and regulations to expand the opening-up of the country; overhaul and abolish unjustified regulations, subsidies, and practices that impede fair competition and distort the market; treat all enterprises and business entities equally; and finally foster an enabling business environment based on market forces and governed by law.” All in all, Xi’s 2019 speech was a sharp contrast from his triumphalist speech during the inaugural BaRF two years ago.

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde welcomed the shift in Chinese rhetoric, telling the forum after Xi’s speech that the initiative could “benefit from increased transparency, open procurement with competitive bidding, and better risk assessment in project selection” while cautioning that the infrastructure program “should only go where it is needed and where the debt it generates can be sustained.” 

Behind the rhetoric was a laundry list of deliverables to demonstrate commitment to BRI 2.0 and stem the growing skepticism of BRI’s benevolence and benefits. The list includes 283 initiatives proposed or launched by Beijing – bilateral and multilateral agreements signed during or immediately before the BaRF, multilateral cooperation mechanisms under the BRI framework, investment projects and project lists, financing projects, and projects by local authorities and enterprises (supposedly $64 billion worth of deals).  

“Initial” ground assessments painted the BaRF as a “chaotic” diplomatic conference lacking a clear schedule and sufficient content, exacerbated by tight media control thereby making it difficult for the host to project openness (transparency) and falling flat for many of those attending. Television broadcasts of a roundtable discussion on Saturday joined by attending world leaders featured only the opening remarks by Xi and the livestream was cut abruptly before any of BRI countries had a chance to speak. So basically this forum, to me, was a one-day publicity stunt for China…not enough content for a three-day event,” stated a person close to the forum’s organization. A European delegate added that the lack of a clear schedule often left attendees either waiting for hours on end or scrambling to catch up after an event started suddenly.

What Has Changed

China originally envisioned the BRI as a global network of ports, roads, railways, pipelines, and industrial parks, largely built by Chinese corporations. But as the initiative rapidly expanded beyond infrastructure construction to encompass additional underlying political and military objectives as evident by Beijing’s plan to build military bases around the world to protect its growing investments along the various Silk Roads, Western governments began criticizing the BRI for promoting and advancing opaque financial deals that give Beijing undue political leverage by encumbering developing countries with unsustainable financial burdens as well as engendering other risks to the recipient states. These risks can include the erosion of national sovereignty, disengagement from local economic needs, negative environmental impacts, and significant potential for corruption. The complaints steadily grew louder and gained traction over the years, culminating in an increasing number of Asian and African nations suspending, cancelling, or renegotiating BRI projects. Just last month, Beijing cut its price for a multibillion-dollar railway in Malaysia by roughly a third, reviving a project that had been stalled by concerns over debt and corruption.

At the onset of and throughout the BaRF, Beijing de-emphasized big-ticket infrastructure projects in its BRI public diplomacy (public relations) campaign and made more pledges to ensure sustainable (responsible) lending and fight corruption. As part of the recalibration, Chinese government officials negotiated with foreign governments to draw up lists of official BRI projects, promising more BRI transparency, and trying to attract more private-sector money to offset the disproportionate government funding, reduce the domestic fiscal risk, and diminish the perception that the initiative was just another political tool for global dominance. In his keynote speech at this year’s BaRF, Xi underscored the latter by inviting foreign and private-sector partners to contribute more funding and did not make any new pledges of Chinese financing.

What’s Next

China’s promises for a revamped BRI 2.0 will require further monitoring and scrutiny. Hence, Washington and the greater international community should be wary of the ubiquitous “rebranding” by the Chinese state-controlled media and of the vague, ambiguous, and uncertain assurances and deliverables that Beijing may be dangling as an effort to reframe the BRI. China may be presenting a kinder persona to stem the growing skepticism and avoid making longer-term structural BRI reforms, which Beijing does not want to do unless coerced to do so. From the Chinese Communist Party’s perspective, the structural changes will weaken the BRI, undermine China’s global competitive advantage, slow the Party’s deliberate march toward the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation, and keep Beijing from realizing its strategic goal of achieving global influence and ultimately global preeminence. All in all, these promises and assurances are politically expedient but will remain empty without greater transparency and enforcement – the same points made in The Diplomat article “On Looming U.S.-China Trade Deal, Actions Speak Louder Than Words…Talk without the support of action means nothing. Enforcement will be the key to any deal.”

