America Has No Answer to China’s Salami-slicing

China Surveillance Ships

John Mearsheimer recently argued that China is pursuing in Asia what the United States has in Latin America: regional hegemony. In pursuit of that goal, China keeps trying to take territory, bit by bit, in the East and South China Seas. And the United States doesn’t know what to do about it.

This practice, known as salami-slicing, involves the slow accumulation of small changes, none of which in isolation amounts to a casus belli, but which add up over time to a substantial change in the strategic picture. By using salami-slicing tactics in the East and South China Seas, China does not have to choose between trade with the rest of the world and the achievement of an expanded security perimeter in the Western Pacific at the expense of China’s neighbors. Given enough time, and continued confusion by the United States and its allies on how to respond, China is on course to eventually achieve both.

China’s salami-slicing has accelerated over the past few years. In 2012, China established “Sansha City” on Woody Island, an island in the Paracel chain that China seized by force from South Vietnam in 1974 (Vietnam refuses to recognize China’s seizure). China declared that Sansha City would be the administrative center of all of its claims in the South China Sea, including those in the Spratly Island group. Small Chinese military and paramilitary garrisons on Woody Island reinforce the image of sovereign legitimacy China is trying to establish—an image that neighbors such as Vietnam and the Philippines lack the resources to replicate. Just last month, China permanently based a 5,000-ton paramilitary patrol vessel at Woody Island.

Territorial salami-slicing against the Philippines is also proving successful. In April 2012, Chinese maritime enforcement and Philippine coast guard vessels began a protracted standoff over Scarborough Reef, located about 230 kilometers from Luzon and claimed by both countries. Lacking the material resources to maintain a continuous presence, the Filipino coast guard eventually retreated, leaving China in control of the reef. Chinese authorities subsequently roped off the reef and have prevented Filipino fishermen from returning.

With Scarborough Reef captured, the unequal contest between China and the Philippines has moved to Ayungin Island in the Spratlys, also known as Second Thomas Shoal. An October 2013 article in the New York Times Magazine described the standoff between a fleet of modern Chinese maritime enforcement vessels and a squad of Filipino marines. These eight marines live a seemingly post-apocalyptic, “Mad Max”-style existence on a rusting, collapsing World War II-era landing ship that the Philippines government deliberately beached on the island, to provide a last Filipino foothold while the Chinese encircle the island.

In a May 2013 interview on Chinese television, Major General Zhang Zhaozhong of China’s People’s Liberation Army described the “cabbage strategy” China is employing in the South China Sea. According to General Zhang, the cabbage strategy consists of surrounding a contested island with concentric layers of Chinese fishing boats, fishing administration ships, maritime enforcements ships, and warships such that “the island is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage.” Of taking territory from the Philippines, General Zhang said,

We should do more such things in the future. For those small islands, only a few troopers are able to station on each of them, but there is no food or even drinking water there. If we carry out the cabbage strategy, you will not be able to send food and drinking water onto the islands. Without the supply for one or two weeks, the troopers stationed there will leave the islands on their own. Once they have left, they will never be able to come back.

In the East China Sea, friction between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands has been heating up for several years. According to the Japanese Ministry of Defense, incursions by Chinese government ships in Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkakus began accelerating in late 2012 and averaged about five incursions per month during the beginning of 2013.

November 2013 brought China’s sudden declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over much of the East China Sea, including over the Senkaku Islands. A few days later, in the South China Sea, a Chinese warship nearly collided with the guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens, a signal of displeasure that the cruiser was observing sea trials of China’s new aircraft carrier. USS Cowpens subsequently withdrew from its mission, U.S. officials apparently unwilling to risk a clash. Finally, in January 2014, a local Chinese authority on Hainan Island issued an order requiring foreign fishing vessels working in most of the South China Sea (in waters far beyond China’s currently-recognized EEZ) to first obtain fishing permits from his office.

Another example of China’s effort to establish the perception of sovereignty in the South China Sea is its attempt at economic development in the region. In June 2012, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), a huge state-owned oil developer, invited foreign oil drillers to bid on blocks of the South China Sea that are inside Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). In fact, Vietnam has previously put some of these blocks up for lease. Similarly, China and the Philippines have clashed over oil and natural gas drilling rights near Palawan Island.

