PLA uses ‘grey zone’ warfare to control South China Sea

January 22, 2024 06:00

The People’s Liberation Army has successfully used “grey zone” warfare to control areas of the South China Sea claimed by Beijing but is cautious of a war with India, Japan or Taiwan.

That is the conclusion of Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Professor Emeritus at Baptist University, in his new book “Facing China – The Prospects of War and Peace” published by Rowman & Littlefield.

“Grey zone” means coercive military operations short of war. He said that the PLA had since 2012 been very successful in using this method in the South China Sea, expanding its area of operations and building land-made artificial islands on which it has built airfields and which it has militarised.

“It has done this without a major incident so far. It has presented the countries in the region with a fait accompli. The PLA shadows all naval vessels from abroad that pass through this region. It has been able to dominate without a war,” he said. “In 1988, there was a skirmish in the Spratly Islands, which the PLA took over from Vietnam, including shoals and reefs.”

And in 2012, it took control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, but since then no major incident has taken place.

The PLA has the largest navy in the world, with 370 ships, including submarines, compared to 293 in the U.S. navy, and is growing in size. “For the moment, the U.S. navy remains more powerful,” he said.

Late last month China named former Navy chief Dong Jun as its new defence minister to replace the previous one, Li Shangfu, who disappeared from public view last August.

Cabestan said China’s Marine Corps had 30,000 men with six amphibious brigades and was under the Navy. It will grow to 100,000. In total, the PLA has two million men and women, the biggest army in the world.

He said that the question was whether the old power (the U.S.) will attack the rising power, China. “Power transitions are rarely peaceful. That from Britain to the U.S was peaceful. In the nuclear era, the U.S. and Soviet Union fought proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam. The war in Ukraine is also a proxy war.

“The stakes for China and the U.S. are very high. Xi Jinping is more of a risk-taker than Hu Jintao and his military more powerful. But the PLA has not fought a war since its invasion of Vietnam in 1979, a war it did not win. I am optimistic that China will continue to work with a grey zone strategy, below the threshold of war,” he said.

He does not expect a war over the Senkaku (Diaoyutai) islands with Japan. “The PLA will not cross the red line or land troops there. If they did, the U.S. would have to intervene, under its treaty obligations with Japan.”

He also does not expect a war with India. In 2020, 20 Indian and at least four Chinese troops were killed in skirmishes over the disputed border high in the Himalayas. “For India, things have not gone back to normal. But both are BRIC countries with growing trade and economic relations. They have many reasons to avoid conflict.”

The most likely conflict is over Taiwan. Before 2019, the PLA did not fly over the median line between the two sides but now does so as a matter of routine. After the visit of U.S. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August 2022, the PLA simulated a blockade and sent missiles over the island.

“The likelihood of a peaceful resolution is diminishing. The Taiwan people do not accept the HK model of ‘one country, two systems’ and do not want to live in the PRC. Perhaps a commonwealth model might have been attractive, but the time has passed,” he said.

“A blockade would be an act of war. President Joe Biden has said four times that the U.S. would intervene if Taiwan were attacked. If it did not, that would be the end of the U.S. hegemony in the Western Pacific. It is nearly impossible not to intervene,” he said.

Without the guarantee of U.S. protection, Japan and South Korea might develop their own nuclear weapons. Both have the capital and technology to do so.

Cabestan said the war in Ukraine was a wake-up call for Taiwan, which was “in a cloud before”. “There is more support for a bigger defence and military service has been extended from four to 12 months. Each year 3,000-4,000 people from the Pentagon are in Taiwan.

“Vladimir Putin alone made the decision to attack Ukraine. Does Xi Jinping have such power on his own? This is not clear,” he said.

A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.