So how should Washington respond? Perhaps the best response is a BRI of its own as proposed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, this author, and others. The United States could offer a compelling and alternate economic vision, resourced, and sustained over time. The world needs more infrastructure than any one state can provide, and dissatisfaction and disenchantment with the BRI provides a strategic opportunity for America to work with its allies and partners to deliver high-quality and affordable infrastructure without Chinese conditions. Washington should also start seriously thinking and preparing (contingency planning) for the possibility of a BRI collapse.

At the end of the day, the old Arabian proverb “a promise is a cloud, fulfillment is rain” is apropos. Trust but verify, and plan accordingly for contingencies. 

Tuan Pham is a seasoned China watcher with over two decades of professional experience in the Indo-Pacific and is widely published in international relations and national security affairs. The views expressed are his own.

Featured Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum at the China National Convention Center (CNCC) in Beijing, Sunday, May 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

The Deadly Evolution of Abu Sayyaf and the Sea

By Meghan Curran

On the morning of January 27, 2019, two bombs exploded inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in Jolo on the Sulu Province in the southern Philippines. Tearing a hole through the cathedral during a Sunday service, the bombs claimed 20 lives, injured dozens more, and propelled Islamist extremism in the Philippines back into international headlines. In the aftermath of the blast, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte promised to “pursue to the ends of the Earth the ruthless perpetrators behind [the] dastardly crime,”as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the country’s notoriously violent Islamic separatist group, claimed responsibility for the attack. While President Duterte may not need to go to the “ends of the Earth” to put an end to the ASG-fueled terror, his government will certainly need to act beyond its own shores. Illicit maritime activities are at the root of ASG funding and operations, and ensuring the group’s defeat will require focused government efforts to improve maritime security in its area of operations.

As External Support Dwindled, ASG Turned to the Sea

ASG has overcome several transition periods throughout its history, and in many ways, its resilience in the face of both internal and external pressures lays in its ability to morph; from Islamist group, to bandit group, and back; and the sea has provided the means for it to do so.

Until fairly recently, ASG relied on substantial funding from global Islamist terror organizations, notably al-Qaeda. Much of this funding was funneled through charitable front organizations, led by Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, a Saudi businessman and Osama Bin Laden’s brother-in-law. As head of the Islamic Organization’s Philippine branch, and later IIRO’s regional director for Southeast Asia, Khalifa also founded several other organizations to support ASG.

However, ASG turned to the sea for funding in the mid-2000s when external support began to wane. Following the discovery of Khalifa’s involvement in the botched Bojinka Plot, which involved the bombing of several airplanes over the Pacific, Philippine authorities blocked his reentry into the country thereby weakening al-Qaeda’s support for the group. After the September 11 attacks, increasing international counterterrorism measures further strained external financial and operational support for the group.

With dwindling support and mounting pressure from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), ASG began capitalizing on the strong maritime tradition of the Sulu archipelago to engage in widespread criminality at sea to fund its operations. In the mid-2000s the group became notorious for seaborne kidnappings for ransom, and orchestrating attacks on numerous diving resorts. Although these activities were mainly profit-motivated, the ransoms were used to purchase weapons and other supplies for the group.

ASG is Pushed Further out to Sea

In 2016, continued AFP pressure combined with renewed international interest in fighting global piracy further restricted ASG’s freedom of movement on the Sulu archipelago, limiting its ability to conduct onshore kidnappings via maritime routes. In response, the group moved its operations further out to sea, and according to One Earth Future’s 2016 State of Piracy Report , conducted 21 successful kidnappings of seafarers while ships were underway. During the first half of 2016, the group mostly targeted smaller vessels, but by October they began attacking larger vessels, presenting a threat to both international and regional traffic. Although these incidents increased dramatically in 2016, in 2017 there was a noticeable lull in similar activities, which some have attributed to militants refocusing their efforts on the siege of Marawi City, and an increasing number of maritime patrols by stakeholders in the region.