With this series of salami-slicing measures (not an exhaustive list), China is attempting to accomplish three goals:

  1. It is using its material advantages in civilian, paramilitary, and military vessels to create an image of dominant and sustained presence, compared to its weaker rivals such as Vietnam and the Philippines. The goal here is to create an impression of sole legitimacy and, in time, sovereignty.
  2. China hopes to establish traditional indicators of state authority. Such indicators include constant patrolling by paramilitary enforcement and naval vessels, the establishment of government offices on places like Woody Island, the establishment of paramilitary and military bases and garrisons, the issuance of bureaucratic orders and regulations, and the establishment of operations by state-owned enterprises like CNOOC.
  3. Events such as the establishment of the East China Sea ADIZ and the near-collision with USS Cowpens are designed to deliberately increase the risks for U.S. and allied operations in the region, with the goal of making those operations more costly and less frequent. When the frequency of U.S. and allied presence declines, China’s influence and the legitimacy of its claims will appear to increase.

America’s response: “We quite frankly welcome the growth of China as a military power”

Salami-slicing places rivals, especially conflicted rivals, in an uncomfortable position. It is the rivals of salami-slicers who are obligated to eventually draw red lines and engage in brinkmanship over actions others will view, in isolation, as trivial and far from constituting casus belli. China’s leaders are apparently counting on such hesitancy, a calculation that thus far is working out for them.

Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, made a curious remark that reveals the U.S. government’s befuddlement regarding China’s salami-slicing. When asked about China’s East China Sea ADIZ, Harris replied, “It highlights an issue that I am concerned about, and that is coercion by China in this case and other countries as well.” Which other countries are employing coercion, Harris didn’t say. Harris added, “[W]e welcome quite frankly the growth of China as a military power in the Pacific. There is nothing wrong with that.” With China’s inflation-adjusted defense budget growing at a long-term compound rate of 9.7 percent per annum (and thus doubling after inflation every 7.5 years), what Harris welcomes will certainly be fulfilled.

Harris’s comments, straining to avoid controversy with China, conform to existing U.S. government policy. Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command and Harris’s immediate boss, stated in a recent speech that a goal of his command was to see China “be a net provider of security, not a net user of security.” Locklear’s statement implied an assumption that China would agree to the existing international order in East Asia, and willingly support and uphold the region’s long-standing rules governing sovereignty, the global commons, and freedom of navigation. It assumes China is a status quo state, rather than a revisionist power. China’s recent behavior, listed above, should hardly give one comfort in this regard. Rather than address this head on, however, the two admirals have instead preferred to avoid the subject, a position that matches U.S. government policy.

Indeed, there is no visible response by the U.S. government to China’s salami-slicing. U.S. officials, including Locklear and Harris, have expressed regret over China’s ADIZ declaration, and stated their intention to carry on with usual U.S. military operations inside that zone and elsewhere in the region. Yet China has suffered no penalty for its series of actions. Regarding the disputed claims in the two seas, the official policy from Washington is that China’s neighbors are on their own—the U.S. will not take sides in these territorial disputes. The United States also objects to the use of coercion in resolving the disputes. But each individual act of China’s salami-slicing is carefully calibrated to fall below a threshold most outside observers would view as overt coercion.

With no resistance to its actions, Chinese salami-slicing will certainly continue. Future Chinese slices could include:

  • Patrols by Chinese unmanned surveillance aircraft over the Senkakus
  • Landings by Chinese civilian protestors on the Senkakus
  • Interception and visible escort of Japanese airlines transiting the East China Sea ADIZ by Chinese fighter aircraft
  • The declaration of a Chinese ADIZ over some portion of the South China Sea
  • Boarding and seizure of Vietnamese or Filipino fishing boats for non-compliance with China’s fishing policies
  • Blocking the resupply or replacement of the Filipino garrison on Ayungin Island or other garrisons in the Spratlys
  • Additional harassment of U.S. and Japanese warships and patrol aircraft by Chinese vessels and aircraft.

With these and similar actions, Chinese leaders will hope to gradually establish “new facts on the ground” and to increase the perception of risk in the minds of U.S. and allied decision-makers, all calculated to occur without triggering a confrontation.

America’s theory of success—thus far

One would think that further Chinese salami-slicing would strain the patience of U.S. and allied policymakers. However, forbearance has been the explicit U.S. policy. Kurt Campbell, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the Obama administration’s first term, recently explained the theory behind the current leniency policy (at about 55 minutes into the video presentation):

I think one of the objectives here, if you look at a series of speeches that Secretary Clinton and others gave over the course of the last couple of years, it was to try to go at this idea that the United States and China were destined for conflict, and that it was almost preordained and that every time historically, from the great Thucydides, the rising powers when they face off against established powers, inevitably leads to conflict. And I believe one of the efforts underway is to learn from the lessons of history, the very difficult lessons of history, and to apply different mechanisms and different approaches for how to deal with this extraordinarily challenging hegemonic matter which is playing out right before our eyes …

The more important lesson I think that history teaches us is that rising powers, like Germany before the First World War and Germany before the Second World War, felt disrespected in global politics, felt that they were not given their due, felt like they were not given membership or a seat at the table. What I believe is very different about this particular period in global politics is that if you look at the leading countries—Japan, South Korea, the United States, and Europe—we have all insisted that China join the big table. We’ve encouraged active Chinese support in the important economic institutions, the political and strategic institutions …We want China to play a role in that and we are trying through this dialogue with China to suggest there is another way out than inevitable conflict.

