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Assessing U.S. Response to China’s Assassin’s Mace and Gray Zone Strategy

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Before the year 2020 ended, America’s naval service — the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, collectively—published a maritime strategy document entitled, “Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power.” The U.S. sea power aims to advance “the prosperity, security, and (the) promise of a free and open, rules-based order.” It specified the “need to begin acting more assertively to push back against gray-zone operations” that China is conducting. Prior to this, the U.S. Office of the Secretary State also released a paper entitled, “The Elements of the China Challenge,” detailing China’s strategy to counter the U.S. military’s technology. This includes the “assassin’s mace capabilities to surprise the adversary from unexpected vectors.” 

The “assassin’s mace” (Chinese: 杀手锏; pinyin: shāshǒujiàn) talks about the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) weapons acquisition plans and tactics. The development of the shāshǒujiàn is an attempt to build a stratagem of the ability of an “inferior defeating the superior.” Gray zone tactics enable China to challenge the existing status quo and rules-based system without employing coercive methods while complicating established thresholds for conventional conflict, making the rules of engagement  unclear.

It has long been noted that China has well-coordinated civilian assets, coast guards, and naval ships effectively employing its “salami-slicing” maritime strategy in the South China Sea. China is ultimately aiming at modernizing national defense and armed forces until 2035 and transforming the PLA in the middle of the 21st century into a world-class military. The reorganization of China’s maritime forces is ongoing. The People’s Armed Police (PAP) that recently added China’s Coast Guard (CCG) to its roster was fully transferred to the Central Military Commission last year. Professor Li Daguang of the National Defense University of the People’s Liberation Army said that “it extends its (PAP) mission to maritime operations and defense combat like the regular army.” This enables the CCG to engage in military operations, training, and exercises. In addition, a new CCG bill is introduced in November 2020. This aims to empower the coast guards to demolish other countries’ structures built on Chinese-claimed reefs and to board and expel foreign vessels.

It has been known that the CCG has also been supporting China’s maritime militia disguised as fishing fleets. These militias are not only known for doing illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, but they also have the roles of gathering information and conducting surveillance, escorting protection missions, assisting in construction and reclaiming sea features, and are trained to assist in actual wartime. Chinese iron-hulled mechanized fishing trawlers have also contributed to mine warfare  with their mine-laying missions. China has made significant efforts to improve its mine warfare prowess along with its submarine capabilities. Moreover, China’s shipbuilding industry is boosting its production of new surface combatants, submarines, aircraft carriers, fighter jets, amphibious assault ships, ballistic nuclear missile submarines, large coast guard cutters, and polar ice breakers.

In the opening of this year, 2021, the Global Times, a China state-run media, reported that the country’s top warship maker had begun construction of a new shipyard in Shanghai due to the high demand for more amphibious warships and frigates for the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea missions. China has also been venturing into next-generation weapon systems for warfare such as electromagnetic weapons. Electromagnetic guns for its navy would improve China’s offensive and defensive capabilities in performing missile and air defense roles, anti-invasion missions, and also attack anti-aircraft missile systems. Retired U.S. Navy Captain James E. Fanell predicts that China will be able to achieve sea dominance in the global maritime commons as early as 2030 and will have the potential to achieve sea supremacy by 2049, especially if left unchallenged.

The U.S. freedom-of-navigation operations in concert with American allies —IndiaJapan, and Australia—in the disputed areas have emerged as the chosen counter-measure to China’s actions in recent years. As the lines of aggression continue to blur in the maritime area, the U.S. new maritime strategy, “Advantage at Sea,” wants to demonstrate an overarching strategy for countering China’s various “salami-slicing” tactics. U.S. Coast Guard deputy for operations, policy, and capabilities, Rear Admiral Pat DeQuattro, mentionedtheir 60 bilateral relationships with several countries, which are planned to be strengthened to enable them to work together under a “common maritime force commander.” The US marines are also looking forward to reinforcing their allies in order to respond promptly when their duties call them to do so.

The strategy document is intended to advance the maritime powers of the United States and its allies by using its law-enforcement authorities and military resources in assertive operations. Its five key areas of effort include advancing global maritime security and governance; strengthening alliances and partnerships; confronting and exposing malign behavior; expanding information and decision advantage; and deploying and sustaining combat credible forces. The strategy also boldly plans for an all-out war while demonstrating its naval and marine forces’ ability to fight, conduct deterrence, and employ missile defense. In a nutshell, the integrated forces will be directed by the following naval service concepts: Distributed Maritime Operations; Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment; and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations. Rear Admiral James Bynum, acting deputy chief of naval operations for warfighting development, recognizesthat while they want to be more assertive, posturing is another important element in making this U.S. maritime services strategy possible.

With all of these U.S. pronouncements, China has just shrugged off U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo’s warmongering and called its actions “lying diplomacy.” Hua Chunying, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, claims that China only pursues a security strategy that is defensive in nature. Chinese scholars see that it is the U.S. that favors instability in the South China Sea so that it can take advantage of it and highlight its strength and presence. They looked down at Pompeo and his team, as the State Department appeard to have completely misunderstood China in its zero-sum mentality. The reports released, particularly “The Elements of China Challenge,” were regarded by China to be rubbish in its attempt “to leave a legacy for the extreme anti-China policy adopted by the Trump administration.”

On the other hand, President Xi sent his congratulatory remarks to President Biden and, according to State Minister Wang Yi, China-U.S. ties are now at a new juncture and a “new window of hope is opening.” The support of the new Biden administration for this tri-service maritime strategy is very much awaited, as it needs to call for global deployment. Biden has exclaimed of “ensuring security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.” Some analysts see that the new U.S.-China foreign policy would still be somehow aligned with the Trump administration, but the degree of it has yet to be seen. President Trump has put U.S. alliances under great strain with his repeated claims that the U.S. has borne a heavy burden on sustaining them and calls for “fair” burden-sharing.

Whether the tables will turn or a subtle change of rhetoric will make a difference is yet to be seen. One thing is more highly likely to happen, and will continue to make progress: The trajectory of current military strategies will remain and will continue to deter their perceived rivals. Competition and deterrence, not cooperation, will continue to surface.

This article was originally posted at https://www.analyzingwar.org and republished in this site with the author’s permission

Ivy Ganadillo is a Ph.D. student of International Relations at Ewha Womans University, South Korea. She is also one of the board of directors of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies, and a lecturer at the Chinese Studies Program of Ateneo De Manila University.

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