Oceans of ink have been spilled on the South China Sea in recent years. I’ve added a bucket or two along the way. So it’s always helpful to gain a fresh angle on a familiar problem. Satisfying, too, if you can get there by re-tracing history.

Toshi Yoshihara of the US Naval War College has written a campaign appraisal of the small-scale sea battle between China and South Vietnam, in 1974, for control of the Paracel islands.

Unfortunately there isn’t space here to recount the details. It’s a tidy piece of scholarship, exploiting the recent bloom in Chinese-language materials, shedding new light on Beijing’s motives for, and conduct of, the operation. China’s takeover of the Paracels is usually skirted over as a footnote by Western writers. Direct sources are hard to access (as often in history, the loser’s side of the story stays untold). And South Vietnam was itself soon overrun in the much bigger drama of 1975.

Beijing’s resort to a ‘mix of conventional and irregular forces to meet its operational objectives’ was, in part, a necessity forced on China by the shoestring resources then available. To Chinese observers, according to Yoshihara, ‘the battle for the Paracels represents yet another example of how an enterprising and determined weaker side can beat the strong’. Yet, had either the weather or Vietnamese tactics been different on the day, the outcome could have turned. A ‘false lesson thus lurks for the Chinese', Yoshira concludes.

Yoshihara notes the remarkable progression from the ‘feeble force structure’ of China’s South Sea Fleet in the 1970s to what is now perhaps the best equipped in the PLA-Navy (PLA-N). Ballistic missile and nuclear attack submarines are currently based in Hainan ‘about which Chinese leaders in 1974 could have only dreamed’.

Given China’s transformation from brown to blue water navy, Yoshihara’s key contention is therefore worth reflecting on:

Beijing’s combined employment of military and civilian vessels in 1974 suggests a durable operational preference for hybrid warfare that is evident today in territorial disputes involving China.

That insight evokes a Chinese maritime way of war that embraces the legacy of People’s War, under Mao, which ‘helped hone the kinds of doctrine, personnel, command-and-control, and administrative structures well suited to combining conventional and irregular means’. Yoshihara speculates further that ‘Such creative uses of civilian and militia personnel date back centuries; there may be more continuity to current Chinese strategy in offshore disputes than is commonly acknowledged’.

He therefore sees clear parallels between Beijing’s modus operandi in the Paracels, circa 1974, and the 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident:

Chinese fishing boats triggered both crises by engaging in activities that, at least in the eyes of rival claimants, were illicit or provocative. Militia-crewed boats in 1974 and paramilitary ships in 2012 acted as China’s first line of defense, helping to probe the intentions and capabilities of their opponents while asserting Beijing’s claims. The noncombatant vessels enjoyed the protection of the PLA-N even as they served as the eyes and ears of the Chinese navy.

Another enduring lesson from 1974 was China’s strict insistence that its forces refrain from firing the first shot. That was ‘obligingly’ done by South Vietnam’s navy, allowing China to present its takeover as ‘the counter-attack in self-defence’. Yoshihara discerns that, in 2012, the Philippines at least did not repeat South Vietnam’s error in opening fire. Nonetheless, it was the arrest of Chinese fishermen at Scarborough Shoal by a Philippine Navy warship that provided the trigger for China’s maritime law enforcement (MLE) vessels to move in and gain effective control over the disputed feature.

On this point Yoshihara observes:

The civilian character of the Chinese vessels constrained their rivals’ navies. The South Vietnamese and Philippine navies were apparently loath to fire directly on lightly armed or unarmed civilian vessels, lest they risk major escalation or diplomatic fallout.

He argues naval modernisation has not altered China's long-held preference for assigning maritime civilian assets to the frontline tasks of sovereignty enforcement and rights protection in the South and East China Seas. This has successfully managed the risks from Beijing’s strategically assertive approach. If anything, the much-more powerful PLA-N of 2016 has less cause to joust directly with rival maritime sovereignty claimants, unless they take the bait by firing first on China’s MLE vessels and aircraft.

Yoshihara’s essay is also timely. China’s multi-tiered ‘cabbage strategy’, composed of outlying fishing vessels, backed up by nearby maritime law enforcement and naval forces on, or over, the horizon is prompting alarm in Indonesia and Malaysia, that find themselves on the receiving end of what resembles a maritime insurgency.

Yoshihara, I should clarify, does not go that far. Mao’s revolutionary maxim only called for the guerilla to swim, figuratively, like a fish in the sea. The South China Sea has no population and not much terra firma — although China is working on that.

To my mind, other ‘revolutionary’ warfare parallels can be argued. These could include: the strategic objective of contesting for control and legitimacy; the salience of psychological and morale factors; the relative quality of control over maritime ‘territory'; and the blending of irregular and conventional military tactics. Time, moreover, is most often on the insurgents’ side.

The insurgency parallel may not be welcome in the US, as counter-insurgency is not something that the West generally does well. Nor does it fit naturally within the maritime doctrinal toolkit. There may be something in the comparison for Southeast Asians, however. Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines have a great deal of combined experience in both insurgency and counter-insurgency; experience that far outweighs their naval and maritime strategic traditions. There could be indirect lessons to draw from, especially on the breadth and depth of effort required to counter China’s challenge.

As for contemporary China, perhaps a ‘hybrid’ approach in the South China Sea, with People’s War characteristics, is peculiarly suited to President Xi Jinping, given his personal attachment to revivalist political narratives, to China’s maritime strategy, and his own brand of command and control.

I don’t claim special insight into China’s inner political workings, but it stands to reason that a multi-agency, multi-vector approach is one way to ensure Party supremacy in the coordination and setting of strategy on maritime 'core concerns'. The PLA remains fundamentally a Party army, subordinate to Party control. Yet, in terms of managing his own position, I would be surprised if Xi didn’t see some tactical value in the ‘cabbage strategy’ as a check and balance on the military’s autonomy in the maritime domain.

Whatever the truth of that, Toshi Yoshihara’s essay reminds us that history can be a good guide to the future.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Nicolas Lannuzel