In recent years, China has become much more aggressive in its claims in the South China Sea. The Chinese government has long claimed that it has sovereignty over a large part of the South China Sea, using maps drawn by the Kuomintang during the Chinese Civil War to self-legitimize this claim. Even though an international tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has rejected China’s claim to sovereignty, the conflict persists because the Chinese government refuses to respect the ruling. Furthermore, in response to the increasingly assertive rhetoric of the new U.S. administration, Chinese military officials have outwardly stated that a war with the United States is “becoming practical reality.” But, considering how the US consistently spends more than twice than China does on its military, it is less likely that China will try to counter an increased U.S. presence in the region with direct military force. In the same way that Russia invaded Ukraine using “Little Green Men”, it is entirely possible that China could adopt similar hybrid warfare mechanisms in the South China Sea with “Little Blue Men”.
In naval warfare, irregular forces are likely ships disguised as civilian fishing trawlers that give warning signals to non-Chinese ships in Chinese-claimed areas. Like Russia’s Little Green Men, China’s Little Blue Men can have plausible deniability because some of their units are not directly affiliated with the Chinese government, even though it is clear that they are trying to press Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Since the Chinese government is consequently not officially responsible for provocations that these irregular forces might commit, it becomes harder for states within the South China Sea area to hold the Chinese government accountable to the actions of these militias. Considering how the Ukrainian military and NATO have had serious difficulties countering the insurgency in eastern Ukraine precisely because of the irregular nature of the warfare, it is entirely likely that the Chinese will attempt to use similar subversive tactics to make it much more difficult for the United States to counter Chinese hard power in the region.
Even though China has increased its hard power capabilities in the South China Sea, analysts have noted that these gains actually amount to very little in China’s strategic interests. At most, Chinese national prestige is slightly increased, and this comes at the cost of tenser relations with nearby states. More animosity between China and its neighbors endangers its own trade interests (50% of global oil tankers go through the South China Sea, most of which intend to reach China), while also antagonizing the United States. Even though its actions have angered many of the states within the region, China is apparently afraid that losing prestige is a matter worth alienating some of the states it relies on for trade.
Because of China’s illegitimate actions and growing belligerence, the United States will likely have relative ease in gathering support to combat increasing Chinese militarization in the region. But since China will likely increase support for its irregular Little Blue Men forces, the United States needs to focus on its asymmetric naval warfare capabilities. Considering how the USNS Impeccable, after being harassed by Chinese naval vessels, was able to continue patrolling the South China Sea after it was given a destroyer escort, it might be a good idea to increase the U.S. military’s presence in the region. It will certainly add to tensions between the United States and China, but considering how China appears to be pursuing militaristic policies based on offensive realism, it would stand to reason that a show of force is necessary to make China back down. Additionally, calling out these irregular warfare tactics and offering support to states that need it the most ensures that China’s strategy becomes more transparent. This might further deter the usage of these Little Blue Men to enforce Chinese claims in the South China Sea.