MANILA, Philippines-China is currently at war in what the former Philippine military chief called the "gray zone" where fighting continues without weapons but with information, investments and other tactics to achieve its strategic objectives in the Philippines.
Emmanuel Bautista, head of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) during the reign of former President Benigno Aquino III, warned that China was currently employing "grey zone" tactics to gain a foothold in Philippine territory that could be used to fully control the waters in dispute.
According to Bautista, the Philippines "is affected not only militarily, but also in other ways, by what we call the 'gray zone' strategy.
The gray zone," Bautista said in an online forum organized by the National Youth Movement for the Western Philippine Sea, "is the period between peace and war, in which not only military but also economic means, information and other instruments of national power are used, not necessarily of a kinetic military nature.
These tactics do not cross the threshold of escalation and are calibrated to achieve military objectives without starting an ordinary war.
One example is the deployment of Chinese maritime militias around the Philippines' disputed facilities in the Western Philippine Sea and the rest of the South China Sea. But Bautista, who is also the former executive director of the National Task Force "Western Philippine Sea," said the "gray zone" tactic involves other means.
"Even as we speak, the war is in the gray zone. In information and propaganda, the economy and other areas," he said.
He urged the Philippine government to beware of China's non-military actions because of their security implications.
"Much is happening in the context of the gray zone war, not only the influx of foreigners but also investments in strategic assets and strategic industries and other economic means," Bautista said.
Several senators recently expressed concern about the influx of at least 28,000 Chinese citizens into the Philippines who have been allowed to enter as pensioners. Their average age is 35.
According to Bautista, China is also involved in other efforts to gain access to the Philippines.
He pointed to a plan by a Chinese leasing company to lease Fuga Island in the northernmost region of the Philippines near Taiwan, a country that China simply calls its province and refuses to recognize as an independent state.
Bautista also referred to a plan to build an international airport in Sengli, Cavit Province, on land used by the Philippine Navy as a base. While the project was initiated by the provincial government, it would involve a Chinese construction company, a Chinese state-owned company blacklisted by the World Bank for corruption and violations.
Fuga Island, which gives access to the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea, attracted public attention in 2019 when Chinese investors, in response to an investment tour during a visit by Philippine President Rodrigo Dutert to China, expressed interest in turning it into a $2 billion smart city. The deal stalled after the Philippine Navy expressed fears that it could jeopardize Philippine national security.
The China-supported Sengli Airport project also raised fears that it would change the Philippine Navy's base.
"We need Chinese investment in infrastructure and in our economy. But we cannot jeopardize national security," said Bautista.
"We need a national policy to control strategic industries, protect strategic assets and guard against the massive influx of foreign nationals from a country, whether it be China or other countries," he said in an online forum.
Bautista said the Philippines' strategic location, which gives it access to the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, makes it a "key territory" for predicting power in the context of growing U.S.-China rivalry.
It has identified the Bashi, Batan and Babuyana Straits, as well as the Mindoro, Cebu, Balabak, San Bernardino and Surigao Straits, as critical points in military operations.
"If you want to influence the South China Sea, you must control these parts of the Philippine archipelago," Bautista said.
Because of its strategic position, the Philippines would be drawn into the US-China conflict, even if it declares itself neutral.
"The conflict between the US and China will inevitably affect the Philippines. It should be noted that the Philippines has a mutual defense treaty with the U.S. and that it remains in force," Bautista said.
But it is also... The Philippines is a key territory, whether we are allies or not," Bautista said. The fact that the Philippines is a key territory will inevitably attract us," he said.
Even if China said it would not launch an attack or a war, Bautista said Beijing is likely to "take control" of the Philippines, "assuming that it gets out of control and leads to a war against shooting because the Philippines is a key terrain.