Coercion without war? Chinese maritime paramilitary and constabulary activities and the fallacy of the grey zone

Is it possible to sustain maritime coercion without it escalating into outright war? The paper reviews the posture and activities of the Chinese coast guard and maritime militias to address this question. In so doing, it challenges the widespread notion in the literature that Chinese maritime coercion in the East and South China Seas (ESCS) is best described as a grey zone strategy. The ‘grey zone’ notion uncritically assumes that the use of force is designed to remain below the threshold of war. A review of Chinese maritime activities suggests instead that Beijing’s claims to control ‘rights and interests’ are a function of a broader strategic intention to project military power within and beyond the confines of the ESCS, whilst preventing others to do the same. Thus, the ability for coercion to remain beneath there threshold depends on the degree to which other actors are willing to accept the cumulative effects of changes to strategic balance brought about by Chinese paramilitary and constabulary activities. Within this context, Chinese paramilitary and constabulary activities increase long-term strategic competition and with it, the risk of war.

Dr Patalano is Reader in East Asian Warfare and Security at the Department of War Studies (DWS), King’s College London (KCL). He specialises in maritime strategy and doctrine, Japanese military history and strategy, East Asian Security, and Italian defence policy. Dr Patalano is currently visiting professor at the Japan Maritime Command and Staff College (JMCSC). His monograph Post-war Japan as a Seapower: Imperial Legacy, Wartime Experience, and the Making of a Navy (Bloomsbury 2015) received international recognition, is currently used for teaching purposes at the Japanese staff college, and is being translated in Mandarin. Dr Patalano’s current research focuses on the impact of strategic geography on Indo-Pacific security dynamics, and is writing a new study of the Japanese post-war submarine rearmament.

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