However, in September and December 2018, the group conducted two more seaborne kidnappings off Sabah, Malaysia. On March 12, 2019 Malaysian security forces announced they were on full alert following intelligence reports that ASG militants were once again active in the waters off Sabah, seeking new hostages to fund their campaign. The report stated that ASG had been using contacts on the island province of Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines’ southernmost province, to identify high value targets.

Sea Routes Key to ASGs Next Wave of Operations

Besides using the sea to carry out kidnappings for ransom, ASG is also currently utilizing the maritime space in a manner more closely related to the recent headline-grabbing attack in Jolo.

The group is using sea routes to move foreign fighters into the Philippines, allowing it to utilize foreign suicide operatives, while also maintaining a local base. The January 2019 cathedral attack was carried out by suicide bombers from Indonesia, and experts estimate that there could be up to 100 additional foreign fighters, mostly from nearby Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Middle East, currently operating in the Philippines. During the five-month siege of Marawi City on the island of Mindanao, the AFP fought an enemy bolstered by an influx of foreign fighters whose presence emboldened local pro-Islamic State groups, playing a key role in bridging divides between the group’s many factions. In the aftermath of the siege, intelligence failures on the part of both the AFP and the Philippine National Police (PNP) pointed to militants from neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia navigating the Sulu and Celebes Seas to join Abu Sayyaf’s fight in the southern Philippines.

The Sea is the Key

As the Islamic State continues to lose territory in the Middle East, foreign fighters are viewing the Philippines as an increasingly attractive battlefield. The battle for Marawi City prompted a rise in ISIS propaganda focused on Southeast Asia, with one video explicitly urging supporters to travel to the Philippines. While several foreign fighters have been detained, arrested, and deported after flying into Mindanao, others have been using a backdoor, transiting routes in the Sulu and Celebes Seas that involve island hopping along the region’s numerous archipelagic chains.

On October 23, 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte claimed victory against terrorists in Mindanao, following the liberation of Marawi City. With 1,200 dead, a city in ruins, and martial law declared, many wondered if ASG was truly defeated. But once again the group has illustrated its ability to adapt. The influx of foreign fighters in the Philippines has changed the dynamics of Islamist terrorism in the region. According to analysts, Filipino terrorist groups have traditionally avoided suicide bombings, preferring “sustained combat to cowardly tactics.” But in July 2018, the first ever suicide bombing by militants in the Philippines was carried out in Basilian province by a Moroccan fighter, with assistance from both Abu Sayyaf and other foreign fighters from Malaysia. Shortly thereafter, a cathedral bombing in Jolo rattled the Philippines once again.

As the AFP continues to engage ASG in the forested islands of the southern Philippines, it is imperative that the Duterte administration continues to invest in regional transnational maritime domain awareness mechanisms. This is particularly crucial in the tri-border area between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, which has a long legacy of illicit maritime activity, porous borders, and cross-national family bonds that make undocumented entry and exit into countries in the region common.

The Sulu and Celebes Seas. (Freeworldmaps)

While some regional coordination efforts to address illicit maritime activity already exist, the Philippines must build on recent successes and regional initiatives. For example, the Trilateral Cooperative Agreement (TCA) formalized in 2016 resulted in joint maritime and air patrols, as well as coordination between maritime command centers in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. And while the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) indicates that the TCA has resulted in a decrease in transnational crime in the tri-border area, issues regarding trust across agencies and governments, unclear agency mandates, and duplication of efforts have limited the impact of such organizations. Without sufficient attention to these issues, the defeat of the region’s most persistent violent groups will continue to be out of reach. 

Meghan Curran is a researcher with Stable Seas, an international NGO focused on maritime security issues. This article advances themes published in a new report titled Stable Seas: Sulu and Celebes Seas.

