Tag Archives: Salami Tactics

China’s South China Sea Strategy: Simply Brilliant

This article can be found in its original form at ASPI here, and was republished with permission.

In the past 12 months, China has provoked considerable attention with its reclamation activities in the South China Sea, particularly in the Spratlys where it controls seven maritime features.

China’s history of salami-slicing presents a dilemma to regional countries as well as external powers with regional interests: do they escalate an incident each time China slices the salami and risk open conflict, or stand down and allow China to augment its territorial claims.

The million-dollar question remains: who or what will freeze China’s reclamation in the South China Sea? The answer: nothing, really.

It has been proposed, for example, that like-minded states carve out a ‘code of practice’ that would stress the rule of law and mirror the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Another option being considered by the Pentagon is to send US aircraft and ships within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese-built reefs in the Spratlys, to challenge its influence there.

While useful, such proposals won’t freeze or rollback China’s attempts to change the facts on the ground (or the high sea). China’s reclamation seeks to pre-empt any decision that would come from the Philippines’ challenge in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea over China’s nine-dash line claim to the South China Sea.

It’s noteworthy that China hasn’t only engaged in salami slicing; it has sought to use the attraction of its economy, trade and aid to offset its high-risk behaviour.

Following the 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident with the Philippines, China launched a charm offensive in 2013, wooing ASEAN with a treaty of friendship and cooperation, stressing that it intended to take China–ASEAN relations from a ‘golden decade’ to a ‘diamond decade’.

This year, when concerns about China’s reclamation have intensified, China has offered a carrot: US and other countries would be welcome to use civilian facilities it’s building in the South China Sea for search and rescue and weather forecasting, when ‘conditions are right’.

China has also used its economic weight to deftly tilt the balance (of influence, at least) in its favor. Its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is attracting long-standing American allies such as Great Britain, Australia and South Korea. China has stolen a march on the US in the battle to win friends and influence people.

And the economic offensive doesn’t end with the AIIB. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership—a free trade agreement that would involve ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea—is seen as a rival to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership. China’s Silk Road Economic Belt is also another lure for peripheral countries keen on leveraging on China’s economic ascent.

Concerted and effective opposition to China’s fait accompli in the South China Sea requires an astute mix of diplomacy and deterrence. It might take the form of a regional effort to get China to clarify its nine-dashed line claims based on UNCLOS principles, an ASEAN ultimatum for China to at least freeze its reclamation activities, and joint ASEAN–US patrols near the reefs being reclaimed by China. This looks unlikely to emerge anytime soon.

ASEAN was damaged in 2012, when it failed—for the first time in its 45-year history—to issue a communiqué due to differing views over the South China Sea. ASEAN has recently upped its game by underscoring the dangers of China’s reclamation, but there’s little the group can do apart from pushing for a formal Code of Conduct. A successful conclusion of the code isn’t assured; China dangles the carrot of code negotiations to buy time even as its carries out reclamation.

For all its rhetoric about the need to uphold international law and the freedom of navigation, the US is conflicted when it comes to China. It all boils down to this: will the US risk its extensive relationship with China over a few rocks in the South China Sea? As Hillary Clinton once said: how does the US ‘deal toughly’ toward its banker?

To get a sense of the effect of China’s creeping invasion of the South China Sea, one only need look at Vietnam. Faced with China’s challenge to its claims to the Paracel Islands, Vietnam has purchased Kilo-class submarines, reportedly armed with sub-launched land-attack Klub missiles that could threaten Chinese coastal targets. But Vietnam didn’t fire a shot when China towed a US$1b oil rig into waters claimed by Vietnam last year. On a recent trip to Hanoi, Vietnamese scholars told me that Vietnamese military officers urged sterner action, such as firing on Chinese ships, but senior leaders vetoed them, instead deciding to sit back and let China incur ‘reputational damage’.

Not many people in Asia would agree with what China is doing in the South China Sea. But as it stands, China’s strategy—salami slicing, using offsets to soften risky behavior and accelerating its reclamation activities in the absence of significant opposition—can be summed up in two words: simply brilliant.

William Choong is a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Defeating the Enemy’s Doctrine: Laughter Tactics

The people demand the downfall of the regime!
       The people demand the downfall of the regime!

As U.S. Navy strategy enters a new phase of revival it would be wise to prepare ourselves for future debates. However, writing about strategy is a daunting task, so I took as an exercise and example something that could be treated more lightly, especially during summer months. I asked myself, “What helped Eastern Europeans effectively resist communism?” and whether there was any strategy behind it. After a short conversation with friends, what emerged was that the important factor in defeating communism in Poland was a sense of humor. And yes, there was a sort of strategy behind it, which is even more interesting considering the lack of any structure or organization that would have supported it. Everything began as a simple self-defense against the overwhelming frustration from the inability to control one’s own life under the ruling Communist Party. The Party had almost total control over our material lives. Yet a sense of humor and laughter quickly evolved into a kind of massive resistance, and the last years of so-called “real” socialism in Poland was even a time of true renaissance of cabaret. Now let’s apply military language to this phenomenon: we essentially observed groups of insurgents (such as the audiences of cabaret performances, or even just friends making jokes about the Party) creating ad hoc and unpredictable patterns using humor as a weapon. The weapon was widely available and its nature very asymmetric. An official ban on humor only, and immediately, generated extra salvos of laughter. The Party was embarrassed — instead of being feared, it became the subject of the people’s laughter. This marked a shift in people’s attitude, with consequences far beyond just making Party people angry. This strategy, used by a large part of the population, was called “inner emigration”. As I mentioned, the government was able to control the material aspects of our lives, but the intellectual and spiritual lives were beyond their reach. So changing the focus from physical wellness to intellectual activity was like defeating the enemy’s doctrine in the best spirit of Sun Tzu’s teaching.

salami tacticsAnother technique popular in Eastern Europe is “salami tactics.” This occurs when an opponent divides an enemy slice by slice. Each slice is so thin that it doesn’t trigger a reaction until there is no more salami. The international application was demonstrated in the traditional “divide and conquer” approach of Hitler’s Germany, whereby the major powers thought they could appease the government by allowing it to absorb smaller neighbors a slice at a time. In Poland the communists took control of our material life, slice-by-slice, by introducing a series of small regulations that were individually unnoticed by the public. The final result was the same as making one big move. These tactics are potentially very effective against an opponent abiding by rules of proportional response. Breaking one of the initial, small rules would be considered escalating both violence and risk to an unacceptable level.

So how do we defend against salami tactics? One way is to convince an opponent that we do not have salami at all. This translates to strategic deception, which is very difficult in execution, especially in the long term. Another approach would be to take our salami out of an opponent’s reach, like the Poles did with inner emigration. They physically remained within Poland and subject to the rules of the Party, but their most robust undertakings retreated inwards to spiritual and intellectual pursuits, and where their loyalty was much harder to control or attain.

Both are examples of defensive strategies, meaning the object is to deny opponents their ability to achieve their positive goals. They were well adapted to the situation of the people in Eastern Europe, but inappropriate for the stronger side in a conflict. An example of a positive or offensive strategy would be to look for opportunities to apply salami tactics against an opponent. But the question is what does the other side consider salami? Answering this question is like linking something pleasant (salami) with useful (strategy) and hopefully appropriate for the summer holidays.

Przemek Krajewski alias Viribus Unitis is a blogger In Poland.  His area of interest is the context, purpose, and structure of navies – and promoting discussion on these subjects in his country.