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Did China stop cutting salami?

Beijing seems to have given up on its incremental strategy in favor of more considerable power takeovers.

China’s recent activities and behavior in and around its periphery have shown that its current regime appears to be intended to push its foreign policy and security limits. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, China has sought to expand its influence at an unprecedented rate, in all areas and in a multitude of locations.

China has intensified its border conflict with India, leading to violent clashes between the Indian and Chinese armed forces. China has also conducted offensive cyber operations targeting India’s critical infrastructure, including vital seaports and the state’s critical power network. In addition, it significantly increased its operations against Taiwan: it sent its People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) beyond the long-mutually respected median line in the Taiwan Strait and further aggravated the situation by invading the air defense identification zone. Taiwan (ADIZ) with an increasing number of military aircraft. In addition, China deployed its aircraft carrier force in the eastern waters of Taiwan to exercise, while casually commenting that such locking and encircling operations would become the norm in its international relations and interactions with others, especially neighboring states.

In its conflict with Japan, China has also stepped up its operations, now regularly sailing with its Coast Guard in Japanese territorial waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands at a rate that appears to double its current rate of naval incursions compared to 2020. Finally, sought to expand its footprint and control in the South China Sea, recently dispatching nearly 200 boats from its paramilitary maritime militia to the Whitsun Reef, entering the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines (EEZ).

Looking at the sum of these actions, it is clear that China has changed course in its security policy. His approach to security policy in the Indo-Pacific has long been seen as centered on the use of slicing salami tactics. We have already discussed the various possible aspects and angles of what China was like, and could go on, slicing salami in order to promote its security interests in adjacent regions. However, it is clear that China has given up its tactics of slicing salami in favor of a more aggressive approach in and around its periphery. In fact, several locations within the Indo-Pacific domain have already harbored more assertive foreign and security policy approaches that have little in common with China’s previous tactics of slicing salami.

In his 2012 article for Foreign Policy, Robert Haddick defined the cutting of salami as “the slow accumulation of small actions, none of which is a casus belli, but which over time add up to a major strategic change”. Haddick and Erik Voeten, drawing on the work of scholars like Thomas Schelling and James Fearon, emphasize how the success and effectiveness of slicing salami tactics are found in the smallest size of any single action. As Voeten notes, “the key to the effectiveness of the salami tactic is that individual transgressions are small enough not to evoke an answer.”

This divide-and-conquer tactic is effective over a long period of time, slow and subtle enough to avoid provoking an unwanted response by states that may oppose both policy and means as well as their goals. While the gains are important, the actions are too small to compel any state to increase significantly and potentially risk a (military) conflict that would otherwise result in far more destructive results. Awareness of the reluctance of other states is an important element for the actor to slice salami. This was best illustrated in the South China Sea, where the tactics of slicing salami from China and the absence of strong responses from its opponents, mainly from other requesting states, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), facilitated control China’s military over the area.

However, the recent Chinese actions are not “small actions” or “small transgressions” and have generated responses. The volume of China’s shares has grown large enough and visible enough for its opponents to notice – and they did. While it is one thing to sail multiple ships in and through contested waters, it is an entirely different level of action to lead a fleet of 200 ships in contested waters – and stay there. Likewise, crossing the midline with some aircraft represents an entirely different magnitude of assertiveness, as opposed to sending a squadron of fighters and bombers to an ADIZ. China has changed its modus operandi from “small actions and transgressions” to more dramatic and comprehensive movements, whose main objective seems to be associated with greater visibility.

At the same time, it is clear that China’s shares are evoking reactions among its biggest adversaries. In fact, the initial reluctance to respond to Chinese actions has changed and the opposing actors are now responding in a variety of ways. First, at the political level, China’s opponents are increasingly seeking to form partnerships and other cooperative initiatives with the aim of containing China’s growing power. The Quad, Australia-Japan-India-U.S. the alliance, long considered a diplomatic exercise, seems to have been revitalized in the wake of Chinse’s recent assertiveness. Japan, generally a cautious actor when it comes to its policy towards China, recently, for the first time since 1969, stated the need for a safe and stable Taiwan in a joint statement with the United States. Meanwhile, Taiwan-U.S. relations have been strengthened with former President Donald Trump, and President Joe Biden has demonstrated that his government intends to further strengthen relations. The Philippines, which under President Rodrigo Duterte has pursued a pro-China and anti-United States approach, recently opted to extend the visiting forces agreement with the United States and is seeking similar agreements with Australia and Japan. The last two nations signed their own agreements covering the exchange of military forces – a novelty for Japan, which has not signed any agreements since its first and only agreement with the United States in 1960. On the other side of the Indo-Pacific, nations are increasing their collaboration political and military as a result of China’s highly visible pressure tactics.

At the military level, we also find strong responses to China’s actions. Taiwan increased its defense budget; Japan and Australia too. The government of Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide approved Japan’s ninth consecutive increase in military spending, investing money in developing a stealth fighter and long-range missiles in response to China’s growing military power and capabilities. Australia’s defense budget continues to grow, with the goal of increasing defense spending by 40 percent over the next decade. Finally, the United States is further increasing its presence in the Indo-Pacific and appears to have the intention to oppose the growing Chinese military power. Among its most recent initiatives, the new A2 / AD missile plan (anti-access / area denial) stands out, which aims to deploy medium and long-range missiles as a tool to contain the growing Chinese naval power.

The sum of these responses makes it obvious that China now faces a new determination among its adversaries to contain its security policies. In this environment and under these security dynamics, it seems unlikely that China will be able to advance its security policies so successfully in the region, because its current tactics have violated the principles that make salami cutting effective. Sometimes the slices become very thick and frequent. These factors played a considerable role in exposing the threat posed by China’s foreign policies. China’s increasingly bold and, at times, awkwardly glaring movements have resulted in a deeper awareness among its neighbors of the dangers of Chinese policies beyond China’s borders. At the same time, other states’ perceptions of China’s strategic perspective and intentions show little sign of being shaped and formed by Beijing, leaving China with less space to elaborate an alternative explanation for its actions.

While our view is that China can by no means be considered the sole perpetrator of assertiveness, aggression and hostility towards its neighbors and strong allies (notably the United States), we found that the salami cut was possibly over. Consequently, the Chinese regime has sought to increase the pace and share of its interests. This created a spiral of acquisitions with the pursuit of its claims at its core.

What has now become more evident than ever is that China’s goal of establishing itself as a superpower is at stake. To achieve this goal, slicing salami may no longer seem like a relevant tactic – after all, it takes time for the state to see the slow but steady accumulation of gains. China’s stridently aggressive approach signals an end to any period of shyness for Beijing. As the regime moves to a more aggressive stance, it can expect its movements to translate into rapid gains and influence over other states.

However, it remains to be seen how other actors in the Indo-Pacific (and more abroad) will react to China’s new approach. For the time being, we can conclude that its new approach to foreign policy increases the risk of misunderstandings and miscalculations, and increases the potential for escalating conflict across the Indo-Pacific.

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