Philippines should not fall for China’s ‘grey zone trap’: Maritime security scholar

The “gray zone” tactics refer to that area in which countries are in conflict but stop short of using military force to gain their objectives.

John Eric Mendoza

John Eric Mendoza

Philippine Daily Inquirer


Coast Guard Commodore Jay Tarriela was among the speakers at the forum organized by the Stratbase ADR Institute on Wednesday, March 8, 2023, at the New World Makati Hotel.

March 9, 2023

MANILA, Philippines — “We cannot allow ourselves to fall again into the gray zone trap of China to paint the Philippines’ image as a warmongering nation.”

Coast Guard Commodore Jay Tarriela made the warning during a hybrid forum organized by the Stratbase ADR Institute and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Philippines on Wednesday. The forum is called “Countering Gray Zone Operations in the Maritime Indo-Pacific.”

Though Tarriela is the Philippine Coast Guard spokesperson on the West Philippine Sea, he made it clear that made that remark only in his capacity as a maritime security scholar.

In international relations, the “gray zone” tactics refer to that area between peace and war in which countries are in conflict with each other but stop short of using military force to gain their objectives.

Tarriela made the remark as he laid several policy recommendations to counter China’s gray zone tactics in the West Philippine Sea.

“The current approach, for now, is to tap our white ships. The strategy is in accordance with the regional norms so that we can de-escalate the tension among other claimant states and at the same time does not provoke other countries,” he said.

To do this effectively, Tarriela said the national government should support the modernization of the PCG by giving them more offshore patrol vessels.

“White ships” commonly refer to a country’s coast guard vessels, in contrast to “gray ships” which refer to military vessels.

In the meantime, however, Tarriela suggested another tack: “I’d like to emphasize that the best way to address Chinese gray zone activities in the West Philippine Sea is to expose it. Let us not allow ourselves to suffer silently because of their harassment and hostile actions.”

Sweeping claims

China’s actions at sea are anchored on its sweeping claims over the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea.

In 2013, under the administration of then President Benigno S. Aquino III, the Philippines challenged China’s claims before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague.

In July 2016, the court ruled in favor of the Philippines, thus invalidating China’s nine-dash line claim that covers more than 80 percent of the entire South China Sea— including the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

The PCA ruled that China’s nine-dash line claim had no basis in international law and that it had violated the Philippines’ sovereign right to fish and explore resources in the West Philippine Sea, which is within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone.

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