China has been changing the geopolitical landscape of the South China Sea (SCS) through its “gray zone” strategy – a gradualist, revisionist, and unconventional approach to altering the regional and international order in accordance with Chinese national interests. Usually, a “gray zone” campaign is composed of aggressive and hostile activities that lie below the threshold of war, thereby constraining resort to a stronger response from strategic actors.1 Using a different perspective, an omnidirectional approach using all instruments of national power can be gleaned from China’s campaign in the SCS. This strategic design follows the principles of “unrestricted warfare” and uses “all means, including armed force or nonarmed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one's interests”.2

In employing this ambiguous but insidious strategic approach, China intends not only to exercise strategic influence over a key geostrategic location in Asia, but eventually to attain strategic control of the entire SCS. For one, the SCS is a major international maritime trade route that connects the Indian and Western Pacific oceans.3 More than its economic impact, however, it is critical for China to gain a strong foothold in the SCS in order to strengthen its strategic defense posture in the First Island Chain that runs from Japan through Taiwan to the Philippines.4 Besides its geostrategic significance, China’s concept of “tian xia” or “all under heaven” is driving Chinese elites to avenge their century-long humiliation or “xuechi” by recovering “lost territories” of the old “Middle Kingdom”, which includes the SCS.5

China’s Gray Zone Strategies

China’s gray zone designs in the SCS give primacy to indirect methods and non-kinetic means. It employs the “Three Warfares”, consisting of psychological warfare, public opinion warfare, and legal warfare, to shape domestic and international public opinion.6 On the other hand, the Chinese maritime militia and China Coast Guard are effectively utilized to intimidate Filipino troops and fishermen through its “cabbage strategy” in Scarborough Shoal,7 and its “swarming tactics” in Philippine-controlled features in the Spratlys Islands.8 Further, a long-term strategic positioning approach based on the concept of the “Game of Go”9 is also used, as evidenced by China’s artificial islands in the Spratlys and its semi-permanent presence in other key areas of the SCS.

What is disturbing, however, is the emerging gray zone phenomenon following the “Game of Go” strategy in mainland Philippines. Using its strong economic and political influence coupled with its adeptness in covert intelligence operations, China’s strategic footprints can be gleaned from the increasing number of Chinese business interests near key Philippine maritime chokepoints and military bases as well as in critical sectors and industries, like the national power grid, telecommunications, tourism, offshore gaming operations, among others.



Figure 1. A “Game of Go” Strategy in the South China Sea and mainland Philippines. Adapted from the author’s presentation during the 149th Maritime Forum at the National Defense College of the Philippines, 20 September 2019.

Implications on Philippine Security

These Chinese gray zone designs, both in the SCS and in the Philippine mainland, are directly threatening the country’s core national interests, particularly related to its sovereignty and territorial integrity, sustainable economic growth, ecological balance, and public safety. The clear manifestations of these threats are China’s de facto control of key areas in the SCS, the intimidation of Filipino troops and fishermen in said areas, the observed Chinese footprints in strategic locations like in Fuga Island in northern Luzon and in Puerto Princesa in Palawan, and the growing involvement of Chinese nationals in illegal activities like poaching, illegal mining, wildlife trafficking, human trafficking, etc.

Unfortunately, the Philippine government has not been adequately addressing these national security threats due to four factors. First, relevant government agencies concerned with national security do not have a clear understanding of the grand design of the Chinese gray zone campaign, thus failing to underscore its adverse impacts. Consequently, there is no cohesive national strategy against China’s gray zone designs; hence the lack of unity of effort of government instrumentalities, both at the national and local levels. Third, the government is unable and unwilling to optimize the country’s diplomatic and legal strengths given the favorable Arbitral Ruling in 2016. Fourth, the weak capabilities of the Philippine Coast Guard and the Armed Forces of the Philippines to effectively conduct maritime law enforcement and maritime security operations in Philippine-claimed areas in the SCS exacerbate the inadequacies of the Philippine maritime governance framework.

Recommended Strategic Approaches

Overall, China’s global desires could not be separated from its intentions in the SCS and the Philippines – both geostrategic terrains that influence the realization of its Chinese Dream. Thus, through its gray zone strategies, China is effectively employing all instruments of national power to achieve its political, economic and military objectives not only in the SCS, but in the Philippine mainland as well. However, due to its colossal political, economic, and military strengths and its close proximity to the country, it is not to the best interest of the Philippines to stand toe-to-toe or balance against China. It is also not a very good option to bandwagon and be subservient to China’s wishes. The political, military, and economic risks of such options are just too high.

Nevertheless, the core national security interests of the Philippines demand that the state should adopt a unified, balanced, and nuanced strategic framework that would effectively curb the potency and negate the adverse national security impacts of China’s aggressive and dubious campaign in the SCS and in the Philippine mainland. Towards this end, a three-pronged whole-of-government (WOG) and whole-of-nation (WON) approach is proposed to address the national security impacts of China’s gray zone strategies, while managing Philippines-China Relations, namely: a hedging strategy, a maritime governance strategy, and a homeland security strategy.

