US Finally Stands Up to China’s ‘Cabbage Strategy’

April 29, 2019 Updated: April 29, 2019

News Analysis

The United States has finally put its foot down, facing the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) use of open deception to seize control of the South China Sea. The head of the U.S. Navy has allegedly told the CCP that hostile actions from its coast guard and fishing boats will be seen as no different than hostile actions of the Chinese navy.

Admiral John Richardson, head of the U.S. Navy, allegedly alerted his Chinese counterpart, vice-admiral Shen Jinlong, of the new standard in January.

“I made it very clear that the US navy will not be coerced and will continue to conduct routine and lawful operations around the world, in order to protect the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of sea and airspace guaranteed to all,” Adm. Richardson told the Financial Times.

To make a long story short, the CCP uses its fishing boats and coast guard ships as key pieces in its military strategy, designed to seize control of the South China Sea and nearby regions. The fishing ships even train alongside the Chinese navy.

Rather than just send in military ships, it started by sending in large numbers of fishing ships to contest the territory, then Coast Guard ships to “protect” them, then military warships, then it builds artificial islands to base the warships. These islands then become Chinese territory, used to expand the CCP’s borders and to declare ownership of the strategically important region.

The CCP has been open about this strategy, which CCP officials call the “cabbage strategy” designed to wrap areas up layer by layer until the CCP can seize control of it. The militarized fishing boats and coast guard ships are known as the CCP’s “maritime militia.”

Despite the fact that the strategy is openly discussed—and well understood in the West—the CCP has been able to carry it out due to loopholes in rules of engagement. By simply labeling ships used in military operations as fishing boats, or by painting warships as coast guard ships, the CCP has been able to manipulate international standards on engagement, and has prevented a harsher response from surrounding countries as it carries out its land-grab.

The fishing ships, meanwhile, have been extremely aggressive with foreign vessels, including Japanese and Philippine ships. This aggression allows them to chase out foreign presence so the CCP can operate uninhibited, as it gains control over the strategically important region.

The Japanese coast guard released a video in August 2016, showing 200 to 300 Chinese government and fishing boats, accompanied by Chinese coast guard ships, intruding on Japanese territory near the Senkaku islands. The CCP claims the islands are its historical territory.

A Plot in Broad Daylight

The South China Sea is a strategically important region. In addition to holding valuable undersea minerals, oil, and natural gas, it’s also a trade chokepoint for up to 40 percent of the world’s shipping.

Historically, whoever controls international trade chokepoints also has sway over trade—controlling shipments of oil and close to 90 percent of global trade. As part of the CCP’s push to replace the Pax Americana with the Pax Sinica, controlling these chokepoints is strategically important—and its because of this that the CCP has naval programs on every major trade chokepoint.

Yet, for the CCP, the strategy in the South China Sea goes further than just control of the shipping channels. It’s also part of the CCP’s area-denial, anti-access (A2/AD) strategy. After the CCP gains control of the region, and constructs its artificial islands, it uses this control to deny other nations access to the territory.

The defense community has warned from the get-go that the CCP was working on a three-part plan in its A2/AD strategy. The first part was to construct the islands and seize the territory, the second was to build facilities and military capabilities on the islands, and the third is to act on its threats to attack foreign military ships and jets passing through without CCP approval.

CCP military officials have been open with this. In February 2016, South China Morning Post published a story titled, “China’s military is prepared ‘to defend sovereignty’ in the South China Sea.”

In 2013, the CCP announced its cabbage strategy, and its program to weaponize Chinese fishing boats. Its then-Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong said on Chinese television the CCP would begin by sending in fishing boats, then maritime surveillance ships, then warships to seize territory one layer at a time.

“The island is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage … a cabbage strategy has taken shape,” Zhang said, adding “For many things, we have to grab the right timing to do them.”

To militarize its fishing ships, in 2013 the CCP financed more than 50,000 fishing boats to install its Beidou satellite system (BDS) replacement for GPS, which the ships use to coordinate their operations with the military. Qi Chengye, a manager at BDStar Navigation, told the CCP’s Xinhua news outlet, at the time, “The government pays for most of the cost of the client terminals, and gives fishermen diesel subsidies according to the distance and frequency of their vessels heading out to sea.”

These operations quickly followed the CCP’s declaration of a no-fly zone over Japanese territory in the East China Sea on Nov. 23, 2013, which launched the operation.

A Strategy for Deception

Behind the CCP military operations is its Three Warfares strategy of legal warfare, psychological warfare, and media warfare. It was approved for military use by the CCP’s Central Military Commission in 2003.

Legal warfare works through manipulating national and international law for strategic use, psychological warfare aims to alter the way a target perceives information, and media warfare aims to control and influence the public release of information.

In the South China Sea, the CCP used legal warfare to make legal claims to the region. It eventually lost the legal battle, but then ignored the adverse ruling. It used psychological warfare to make public claims of “historical ownership” of the region. Then it used media warfare to rally domestic media and influence foreign media to spread its talking points.

The Office of Net Assessment, a Pentagon think tank, described the Three Warfares in a May 2013 report as a “war-fighting process that constitutes war by other means,” and that uses deception as a way to “alter the strategic environment in a way that renders kinetic engagement irrational.”

The Three Warfares program plays on a CCP slogan for subversion, to “strangle you with your own systems.”

The concept is simple: if a country offers protections for a free press, for example, they will create news outlets on your soil to attack you; if you say you believe in free speech, they will send agents to criticize you; if you don’t attack civilian ships, they will use civilian fishing boats for military operations, and so on. There are groups in China that study the laws and systems of each targeted country, and develop strategies to exploit these.

And these programs tie to the broader concept of the CCP’s overall warfighting concept, designed to first look at what the goal of war would be, then to strategize how it could be achieved using means outside conventional military conflict. This is the basis of its numerous unconventional strategies, including its “Unrestricted Warfare” programs for a war without morals, its Three Warfares strategy of deception, and its cabbage strategy of layered conquest.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Joshua Philipp
Joshua Philipp
Joshua Philipp is an award-winning investigative reporter with The Epoch Times and host of EpochTV's "Crossroads" program. He is a recognized expert on unrestricted warfare, asymmetrical hybrid warfare, subversion, and historical perspectives on today’s issues. His 10-plus years of research and investigations on the Chinese Communist Party, subversion, and related topics give him unique insight into the global threat and political landscape.