30 May 2019

Interviewed by Washington Post “Monkey Cage“ Editor Jessica Chen Weiss of Cornell on “What China’s Assertiveness in the South China Sea Means—And What Comes Next”

Jessica Chen Weiss, “What China’s Assertiveness in the South China Sea Means—And What Comes Next,” The Monkey Cage, Washington Post, 30 May 2019.

China’s ‘maritime gray zone operations’ target U.S. naval vessels.

On Wednesday, General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, remarked that despite assurances that there would be no moves to militarize the South China Sea, China had built “10,000-foot runways, ammunition storage facilities” — and routinely deployed aviation and missile defense capabilities. U.S. naval vessels operating in East Asia report being shadowed and harassed by China’s maritime forces. The Royal Australian Navy flagship Canberra also reported a recent encounter in the South China Sea while trailed by a Chinese warship: Its helicopter pilots were hit with lasers from what appeared to be fishing vessels.

To put these and other recent events in context, I reached out to two experts: Andrew S. Erickson, a professor at the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) and a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, and Ryan D. Martinson, a researcher at CMSI. They are the editors of the book “China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations” (U.S. Naval Institute, 2019). What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

Jessica Chen Weiss: The trade war has dominated headlines in U.S.-China relations, but what’s the state of play between the United States and China in the South China Sea? How has China’s artificial enlargement of islands and reefs affected U.S. operations and interests?

Andrew S. Erickson and Ryan D. Martinson: While tariff disputes dominate world news, territorial disputes in the South China Sea remain a key flash point in U.S.-China relations. Beijing maintains a claim to all of the space within a “dashed line” enclosing most of the South China Sea — including hundreds of tiny islands and reefs. China also believes it has the right to engage in military, scientific and economic activity anywhere within this zone, and to limit at least some these same activities by other countries. Over the last decade or so, Beijing has vigorously asserted these claims. Instead of using its navy, it has relied on coast guard and maritime militia forces, operating in the “gray zone” between war and peace. … … …

JCW: The U.S. Navy recently warned that it would treat Chinese coast guard and paramilitary vessels the same as the Chinese navy. What’s behind this development?

ASE/RDM: The U.S. Navy recognizes that China has not one but three sea forces, which act increasingly in coordination. Within that division of labor, China’s navy has sought prestigious engagement and substantive learning opportunities with the U.S. Navy as Beijing’s “good cop” at sea, while China’s coast guard and maritime militia “bad cops” bully its neighbors over disputed features and waters and harass the U.S. Navy’s own ships. But now the days of Washington letting Beijing have it both ways are over.

U.S. officials have been making similar statements for months now — then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in November called for China’s maritime militia to “operate in a safe and professional manner in accordance with international law.” Assistant Defense Secretary Randall Schriver made a similar statement in a December interview. Their statements built on reports from the Pentagon and other agencies that exposed the maritime militia’s military nature and activities. These efforts to treat China’s three sea forces holistically and oppose their gray zone expansionism draw substantially on research conducted at CMSI over the past five years.

China has pursued a variety of coercive, competitive activities short of using force in the South China Sea. Which of these “gray zone activities” will the United States be more likely to succeed at deterring, and which will the United States probably have to live with?

ASE/RDM: That’s a great question, and one that Michael Mazarr addresses in our new book. … … …