Featured Image: Philippine soldiers stand in formation during a send-off ceremony at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, Metro Manila October 27, 2010. (REUTERS/Cheryl Ravelo)

How the Vatican-Beijing Deal Is Fracturing

By Tuan N. Pham

Last September, to the surprise of many, Pope Francis signed a confidential agreement giving Beijing effective control over who chooses church leaders within China. The settlement was largely viewed by the faithful as a risky proposition based on a flawed understanding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Many believed the agreement will be yet another episode of Beijing making hollow promises in order to buy more time and space to strengthen (or hedge) its positions for future political advantages. Months after the landmark deal, Beijing continues to brazenly renege on the agreement underscored by its deliberate snubbing of the pope during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to Italy (March 21-23) since the historic agreement.

On March 1, speaking at a conference on Vatican diplomacy, Cardinal Pietro Parolin (the Holy See’s Secretary of State) defended the controversial deal and emphasized that it is now important “to make the China deal work in practice…and put into effect the agreement.” A few days later, during a visit to Hong Kong, Cardinal Fernando Filoni (special papal envoy) highlighted ongoing efforts to unite the official and underground Catholic churches within China and the need to be patient and positive about the reunification of the churches. The remarks came two days after Bishop Paul Meng Qinglu, the deputy chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (Beijing-loyalist group), stated that the agreement would be reviewed in two years. Altogether and put into context, are the cardinals’ statements tacit acknowledgments (and growing signs of frustration within the Vatican) of Beijing’s blatant breach of contract, public relations (spin control) efforts, or the belated, albeit subtle and diplomatic calling out of wayward Chinese behavior? Or simply more misplaced optimism from key papal foreign policy advisors? Nevertheless, the heart of the matter now is what can and should the Holy Father do about the fracturing agreement?

Papal Assumptions and Agreement Defaults 

The Vatican assumes that Beijing’s public acknowledgment of pontifical authority will matter in Communist China, and hopes the Catholic Church will eventually have greater influence and freedom in church matters within the Chinese state. Church leaders fundamentally do not understand the true nature of the CCP, and underestimate and underappreciate its foremost priority – the survival of the Party. The CCP will not tolerate anyone or any organization (institution) that has the potential to undermine its ruling legitimacy and authority as evidenced by its unrelenting drive to make sure everyone is loyal to the atheist CCP before anything else.

Despite the seemingly binding agreement, Chinese government officials continue to crack down on religions and persecute Christians. There has been a recent surge in police and government actions against churches in China, and increased government pressures toward Christians to join the state-sanctioned churches (administered by approved priests). The main targets of the latest round of religious persecution appear to be unregistered (or underground) churches that have refused to align with Beijing-controlled associations that oversee religious institutions in China. On March 12, Xu Xiaohong – chairman of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (government-controlled body that runs state-approved churches) – threatened to eliminate foreign influence in all churches in China and proposed to establish its own Chinese theology, drawing on the traditions of Chinese culture to promote and practice the core values of socialism.

Beijing still coerces citizens to renounce their faiths on paper in accordance with Xi’s policy to “sinicize” all religions, bring them more firmly under Beijing’s control, and make sure that they do not offer alternate viewpoints to the CCP – the highest and absolute political, legal, and moral authority within the country. As part of that policy, Beijing will subtly and incrementally enhance and expand its influence over clerical appointments and religious teachings to underscore nationalism and patriotism and to promote social stability.

Unkept Promises and Diminishing Diplomatic Credibility 

Beijing often makes grandiose gestures and empty promises to achieve its short-term objectives in order to buy time and space to set the conditions for realizing long-term goals. Beijing did not honor the 1984 Joint Declaration with the United Kingdom to keep Hong Kong free, and has even declared in 2017 that the declaration “no longer had any practical significance.” Beijing broke a bilateral agreement with Manila to mutually withdraw from Scarborough Shoal and then illegally seized the Shoal in 2012. Beijing reclaimed over 3000 acres of land in the South China Sea over the next five years despite a 2002 agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to not change any geographic features in the contested and disputed waters, and then broke the 2015 agreement between Xi and then President Barack Obama to not militarize them. More recently, there is mounting evidence that Beijing reneged on another 2015 Xi-Obama agreement to stop cyber espionage through the hacking of government and corporate data. Therefore it is hardly surprising to see the Vatican’s agreements with China being broken. 

