PRC Gray Zone Operations in the South China Sea

The speaker has provided some recommended reading – please see for links.

A component of the People’s Armed Forces (PAF), China’s Maritime Militia is a state-organized, -developed, and -controlled force operating under a direct military chain of command to conduct state-sponsored activities. Third among China’s sea forces after the Navy and Coast Guard, the PAF Maritime Militia (PAFMM) is locally supported, but answers to the very top of China’s military bureaucracy: Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping himself. China employs the PAFMM in gray zone operations, or “low-intensity maritime rights protection struggles,” at a level designed to frustrate effective response by the other parties involved. China has used it to advance its disputed sovereignty claims in international sea incidents, particularly in the South China Sea. Publicly-documented examples include China’s 1974 seizure of the Western Paracel Islands from Vietnam; involvement in the occupation and development of Mischief Reef resulting in a 1995 incident with the Philippines; harassment of various Vietnamese government/survey vessels, including the Bin Minh and Viking; harassment of USNS Impeccable (2009); participation in the 2012 seizure of Scarborough Reef from the Philippines and 2014 blockade of Second Thomas Shoal; 2014 repulsion of Vietnamese vessels from disputed waters surrounding CNOOC’s HYSY-981 oil rig; layered “cabbage-style” envelopment of the Philippines-claimed Sandy Cay shoal near Thitu Island; and most recently in ongoing operations in Union Banks, including Whitsun Reef. This Maritime Power Seminar will explain the nature and significance of China’s third sea force before suggesting broader implications and offering policy recommendations.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in the U.S. Naval War College (NWC)’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI). A core founding member, he helped establish CMSI and stand it up officially in 2006, and has played an integral role in its development. CMSI inspired the creation of other research centers, which he has advised and supported; he is a China Aerospace Studies Institute Associate. Erickson is currently a Visiting Scholar in full-time residence at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, where he has been an Associate in Research since 2008. He runs the research website <>;.