China now waging ‘gray zone’ war to enforce claim of South China Sea through PH, says ex-AFP chief
MANILA, Philippines—China is now waging a war in what a former Philippine military chief said was a “gray zone” where the fighting goes on without guns but with information, investments, and other tactics to pursue its strategic objectives in the Philippines.
Emmanuel Bautista, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief during the administration of former President Benigno Aquino III, warned that China is now employing gray zone tactics to establish a foothold in Philippine territory that can be used to fully control the disputed waters.
The Philippines, Bautista said, is “being affected not just militarily but in other aspects in what we call the gray zone strategy.”
Gray zone, Bautista said at an online forum hosted by the National Youth Movement for the West Philippine Sea, is “the period between peacetime and wartime where you employ not just military means but also economic, information and other instruments of national power, not necessarily kinetic military in nature.”
These tactics don’t breach the threshold of escalation and are calibrated to achieve military objectives without starting a conventional warfare.
China’s deployment of maritime militia around Philippine-claimed features in the West Philippine Sea and the rest of the South China Sea is an example. But Bautista, who is also former executive director of National Task Force West Philippine Sea, said gray zone tactics involved other means.
“Even as we speak, war is being fought in the gray zone. In information and propaganda realm, economic and other areas,” he said.
He urged the Philippine government to be wary of Chinese nonmilitary actions because of their security implications.
“Many things are happening in the context of gray zone warfare, not just the influx of foreign nationals but also investments in strategic assets and strategic industries, and other economic means,” Bautista said.
Several senators have recently raised security concerns over the influx into the Philippines of at least 28,000 Chinese nationals who had been allowed entry as retirees. Their average age is 35 years old.
Bautista said China is also engaged in other activities aimed at gaining access to the Philippines.
He pointed to a plan by a Chinese company to lease Fuga Island in the Philippines’ northernmost area near Taiwan, a country that China is claiming to be just its province and is refusing to recognize as an independent state.
Bautista also cited the plan to build an international airport in Sangley in Cavite province on land being used by the Philippine Navy as a base. Though a project initiated by the provincial government, it would involve a Chinese construction firm that is a Chinese state company that had been blacklisted by the World Bank for corruption and irregularities.
Fuga Island, which provides access to the Pacific Ocean and South China Sea, drew public attention in 2019 when Chinese investors, responding to an investment road show during one of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to China, showed interest in converting it into a $2-billion “smart city.” The deal stalled after the Philippine Navy raised concern it could compromise Philippine national security.
The China-backed Sangley airport project also drew concerns because it would displace a Philippine Navy base.
“We need Chinese investments for infrastructure and for our economy. But we cannot compromise national security,” Bautista said.
“We need to have national policies on the control of strategic industries, safeguarding strategic assets and also safeguarding against the massive influx of foreign nationalities of a single nation whether it’s China or others,” he said at the online forum.
The Philippines’ strategic location, which gives it access to the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean, makes it a “key terrain” for power projection amid a deepening US-China rivalry, according to Bautista.
He identified the Bashi Channel, Batanes and Babuyan islands, and the straits of Mindoro, Cebu, Balabac, San Bernardino and Surigao as critical chokepoints in military operations.
“If you want to influence the South China Sea, you need to control these chokepoints in the Philippine archipelago,” Bautista said.
The Philippines, because of its strategic location, would be dragged into a US-China conflict even if it declared to be neutral.
“A US-China confrontation will inevitably involve the Philippines. Note that the Philippines has a Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States, and that is still in effect,” Bautista said.
“But also…the Philippines is a key terrain, whether we are an ally or not of either side. The fact that the Philippines is a key terrain will inevitably involve us,” he said.
Even if China had said it would not initiate an attack or war, Bautista said Beijing was likely to “take control” of the Philippines “assuming it gets out of hand and result in a shooting war because the Philippines is a key terrain.”