Papal Considerations 

Moving forward, the Vatican (and others engaging in relations with China) would be prudent to consider the following if Beijing continues to violate the conditions and principles of the agreement:

(1) Do not mistake grand gestures (perceived concessions) as indicators of enduring commitment to the deal.

(2) Be vigilant for additional contraventions of the agreement and be willing to publicly call Beijing out on them.

(3) Be ready to terminate the deal for breach of contract.

(4) Prepare to impose cost by following in Pope John Paul II’s footsteps to actively confront Chinese Communism to include a “global revolution of the spirit” against its many human right violations. 

(5) Be wary of Chinese “sharp power” to infiltrate and undermine Vatican politics, while furtively promoting a positive image of China and misrepresenting or manipulating information to quell policy dissent and dialogue within the Holy City. (6) Avoid being drawn into Beijing’s political games to diplomatically and economically isolate Taipei. China will persist in persuading (and coercing) the Vatican to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan (quid pro quo).

(7) Disclose the conditions of the deal to regain trust and confidence amongst the skeptical faithfuls within and outside of China.

(8) Take counsel from informed thinkers like retired Cardinal Joseph Zen, a former archbishop of Hong Kong, who intimately understands the true nature of the CCP and has fearlessly challenged them for decades.    

All in all, Beijing believes that Chinese Communism is the true religion, and the CCP is its one and only church and clergy. For the Party, all religious issues have a bearing on “social harmony, ethnic solidarity, and national security” and therefore all religions within China must adapt themselves to the socialist society. The “sinicization” of religions is part of a larger effort to reinforce the CCP’s control over all aspects of Chinese life to include religious faith, culture, and public discourse.

At the end of the day, Beijing does not seek win-win, they seek win-lose, and when it comes to the battle for the heart and soul of the Chinese people, there can only be one winner – the CCP. 

Tuan Pham is a seasoned China watcher with over two decades of professional experience in the Indo-Pacific and is widely published in international relations and national security affairs. The views expressed are his own.

Featured Image: (L to R) Cardinal John Tong, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, and Bishop Joseph Ha celebrate mass on Tuesday at the Caritas Institute of Higher Education. (Photo: Edmond So)

Andrew S. Erickson and Ryan D. Martinson Discuss China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations

By Dmitry Filipoff

On March 15th, the Naval Institute Press will publish China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations, a volume edited by professors Andrew S. Erickson and Ryan D. Martinson from the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. CIMSEC recently reached out to Erickson and Martinson about their latest work.

Q: What was the genesis of your book?

Erickson: In the last decade or so, China has dramatically expanded its control and influence over strategically important parts of maritime East Asia. It has done so despite opposition from regional states, including the United States, and without firing a shot. Others have examined this topic, but we found that much of the public analysis and discussion was not grounded in solid mastery of the available Chinese sources—even though China tends to be much more transparent in Chinese. We also recognized a general lack of understanding about the two organizations on the front lines of Beijing’s seaward expansion: the China Coast Guard (CCG) and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). This volume grew out of a conference we held in Newport in May 2017 to address some of these issues. It contains contributions from world-leading subject matter experts, with a wide range of commercial, technical, government, and scholarly experience and expertise. We’re honored to receive endorsements from top leaders in sea power, strategy, and policy: former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead, former Secretary of the Navy J. William Middendorf, Harvard Professor Stephen Rosen, former Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Fleet Commander-in-Chief Vice Admiral Yoji Koda, Dr. James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation, and former Pentagon Director of Net Assessment Andrew Marshall.

Q: The title of your book is China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations. How does the term “gray zone” apply here?

Martinson: We usually prefer to use Chinese concepts when talking about Chinese behavior, and Chinese strategist do not generally use the term “gray zone.” But we think that the concept nicely captures the essence of the Chinese approach. We were inspired by the important work done by RAND analyst Michael Mazarr, who contributed a chapter to the volume. In his view, gray zone strategies have three primary characteristics. They seek to alter the status quo. They do so gradually. And they employ “unconventional” elements of state power. Today, a large proportion of Chinese-claimed maritime space is controlled or contested by other countries. This is the status quo that Beijing seeks to alter. Its campaign to assert control over these areas has progressed over a number of years. Clearly, then, Chinese leaders are in no rush to achieve their objectives. And while China’s Navy plays a very important role in this strategy, it is not the chief protagonist. 

