When a group of Southeast Asian navy vessels went to a disputed area in the South China Sea to conduct a rare drill with the Indian Navy, several Chinese militia vessels rushed to the same area to confront the multinational gray ships.

It could be an awkward situation when gray ships have to deal with unarmed, civilian vessels attempting to disrupt a non-threatening and peaceful naval exercise to test readiness and interoperability of like-minded countries to respond to any emergency at the high seas.

Some of the naval vessels from that drill were heading to the Philippines to take part in a fleet review this week and another maritime exercise within the country’s territorial waters.

The Philippines has drawn up a scenario where an international luxury ship would be attacked by pirates and a mysterious disease would infect passengers of the vessel.

Southeast Asian navies — Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — would come to the rescue of the luxury liner.

Laos, which does not have a navy because it is a landlocked country, will send an observer team. There will also be participants from Cambodia, Malaysia, and Myanmar.

This will be the first time Mania will host an Asean-wide naval drill as well as a fleet review, where it will display its new naval assets.

The guided-missile frigate, BRP Jose Rizal, will play a starring role along with the patrol ship BRP Gregorio del Pilar (an ex-USS Hamilton-class cutter), a landing dock platform BRP Tarlac, two newly acquired missile-capable and small but fast BRP Asero-class fast attack interdiction craft, and three other picket ships.

Other Southeast Asian navies will send frigates and patrol vessels for the first-of-its-kind activity in the Philippines.

As Southeast Asian navies have been increasingly conducting cooperative activities, a jealous China has been stepping up its own activities to defend what it had claimed to be part of its territory — the South China Sea.

The four Southeast Asian states, which have conflicting claims on the South China Sea, are no stranger to China’s gray zone tactics. But the other navies, perhaps, saw for the first time how China’s gray zone tactics worked.

In the past, Chinese vessels rammed Vietnamese ships in disputed waters. Nearly 40 years ago, China sank a Vietnamese Navy ship near Fiery Cross Reef, the only known post-war naval skirmish in the South China Sea.

In 1992, Southeast Asian nations agreed to sign a political document in Manila, a declaration on the South China Sea, to pursue peaceful means to resolve conflict in the disputed.

Ten years later in Phnom Penh, the 10 Southeast Asian states signed with China an informal code of conduct in the South China Sea — the Declaration of Parties to the South China Sea (DOC).

The agreement continues to hold as Asean and China continue to negotiate a formal and legally binding Code of Conduct. It has prevented China from occupying uninhabited reefs and shoals.

But it did not stop China from resorting to gray-zone tactics to effectively gain control of maritime spaces in the region.

China respects the DOC that it did not build new structures or occupy uninhabited features in the Spratlys and other areas in the South China Sea.

But China has been deploying its militia vessels to gain control of waters near uninhabited features, like what it did to Scarborough Shoal.

China did not build structures but used its coast guard and militia vessels to control the waters around the shoal.

It has hundreds of militia vessels in the Spratlys, deploying them to waters which it wanted to control, like around Sabina Shoal and in the Reed Bank.

These militia vessels were also used to block other claimant countries’ vessels, an added layer of wall to prevent other countries from freely navigating the South China Sea.

The militia vessels were effective in sea control and sea denial strategy but the latest incident to confront the Asean-India maritime exercise revealed another Chinese tactic.

China can deploy these militia vessels as the first line of defense. They could ram other vessels or they could stop naval ships by blocking their routes.

Gray ships will hesitate firing at unarmed civilian large vessels but these reinforced steel-hulled ships can cause great damage to smaller coast guard and naval vessels.

Before a navy vessel could deal with an equally powerful Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) vessel, it would engage first with militia vessels.

It’s a classic “cabbage strategy” that the Philippines and other claimant states have to deal with. China has no intention to use its navy against smaller coastal states, like the Philippines. It does not want to risk an American response under the Mutual Defense Treaty.

But it has been using the militia vessels to send a strong message, not only to the Philippines and other claimant states, but to the US as well.