Responding to gray zone operations with real transparency, public engagement, and all-out cooperation

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

When one state sends dozens of vessels into another country’s territory or points a military-grade laser at the other country’s coast guard, these are definitely not acts of peace. Still, they fall below the threshold of what would be deemed acts of war. They are, instead, within the realm of the gray zone.

The grayness is exactly why responding to these actions is complex and tricky. How does a state, which itself has professed to abide by a rules-based international order, calibrate an appropriate, commensurate, and effective response to such actions?

Indeed, gray zone operations have continued to elevate risks in the region due to their ambiguity and ability to circumvent international law. Specifically, China’s activities within Philippine territory, driven by its expansionist ambitions and militarization, have created much concern.

To expound on this complex issue, we at the Stratbase ADR Institute, in pursuit of our advocacy for the Philippines’ defense of its territorial and sovereign rights, recently organized a forum — “Countering Gray Zone Operations in the Maritime Indo-Pacific” — in partnership with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

Her Excellency Ambassador Anke Reiffenstuel of the Federal Republic of Germany delivered the keynote address and talked about the all-encompassing nature of security policy. “Security policy is more than military plus diplomacy. If investments in infrastructure, trade policy, and climate change form part of our security, then this means that decisions on security are not taken just in the Foreign Office or the Defense Ministry but [also] in business, in municipalities, in civil society, and university. What it needs is a comprehensive approach,” she said.

Aside from increasing and promoting economic engagement with other countries and regions, there is a need to counter propaganda and disinformation. “These are aimed at shaping public opinion and undermining regional stability,” she said. “Countering these efforts through accurate and timely information can help reduce the effectiveness of gray zone operations.”

According to Dr. Daniel Schmücking of Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Southeast Asia is becoming the new battleground for strategic competition. “The world is shifting. It is important to call out oppressors. With a big power rising, it is important that we all learn from each other how to deal with that and cooperate with each other.”

“The best way to address Chinese gray zone activities is to expose them,” said Commodore Jay Tarriela, Adviser to the Commandant for Maritime Security and Spokesperson for the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG). “Let us not allow ourselves to suffer silently because of their hostile actions,” he said.

The PCG’s recent roles have been to remove shades of gray, expose the black and white or what China is really doing, and create public and global awareness about what is happening in the West Philippine Sea.

Retired Air Force Col. Raymond Powell of the Gordian Knot Center for Security Innovation, through his team’s project, Project Myoushu, showed how technology can be an ally in exposing gray zone activities that would not otherwise be known by the public.

“By bringing those things into the light, it builds support from the public, so the governments can make the hard decisions, and also over the long term, this should deter those activities. When China knows that the activities that it makes or whether the activities that it does in the West Philippine Sea will end up on the news, that is going to make them think twice.”

Our institute’s Trustee and Program Director, Dr. Renato de Castro, said we should show greater political will and not allow ourselves to always be the victim. We should leverage the value of alliances, he said, because these can create a sharp collective deterrent by undermining the other’s sense of initiative.

Dr. Charmain Willoughby, Associate Professor at De La Salle University, says we should call gray zone operations what they really are: China’s use of coercion to establish a reputation for resolve. “We need to demystify it. We should call a spade a spade.”

She believes transparency is important in drawing attention to China’s coercive activities as they happen. A good security strategy for the Philippines should also highlight deterrence capabilities through armed forces modernization and partnerships with like-minded countries, and a whole of government approach for clear and consistent messaging of our national interest.

Retired Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong, Professor of Praxis at the Ateneo School of Government, was emphatic: “We need to stop talking about gray zones,” he said. “We need to start acting on it.” He supports countering gray zone operations with a holistic approach backed by the population of ASEAN nations to thwart China’s alliance-breaking strategy.

The Philippines and other Indo-Pacific states must engage in strategies that will ultimately change China’s behavior to be in-line with the internationally established rules-based order. States must strengthen cooperation in bilateral, multilateral, and minilateral means. Acts of coercion will only create distrust and upset the sensitively interlinked global ecosystem which already burdened by the economic shocks of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

For years, the previous administration foisted upon our people the false dichotomy of keeping quiet and not asserting our rights on one hand and going into a full-blown war on the other. Former President Rodrigo Duterte even set aside our legal victory at the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Today, many Filipinos are aware of what is happening in the West Philippine Sea. Eighty percent of Filipinos agree that the military capability of the Philippine Navy must be strengthened and that joint maritime patrols and military exercises with allied countries should be conducted. Once reserved for military and diplomatic communities, discourses on national security and foreign policy exposing China’s acts are now made available to the public, and rightly so.

We live in a democracy, and the public needs to be engaged in these high-stakes issues so that our leaders would have the political support to act as they should. The Institute is hopeful that the current administration will continue to reinforce cooperation with like-minded states in defense of the rules-based order. We Filipinos deserve no less.

This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.

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