Q: Who, then, are the chief actors?

Martinson: The CCG and the PAFMM perform the vast majority of Chinese maritime gray zone operations. Chinese strategists and spokespeople frame their actions as righteous efforts to protect China’s “maritime rights and interests.” The CCG uses law enforcement as a pretext for activities to assert Beijing’s prerogatives in disputed maritime space. PAFMM personnel are often disguised as civilian mariners, especially fishermen. Most do fish, at least some of the time. But they can be activated to conduct rights protection operations. And a new elite subcomponent is paid handsomely to engage in sovereignty promotion missions fulltime without fishing at all. Meanwhile, the PLA Navy also plays a role in disputed waters, serving what Chinese strategists call a “backstop” function. It discourages foreign countries from pushing back too forcefully and stands ready over the horizon to come to the aid of China’s gray zone forces should the situation escalate.

Q: Most readers will have heard about the China Coast Guard, but fewer may be familiar with the PAFMM. How is the PAFMM organized?

Erickson: The PAFMM is a state-organized, developed, and controlled force operating under a direct military chain of command. This component of China’s armed forces is locally supported, but answers to China’s centralized military bureaucracy, headed by Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping himself. While most retain day jobs, militiamen are organized into military units and receive military training, sometimes from China’s Navy. In recent years, there has been a push to professionalize the PAFMM. The Sansha City Maritime Militia, headquartered on Woody Island in the Paracels, is the model for a professional militia force. It is outfitted with seven dozen large new ships that resemble fishing trawlers but are actually purpose-built for gray zone operations. Lacking fishing responsibilities, personnel train for manifold peacetime and wartime contingencies, including with light arms, and deploy regularly to disputed South China Sea areas, even during fishing moratoriums.

Three types of maritime militia vessels depicted in the Office of Naval Intelligence’s China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), Coast Guard, and Government Maritime Forces 2018 Recognition and Identification Guide. (Office of Naval Intelligence)

There are no solid numbers publicly available on the size of China’s maritime militia, but it is clearly the world’s largest. In fact, it is virtually the only one charged with involvement in sovereignty disputes: only Vietnam, one of the very last countries politically and bureaucratically similar to China, is known to have a similar force with a similar mission. China’s maritime militia draws on the world’s largest fishing fleet, incorporating through formal registration a portion of its thousands of fishing vessels, and the thousands of people who work aboard them as well as in other marine industries. The PAFMM thus recruits from the world’s largest fishing industry. According to China’s 2016 Fisheries Yearbook, China’s fishing industry employs 20,169,600 workers, mostly in traditional fishing practices, industry processing, and coastal aquaculture. Those who actually fish “on the water” number 1,753,618. They operate 187,200 “marine fishing vessels.” An unknown portion of these are militia boats. To give a sense of the size and distribution of PAFMM forces, our volume includes figures showing the location of leading militia units in two major maritime provinces: Hainan and Zhejiang.

Q: How is the CCG organized for gray zone operations?

Martinson: When we held the conference in 2017, the CCG was in the midst of a major organizational reform. It was only set up in 2013, the result of a decision to combine four different maritime law enforcement agencies. Before 2013, most rights protection operations were conducted by two civilian agencies: China Marine Surveillance and Fisheries Law Enforcement. They did not cooperate well with each other. Moreover, neither had any real policing powers. After the CCG was created, it became clear that Beijing intended to transform it into a military organization. In early 2018, Beijing announced a decision to transfer the CCG from the State Oceanic Administration to the People’s Armed Police. At about the same time, the People’s Armed Police was placed under the control of the Central Military Commission. So, like the PAFMM, it is now a component of China’s armed forces. Moreover, CCG officers now have the authority to detain and charge foreign mariners for criminal offenses simply for being present in disputed areas of the East China Sea and South China Sea (although they have yet to use this authority in practice).