Firstly, at the systemic level, a hedging strategy for the Philippines is proposed. In the realm of international politics, hedging is defined as an alternative alignment behavior “in which a country seeks to offset risks by pursuing multiple policy options that are intended to produce mutually counteracting effects, under the situation of high-uncertainties and high-stakes”.10 In this regard, the intent of the Philippine hedging strategy is to minimize the political, military, and economic risks of China’s aggressive actions in the SCS while maximizing the economic and diplomatic benefits of its increased engagements in the country and the region. Primacy should be given to the use of the diplomatic, legal, informational, and economic instruments of national power, supported by the law enforcement, and military instruments. Towards this end, Kuik’s five hedging options are adopted to comprise the five lines of efforts (LOE), namely: “Indirect Balancing”, “Dominance Denial”, “Economic Diversification”, “Binding Engagement”, and “Limited Bandwagoning” (Kuik 2008).11

Secondly, at the state level, a WPS maritime governance strategy is purposely recommended to negate the adverse national security effects of China’s gray zone strategies. In this light, the overarching goals are to strengthen the WON/WOG approach in addressing China’s gray zone security challenges and establish a robust maritime governance framework that would synchronize and integrate efforts of all concerned national government agencies (NGA), national law enforcement agencies (NLEA), and local government units (LGU) relative to the conduct of maritime law enforcement (MARLEN), maritime security (MARSEC), maritime economic activities, marine scientific research, and other law enforcement and intelligence operations. Further, these goals are achieved through the effective and combined employment of the law enforcement, legal, political, informational, and economic instruments of national power supported by the intelligence, diplomatic, technological, and military instruments. Furthermore, this maritime governance strategy is composed of five strategic approaches or LOEs, to wit: MARLEN, MARSEC, Marine Economic Exploration and Exploitation, Ecological Balance and Sustainable Development, and Homeland Security and Defense.

Thirdly, at the sub-unit or local government unit (LGU) level, particularly in the province of Palawan, a homeland security strategy is put forward. With its proximity to the Kalayaan Island Group and the resource-rich areas of the WPS that is within its provincial jurisdiction, Palawan could be considered as a “special-interest” region because of its wide-reaching impact on the country’s security and economy. Thus, there is a need to enhance the unity of effort and strengthen coordination among relevant NGAs, LGUs, and NLEAs at the local level to implement national security policies and enforce all domestic laws within its jurisdiction. The “Homeland Security Strategy for Palawan” follows the five LOEs of the maritime governance strategy, but places priority on Homeland Defense and Security. A key component of this strategy is the establishment of a “Homeland Security Council for Palawan” (HSCP), under the supervision of the President, through the National Security Adviser. The HSCP would be an interagency and multi-stakeholder entity that would promote the WON/WOG approach to implementing the homeland defense and maritime governance framework in Palawan. A good benchmark for the HSCP is the existing Palawan Council for Sustainable Development created under the “Strategic Environment Plan for Palawan Act”.12

In sum, the adverse security implications of China’s strategic ambiguities and its employment of gray zone strategies could not be taken for granted. In view of the existential threats, a holistic and nuanced three-pronged strategy is prescribed. However, for these strategic approaches to be effective against China’s gray zone campaign, it is imperative that the government places primacy not on the military means but on the other instruments of national power, particularly the diplomatic, legal, law enforcement, informational, and economic instruments.


End Notes:

1Michael J. Mazarr, Mastering the Gray zone: Understanding a Changing Era of Conflict (Carlisle, PA: US Army War College Press, 2015), 1-4.

2Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare, trans. FBIS (Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, 1999), 7.

3Robert D. Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (New York: Random House, 2014), e-book.

4Steven F. Jackson, “Does China Have a Monroe Doctrine? Evidence for Regional Exclusion”, Strategic Studies Quarterly 10, no. 4, (Winter: 2016), 78-79.

5Howard W. French, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), e-book. China’s historical sovereignty claims in the SCS was further discussed by Wu Shicun in Solving Disputes for Regional Cooperation and Development in the South China Sea: A Chinese Perspective (Oxford: Chandos Publishing, 2013), pp.38-39.

6Sangkuk Lee, “China’s ‘Three Warfares’: Origins, Applications, and Organizations”, The Journal of Strategic Studies 37, no.2 (2014), 199-205.

7Chinese Major General Zhang Zhaozhong, in a television interview, first disclosed this strategy of wrapping the BDM “layer by layer like cabbage” in order to “seal and control” the lagoon and the areas around it. Craig Hill, “China boasts of strategy to ‘recover’ islands occupied by Philippines”,, (May 28, 2013).

8Based on reports by the Western Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

9According to David Lai, in his monograph, “Learning from the Stones: A Go Approach to Mastering China’s Strategic Concept, Shi”, the game of “Go” or “weiqi” is a Chinese board game that offers a way to understand Chinese strategic thinking. Its Chinese name “weiqi” literally means “encircling territory, an essential component of a nation state.”

10Kuik Cheng-Chwee, “The Essence of Hedging: Malaysia and Singapore’s Response to a Rising China”, Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 30, no.2, (August, 2008), 163.

11Kuik, “The Essence of Hedging”, 165-169.

12Republic Act No. 7611, 1992.

COL Rommel Cordova PA (MNSA)


Colonel Rommel R. Cordova PA (MNSA) is currently the Chief of the Office of the International Military Affairs of the Philippine Army. His research interests include security studies, strategy development and management, and leadership and organizational development. His recent thesis, a requirement for his Master in National Security Administration program at the National Defense College of the Philippines, entitled: “Understanding China’s Gray Zone Strategy in the South China Sea: Defining Strategic Approaches for the Philippines” was adjudged the Best Thesis.