What to do when assumptions go bad

The theory that Campbell presented—namely, try something different than the course that created serial disasters in the past—seems reasonable at first glance. But one should examine the assumptions implied within this hypothesis, and question whether policymakers are adequately preparing for what will happen should those assumptions fail.

Campbell assumes that by drawing China into the existing international system, a system that from outward appearances has benefited China greatly over the past three decades, China will accept that system and willingly support it (G. John Ikenberry, an international relations professor at Princeton, defended this position in an essay in Foreign Affairs, Ironically, this essay appeared in 2008, just as China’s salami-slicing began to accelerate). Alternatively, Campbell assumes that China’s leaders will come to see that the U.S. and China’s neighbors, expressed through their welcoming and forbearing behavior, don’t pose a security threat to China. And once they realize that, China’s salami-slicing will end.

Unfortunately, China’s continued salami-slicing is evidence that these assumptions are flawed. Forbearance has not ameliorated China’s security concerns, as evidenced by China’s continued rapid acquisition of access-denial military capabilities. Another explanation is that, for historical or cultural reasons, China seeks to achieve its territorial claims regardless of the level of security its leaders perceive.

U.S. officials may have another unspoken reason for their forbearance policy: what might be termed a “rope-a-dope” gambit. China’s assertions are clearly sparking a region-wide security backlash. Security cooperation is rapidly developing, from India through Southeast Asia and Australia, and up to Japan, aimed at balancing China’s military power. Non-Chinese military spending and procurement in the region is similarly expected to leap over the next five years. U.S. officials may conclude that the more such activity occurs, the lighter will be America’s security burden in the region. Under this theory, if U.S. forbearance encourages Chinese assertiveness and a regional diplomatic and military response—what some in the U.S. will see as improved “burden-sharing”—why should Washington get in the way?

But at some point, assuming Chinese salami-slicing doesn’t spontaneously cease, U.S. officials will have to abandon the forbearance experiment. With forbearance, U.S. policymakers have attempted to avoid the dreaded security dilemma, where security concerns turn two or more powers into competitors, with accelerating and wasteful arms races the result. U.S. forbearance may have been a well-intentioned effort to avoid such a fate in East Asia. But as China’s military modernization and salami-slicing advance, U.S. policymakers will have to consider the risks of continuing the forbearance experiment.

When the salami-slices sum up to a substantial security problem for Japan, India, and the ASEAN countries, someone is likely to draw a red line somewhere. The issue for U.S. officials is whether they will be the ones to do that drawing, and thus retain the initiative, or whether someone else, having lost confidence in Washington, will do it instead. When that happens, the U.S. will find itself reacting to events, rather than shaping a favorable outcome in advance.

All strategies are based on assumptions, but good strategists prepare for when their assumptions don’t pan out. The end of Chinese salami-slicing is an implied assumption in the forbearance approach. U.S. policymakers will soon face the prospect of admitting that that assumption has gone bad.

During his remarks, Campbell also said that the most important contribution the U.S. can make to Asia’s security “is to not decline.” That may have been an oblique expression of his own doubts about forbearance, or at least the need to have a strong hedge against the policy’s failure.

Admitting that China really is a revisionist power in Asia, and that forbearance has failed, will mean explicitly turning back to deterrence and trusting in the utility of U.S. and allied military power to maintain stability. U.S. officials will plead that they never abandoned deterrence as a policy—they will point to the Asia Rebalance and the pledge of stationing 60 percent of U.S. air and naval power in the region as proof. But deterrence lies in the mind of the rival. China’s leaders would not be funding exponential increases in air, naval, and missile power if they did not have a strategy they believed would work. China’s actions are evidence that its leaders believe China will achieve escalation dominance in the Western Pacific in due course. If that’s what they believe, U.S. and allied deterrence is not persuasive under current circumstances.

Restoring deterrence will require Admirals Harris and Locklear and their civilian masters to be more straightforward with their troops, their allies, and themselves over what their military forces are there for, what specific missions they need to prepare for, and what equipment and training they need to get ready for those tasks. For now, the U.S. doesn’t have an answer to China’s salami-slicing. That will have to change, one way or another.


Robert Haddick is an independent contractor at U.S. Special Operations Command. He writes here in a personal capacity. In September 2014, U.S. Naval Institute Press will publish Haddick’s book on the rise of China’s military power and U.S. strategy in East Asia.


Photo credit: Asitimes (adapted by War on the Rocks)