In recent years, amid rising tensions in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, concerns are growing over the increased “grey-zone” operations, particularly by China. This has emerged as a major threat to regional peace and stability. China’s increased sensitivity to sovereignty issues, combined with its growing military and paramilitary capabilities, are said to have contributed to the increased number of incidents in the contested waters since the outbreak of COVID-19. Throughout 2021, the action-reaction cycle between China and the other claimants had persisted in the area, making the grey-zone more conflicted than ever. For instance, in March 2021, the Philippines reported that hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels (some of which were believed to have belonged to China’s maritime militia) had swarmed the Whitsun Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands.
Despite the media and policy attention on the “grey-zone” operations in the South China Sea, many questions and issues remain unanswered or insufficiently studied. These include: What exactly is the definition of “grey-zone” operations? What are the common tactics? What kind of actions should be considered “grey-zone” operations? What are the drivers behind the growing “grey-zone” operations by China? How are regional and international actors responding to the risks posed by such operations? What are the legal and geopolitical implications of such risks?
During the workshop titled “Grey-Zone Conflict Strategies in the South China Sea” conducted by the China Programme at RSIS on 1 March 2022, leading experts with diverse backgrounds were invited to offer their insights for a better understanding of the “grey-zone” strategies and counter-strategies adopted by different states. Policy recommendations on how the risks associated with this “grey-zone” can be managed and reduced were also discussed.