China’s graduated use of coercive instruments of national power in the South China Sea (SCS) constitutes an informed strategy.1 Such coercive gradualism is supported by gray zone tactics, which are measures that are aggressive yet designed to remain below the threshold of conventional military conflict.2 This combined approach minimizes international involvement, localizes issues, and ensures contentious outcomes in China’s favor. For smaller players in the region, this implies significant security, sovereignty, and economic challenges, especially due to their limited capacity to counter the sophisticated and integrated Chinese approach.
At the same time, the U.S. approach of avoiding a stake in regional issues has resulted in partner/ally nations questioning American commitment. Absence of a comprehensive U.S. response also allows China to alter the regional geostrategic landscape immutably. Potential changes in SCS dynamics also have wider implications for U.S. and global security interests with implications for international sovereignty, jurisdictional frameworks, and global commerce. There is a need for broader recalibration of the American approach to comprehensively address coercive gray zone challenges posed by China in the SCS through articulation of a coherent strategy and orchestrated employment of all diplomatic, informational, military, and economic options.
Chinese Strategy in the SCS
Gradualism can be defined as principles or policies for achieving a goal by gradual steps, rather than by drastic change. As an international relations concept, coercive gradualism may be defined as a “state employing coercive instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve objectives by incremental steps.”3 Coercive gradualism allows states to advance their interests in incremental moves, as opposed to a single coup de main.4 For China, coercive gradualism is a broader precept that informs its strategy across paradigms. Deng Xiaoping, paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China, referred to gradualism as “fording the river by feeling for the stones.”5 This article, however, predominantly focuses on such approaches in the SCS.
China has consistently employed broader principles of coercive gradualism in the SCS to further its interests. A chronological analysis of Chinese activities in the SCS reveals a cohesive and graduated strategy. Starting with simple firing incidents in 2005, Chinese strategy has sequentially and incrementally advanced to harassment actions from 2009, clashes from 2011, standoffs from 2012, and ship collisions post-2014.6 Incremental fishing control—initially instituted as a ban in 2012—has graduated into a requirement for Chinese fishing permits since 2014.7 Furthermore, all disputed territory in the SCS has been placed under the administrative control of Hainan Province.8 China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Seas in 2013, in airspace controlled by South Korea and Japan, is yet another example of creeping control. Analysts contend that China could attempt to implement similar identification zones in the SCS in the future in alignment with its overall gradualist aims.9 Large-scale reclamation activities in the SCS constitute another example of gradualism, where artificial islands have incrementally altered the status quo, overcoming what John Mearsheimer alluded to as the “stopping power of water.”10 One scholar referred to this as “gradual fait accompli,” stating that “We make a big deal of this now, but we’ll forget about it after a while.”11 In effect, China employs a graduated strategy of coercive actions and outcomes in the SCS to advance its interests.
The unstated Chinese strategy of coercive gradualism in the SCS is actively supported, indeed enabled, by comprehensive gray zone tactics.12 A U.S. Special Operations Command white paper published in 2015 defined the gray zone as “competitive interactions among (and within) States and non-State actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality.”13 Gray zone tactics are an essential accessory to coercive gradualism, as risk management is a crucial element of gradualism. Since the purported end is to ensure that the “real or perceived reaction to incremental moves will not entail unacceptable costs,” gray zone tactics activate the full potential of gradualism by supporting incremental moves through acceptable costs.14 China’s gray zone strategy involves skillfully orchestrating political, military, and commercial instruments to influence, intimidate, and/or coerce target states, while containing such approaches below the threshold of unacceptable political costs or outright military provocation.