Q: How is the CCG equipped to assert China’s maritime claims?

Martinson: When Beijing’s gray zone campaign began in earnest in 2006, China’s maritime law enforcement forces were fairly weak. They owned few oceangoing cutters, and many of those that they did own were elderly vessels handed down from the PLA Navy or the country’s oceanographic research fleet. They were not purpose-built for “rights protection” missions. In recent years, however, Beijing has invested heavily in new platforms for the CCG. Today, China has by far the world’s largest coast guard, operating more maritime law enforcement vessels than the coast guards of all its regional neighbors combined. As the chapter by Joshua Hickey, Andrew Erickson, and Henry Holst points out, the CCG owns more than 220 ships over 500 tons, far surpassing Japan (with around 80 coast guard hulls over 500 tons), the United States (with around 50), and South Korea (with around 45). At over 10,000 tons full load, the CCG’s two Zhaotou-class patrol ships are the world’s largest coast guard vessels. The authors project that in 2020 China’s coast guard could have 260 ships capable of operating offshore (i.e., larger than 500 tons). Drawing from lessons learned while operating in disputed areas in the East and South China Seas, recent classes of Chinese coast guard vessels have seen major qualitative improvements. They are larger, faster, more maneuverable, and have enhanced firepower. Many CCG vessels are now armed with 30 mm and 76 mm cannons.

Q: It appears that these gray zone forces and operations are heavily focused on sovereignty disputes such as in the East and South China Seas. Are they also pursuing other goals and lines of effort?

Erickson: That is correct. The vast majority of maritime gray zone activities involve efforts to assert Chinese control and influence over disputed maritime space in what Chinese strategists term the “Near Seas.” When conducting rights protection operations, these forces help Beijing enforce its policies regarding which kinds of activities can and cannot take place in Chinese-claimed areas. The CCG and PAFMM intimidate and harass foreign civilians attempting to use the ocean for economic purposes, such as fishing and oil/gas development. Since at least 2011, for instance, China’s coast guard and militia forces have been charged with preventing Vietnam from developing offshore hydrocarbon reserves in its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), part of which overlaps with China’s sweeping nine-dash line claim. China’s gray zone forces also protect Chinese civilians operating “legally” in Chinese-claimed maritime space. The 2014 defense of Chinese drilling rig HYSY-981, discussed in detail in our volume, is a classic case of this type of gray zone operation. By controlling maritime space, China’s gray zone forces can also determine who can and cannot access disputed features. Since 2012, for instance, Chinese coast guard and militia forces have upheld Chinese control over Scarborough Reef. Today, Filipino fishermen can only operate there with China’s permission.

Q: What are some of the tactics employed by China’s gray zone forces?

Erickson: Most CCG cutters are unarmed, and PAFMM vessels are minimally armed at most. They assert Chinese prerogatives through employment of a range of nonlethal tactics. In many cases, Chinese gray zone ships are themselves the weapon: they bump, ram, and physically obstruct the moments of other vessels. They also employ powerful water cannons to damage sensitive equipment aboard foreign ships and flood their power plants. Foreign states are often helpless to respond because China has the region’s most powerful navy, which gives it escalation dominance.

Q: How have regional states reacted to Chinese maritime gray zone operations? Have some had more effective responses than others?

Martinson: Regional states have not presented China with a united front. They have each handled Chinese encroachments differently. China’s strongest neighboring sea power, Japan has taken the most vigorous actions. As Adam Liff outlines in his chapter, it has bolstered its naval and coast guard forces along its southern islands. It has also taken bold steps to publicize China’s gray zone actions. Vietnam has been a model of pushback against Beijing’s maritime expansion, as Bernard Moreland recounts in his chapter. But even its resistance has limits. In July 2017, Beijing likely used gray zone forces to compel Hanoi to cancel plans to develop oil and gas in its own EEZ, in cooperation with a Spanish company. Other states have taken a much more conciliatory approach to China’s incursions in the South China Sea. The Philippines, for example, is apparently acquiescing to Beijing’s desire to jointly develop disputed parts of the South China Sea—areas that a 2016 arbitration ruling clearly place under Philippine jurisdiction. Meanwhile, China continues to push Manila in other ways. Philippine supply shipments to Second Thomas Shoal are still subject to harassment. China has recently concentrated a fleet of gray zone forces just off the coast of Philippine-occupied Thitu Island, in an apparent effort to pressure Manila to discontinue long-planned repairs and updates to its facilities there.

