NEW DELHI – China’s furtive, incremental encroachments into neighboring countries’ borderlands — propelled by its relative power advantage — have emerged as a key destabilizing element in the Asian security landscape. While China’s navy and a part of its air force focus on asserting revanchist territorial and maritime claims in the South and East China seas, its army has been active in the mountainous borderlands with India, trying to alter the line of control bit by bit.
Beijing’s favored frontier strategy to change the territorial and maritime status quo is apparently anchored in “salami slicing.” This centers on a steady progression of small actions, none of which serves as a casus belli by itself, yet which over time lead cumulatively to a strategic transformation in China’s favor.
By relying on quiet salami slicing rather than on overt aggression, China’s strategy aims to seriously limit the options of the targeted countries by confounding their deterrence plans and making it difficult for them to devise proportionate or effective counteractions.
This, in part, is because the strategy — while bearing all the hallmarks of modern Chinese brinkmanship, such as a reliance on surprise and a disregard for the risks of wider military escalation — seeks to ensure the initiative remains with China.
Changing the territorial status quo has been the unfinished business of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949. The early forcible absorption of the sprawling Xinjiang and Tibetan plateau more than doubled the landmass of China.
This was followed by the advent of the earliest incarnation of the salami-slicing strategy, which led to China gaining control, step by step between 1954 and 1962, of the Switzerland-size Aksai Chin plateau of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. An emboldened China then went on to seize the Paracel Islands in 1974, the Johnson Reef in 1988, the Mischief Reef in 1995 and, most recently, the Scarborough Shoal (2012).
At the core of the challenge posed by China to Asian security today is its lack of respect for existing frontier lines. In other words, China is still working to redraw political boundaries.
Along land frontiers, rodent-style surreptitious attacks usually precede its salami slicing. The aim is to start eating into enemy land like giant rodents and thereby facilitate salami slicing. The use of this strategy is becoming increasingly apparent along the Himalayan border with India, the world’s longest disputed frontier.
Here one form of attacks has involved the Chinese military bringing ethnic Han pastoralists to the valleys along the line of control and giving them cover to range across it, in the process driving Indian herdsmen from their traditional pasturelands and opening the path to salami slicing.
This strategy, which can also begin with the Chinese military nibbling at an unprotected border area, has been especially employed in the two highly strategic Buddhist regions located on opposite ends of the Himalayan frontier — Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.
To assert its claims in the South and East China seas, China unabashedly plays salami slicer. The tools of salami slicing here range from hydrocarbon-exploration leases to asserting expansive fishing rights — all designed to advance its territorial and maritime claims.
In the East China Sea, China has employed paramilitary agencies, such as the Maritime Safety Administration, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, and the State Oceanic Administration, in a campaign of attrition against Japan over the Senkaku Islands, which it calls Diaoyu — an offensive that has already succeeded in shaking the status quo by making the rest of the world recognize the existence of a dispute. This has emboldened Beijing to gradually increase the frequency of Chinese patrol ships around the islands and to violate the airspace over them.
Taking on Japan, its former occupier and historical rival, is part of China’s larger search for new seabed resources and for strategic ascendancy in the western Pacific by breaking out of what it perceives to be “first island chain” — a string that includes the Senkakus, Taiwan and some islands controlled by Vietnam and the Philippines.
China’s aim in the South China Sea is to slowly but surely legitimize its presence in the 80 percent of the sea it now claims formally. Through repeated and growing acts, China is etching a lasting presence in the claimed zones.
Among the ways Beijing has sought to establish new “facts” on the ground in the South China Sea is to lease hydrocarbon and fishing blocks inside other disputant states’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs), as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Such leases are designed to circumscribe the UNCLOS-granted economic rights of other claimant states while expanding China’s control of the region’s oil-and-gas wealth.
China has even established “Sansha City” on Woody Island in the Paracels as its administrative base for the South China Sea, setting up a local civilian government and a military garrison there to oversee the entire region. And in its latest effort to present a fait accompli over its occupation of the Paracels, it has started tourist cruises to those disputed islands.
To be sure, Beijing usually is careful to slice very thinly so as to avoid any dramatic action that could become a cause of war. Indeed, it has shown a knack of disaggregating any action into several parts and then pursuing each element separately in such a manner as to allow the different pieces to eventually fall in place.
This shrewdness helps to keep its opponents off balance, and in a bind on how to respond. In fact, as a skillful salami slicer that acts insidiously, camouflaging offense as defense, China acts in ways not only to undercut its opponents’ deterrence but also to cast the burden of starting a war on them.
Any targeted state is presented with a strategic Hobson’s choice: either endure the salami slicing or face a dangerous and costly war with an emerging great power. This is the choice, for example, Manila has faced over China’s effective seizure of the Scarborough Shoal.
China’s tactics and strategy thus pose an increasing challenge to several of its neighbors who face a deepening dilemma over how to thwart the salami slicing. Exchanging notes with each other — and with the United States, the geographically nonresident Asian power — may be necessary to find ways to try and stop this creeping, covert warfare.
After all, China’s multipronged actions, cumulatively, carry the potential of fundamentally altering the Asian power dynamics to shape a Sino-centric region.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).