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Joe Biden’s first test against China is brewing as regime exploits the ‘grey zone’

When Manila took its case to an international arbitral tribunal at The Hague under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the tribunal found in 2016 that China’s claim had “no basis in law”. China ignored the ruling, seized more territory claimed by more countries and built seven islands on disputed reefs. An American admiral said China was building a “Great Wall of Sand”.

Not so. After manufacturing 1300 hectares of land on the seized reefs, China’s regime actually has built a string of military fortifications on them, equipped with hardened shelters for missiles and missile launchers, radar and communications bases, and runways on which one of its heavy nuclear-capable bombers has conducted demonstration landings. The bases serve to project China’s military power and enforce its further claims to territories also claimed by its neighbours.

And Xi Jinping’s government managed all this without firing a single shot through an unrelenting series of incremental expansions known as “salami slicing”. It uses non-military ships as its vanguard, drawing on fishing fleets, coast guard vessels, maritime administration ships and so on.

They move in overwhelming numbers against neighbours including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines, endlessly pushing and shoving. Often, they’re backed up by Chinese naval vessels, just beyond the horizon where they are out of sight but intimidatingly visible on the radar screens of their rivals.

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China’s strategy has been so successful in the South China Sea that it’s applying it to its border war against India. “Just as China has employed flotillas of coast guard-backed civilian fishing boats for expansionist forays in the South and East China Seas, it has been sending herders and grazers ahead of regular army troops into desolate Himalayan border areas to foment disputes and then assert control,” writes Indian strategist Brahma Chellaney at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research. “Such an approach has enabled it to nibble away at Himalayan territories, one pasture at a time.”

Like covert cyber attacks, like Vladimir Putin’s undeclared invasion of Ukraine by “little green men”, these techniques are called “grey zone” because they don’t fit the binary choice in which the West defines its existence; they are neither peaceful nor warlike in the traditional industrial mode.

They are nonetheless part of what the US diplomat George Kennan once called the “perpetual rhythm of struggle” between nations. And they are hard to deal with.

The Philippines has said it is considering invoking its military treaty with the US. If so, it might come to be Joe Biden’s first serious test against a determined and aggressive China. But if the Philippines or the US were to use military force against the Chinese fleet, it would be accused of an act of war against a civilian target.

McGregor points out one instructive precedent. Indonesia’s former minister for fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, dealt with hundreds of illegal fishing vessels by seizing them and sinking them, either blowing them up or flooding them. “China calls it fishing, Indonesia calls it crime,” said the straight-talking Pudjiastuti. And that was very black and white.

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