Chinese fishing vessels massed off Philippine-occupied Thitu Island in January 2019. (CSIS/AMTI, DigitalGlobe)

At the same time, China itself continues to develop reclaimed land at Mischief Reef, a mostly submerged feature which because of its location clearly belongs to the Philippines. For its part, Malaysia has not publicly opposed Chinese incursions in its jurisdictional waters. But it is apparently proceeding with plans to develop seabed resources near the Chinese-claimed Luconia Shoals. Chinese coast guard vessels patrol the area, but have not forced a cessation of exploratory drilling operations—including those conducted by the Japanese-owned drilling rig Hakuryu 5 in February 2018. This story will be worth following, as Malaysia makes decisions about next steps. In 2016, Indonesia took robust actions to crack down on Chinese fishing activities near the southern part of the nine-dash line, northeast of its Natuna Islands. Things have been fairly quiet in the years since, perhaps because CCG vessels are escorting the fishing fleet to the area.

Q: It seems like China’s gray zone strategy is more often directed at other countries. Why is this topic important for U.S. national security?

Erickson: The U.S. Navy has also been targeted by China’s gray zone forces. U.S. Navy special mission ships such as the USNS Bowditch, USNS Impeccable, USNS Effective, USNS Victorious, and USNS Howard O. Lorenzen have been shadowed and harassed, victims of China’s erratically-enforced opposition to foreign naval activities within its claimed EEZ. To be sure, China’s gray zone campaign is largely targeted at other territorial claimants, but two of these countries—Japan and the Philippines—are U.S. allies. Washington’s robust alliance with Tokyo, in particular, is critical to American presence and peace preservation in a vital but vulnerable region. Chinese bullying behavior threatens to undermine these alliances and could trigger direct American military intervention if China’s gray zone operations were to escalate into armed attack. Moreover, as Jonathan Odom points out in his chapter, China’s activities violate important international conventions and norms. This means they are weakening key pillars of the international maritime order, and with it the global system on which peace and prosperity depend. In many cases China’s gray zone forces are used to assert maritime claims that have no basis in international law.

Q: And how can the U.S. Navy, as a more high-end force, better handle these sorts of Chinese paramilitary forces without risking escalation?

Martinson: If the United States wants to be effectual, it must do more to expose China’s gray zone activities, and it must accept a degree of risk in opposing them more strongly. China’s gray zone activities cannot be easily deterred, because each individual act is calculated to fall below American red lines. If Washington wants to get serious about countering China’s gray zone expansion, it must do more than conduct “presence” and “freedom of navigation” operations—which appear to sit at the heart of the current approach. The former cannot deter Beijing from taking tactical actions in the gray zone. The latter does little to defend the interests of allies and partners. In our concluding chapter, we suggest ways that the U.S. Navy can do more to help them protect their legitimate interests and defend the legal norms and conventions that China’s behavior threatens to erode. In short, the United States should be out there with them, operating on the front lines of China’s seaward expansion. To that end, it must develop a range of nonlethal tactics that it can use to achieve local effects without resorting to use of force.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute and the recipient of the inaugural Civilian Faculty Research Excellence Award at the Naval War College. He is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, he delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson is the author of Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development (Jamestown Foundation/Brookings Institution Press, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at www.andrewerickson.com.

Ryan D. Martinson is a researcher in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. He holds a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a bachelor’s of science from Union College. Martinson has also studied at Fudan University, the Beijing Language and Culture University, and the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: A China Coast Guard ship uses a water cannon to harass a Vietnamese law enforcement vessel near the disputed Paracel Islands on May 27, 2014. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun)