Captain Robert Francis is an officer in the U.S. Navy, specializing in surface ships, and a former military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Lieutenant Commander Roswell Lary is a Foreign Area Officer in the U.S. Navy and a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
The United States, and Southeast Asian countries with competing claims to those of China in the South China Sea, have had difficulty responding to Beijing’s South China Sea gray zone tactics. Gray zone tactics, as defined by Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, are acts beyond normal deterrence or assurances that attempt to achieve one’s security objectives while falling below the threshold that would elicit armed responses. In the South China Sea, Beijing is using the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM), China’s armed fishing fleet, as a gray zone actor to assert Beijing’s claims to disputed territories.
The PAFMM reinforces Beijing’s claims by keeping Southeast Asian fishermen out of their traditional fertile fishing grounds and reserving access for China’s massive fishing fleet. Beijing has asserted rights over a majority of the South China Sea through their depiction of the “nine-dash line.” This line suggests that more than 90 percent of the waters and features in the South China Sea belongs to Beijing. The line is contested by many Southeast Asian claimants and violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Jurisdictional, legal, and diplomatic issues limit the responses of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard to these Chinese tactics; Southeast Asian nations with competing claims mostly do not have adequate maritime forces to counter these tactics. Regional organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that rely on reaching a consensus to act will almost certainly never confront China’s use of its armed fishing fleet in the South China Sea, since some ASEAN members are close to Beijing. One solution to more effectively countering quasi-civilian forces like the PAFMM is to expose these gray zone activities through extensive social media campaigns throughout Southeast Asia, which would expose the PAFMM as more than just a fishing fleet and show how its activities are not only helping China stake claims to territory but hurting Southeast Asian economic interests.
Beginning in 2012, Beijing began to increase its use of gray zone tactics in the South China Sea. This escalation included the 2012 seizure of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, extensive artificial island building between 2014 and 2017, and an increased use of the Chinese Coast Guard and PAFMM in the South China Sea.
U.S. Navy and Coast Guard units have responded by taking more actions in the region. Freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) increased from zero in 2014 to an all-time high of ten in 2019. The Navy, which maintains 60 percent of its fleet in the Indo-Pacific, conducted tri-carrier strike force operations in the region in 2017 and 2020, a herculean accomplishment given how much planning and resources goes into deploying so many aircraft carrier groups together.
The increased U.S. and partner countries’ military presence in the South China Sea, and diplomatic statements condemning Beijing’s South China Sea actions, have had little effect in deterring China’s use of quasi-civilian forces such as the PAFMM. In April 2021, Beijing had 220 PAFMM vessels anchored in Whitsun Reef, a feature within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. This buildup of PAFMM was likely in response to the 2021 U.S.-Philippine Balikatan (Tagalog phrase for “shoulder-to-shoulder”) Exercise, since China’s actions came just before the exercise. Fortunately, the presence of so many forces around Whitsun Reef did not escalate into a wider conflict.
It is a losing strategy to send U.S. or Southeast Asian warships to settle disputes like the PAFMM Whitsun Reef tactics. First, it risks escalation. While the Philippine Navy might be able to sink the PAFMM boats, China’s Navy and Coast Guard units, which patrol just beyond visual range of the reef, could respond with even greater force if the PAFMM boats were attacked. Second, an armed response by the Philippine (or other Southeast Asian) Navy, or an armed response by U.S. warships, would potentially be a public relations nightmare. Even if the People's Liberation Army Navy and Coast Guard chose not to respond, images of Philippine or U.S. military units attacking what seems to much of the world like unarmed fishing vessels could be portrayed by Beijing as an excessive use of force.
A better way to respond to China’s use of quasi-civilian units in the South China Sea would be to impose a high public diplomacy cost on Beijing for such tactics. Imposing this cost would require a strategy that centered the voices of fishermen affected by the PAFMM and showed that these PAFMM units are actually military tools enforcing Chinese claims and also damaging fishermen’s livelihoods.
Regional governments like the Philippines, Vietnam, and others, perhaps with some financial backing from regional leaders like Japan and the United States, could develop more coordinated social media campaigns, helping fishermen capture their harassment in the South China Sea, and then developing videos, images, and stories from the South China Sea on regional and global social media outlets. Right now, there are some stories and videos that emerge on social media from fishermen harassed in the South China Sea, but they lack any organized social media campaign that places their stories in a larger narrative, explains more fully the role of the PAFMM, and provides extensive information about how badly the PAFMM affects regional livelihoods.
If regional governments, working with and centering the fishermen (who of course would have to consent to being involved in this strategy, since it could put them at further risk), could create narratives focused on how relatively low-income Southeast Asian fishermen are being disadvantaged by the PAFMM, they could expose the PAFMM as much more than a unit of fishing boats. They also could win regional and global sympathy. Think, for example, of videos of assertive Chinese vessels tossing the catch of a struggling Philippine or Vietnamese fisherman overboard, and these videos then promoted through comprehensive social media campaigns. In addition, Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea do not only impact Southeast Asian fishermen—they also impact an entire industry of people who process and sell the fish in the region.
Specific resources required for this effort would include audio/visual equipment such as cell phones or internet-accessible devices loaded with the right applications for fishermen at sea, training sessions for users on how to make, edit, and distribute quality videos through social media, and reliable internet access for vessels at sea that would allow them to broadcast interactions live.
Given that such a social media effort would portray Beijing in a highly negative light, and would challenge Beijing’s interests in the South China Sea, China would probably launch a vigorous response. This response could include PAFMM sailors destroying the audio/visual equipment of fishermen, arresting fishermen, and Beijing responding with its own social media campaign. But since many of Beijing’s social media campaigns have proven simplistic and often counterproductive, these tactics could backfire against China in terms of regional and global opinion.
Such a social media strategy could be a relatively cheap and simple way for Southeast Asian states facing growing PAFMM use to highlight and contest maritime disputes. Furthermore, it potentially places Beijing in the unenviable position of using disproportionate force against those fishermen who choose to challenge their claim, or do nothing and appear to be weak in response.