It’s Not Our Salami

Following up on my brief brief post on China yesterday, here’s an item from Robert Haddick of War on the Rocks you might find interesting. In the post Mr. Haddick outlines China’s recent actions, described as “salami-slicing”:

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.

That’s not just provocation as some have suggested. It’s military activity. Mr. Haddick sees these actions as posing a problem for the United States.

As I see it the problem is that, while irredentist Chinese nationalists may believe it’s their salami they’re slicing, it most emphatically is not our salami. It might be Japan’s salami or India’s salami or South Korea’s or Taiwan’s or the Philippines’s but it’s not ours and our interests are not synonymous with theirs.

Now I think the solution to the problem of these East Asian countries is pretty obvious and alluded to by Mr. Haddick:

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.

There will be a temptation in the United States to infantilize our allies (and prospective allies) in East Asia as has been our policy with respect to Europe in the mistaken view that weak allies somehow make us stronger. The temptation should be resisted.

11 comments… add one

  • ...

    There will be a temptation in the United States to infantilize our allies (and prospective allies) in East Asia as has been our policy with respect to Europe in the mistaken view that weak allies somehow make us stronger. The temptation should be resisted.

    Another line of thinking is that today’s ally may be tomorrow’s enemy, so it might be good to keep them from becoming too strong. An example of this line of thinking was British meddling in American domestic policy after WWI, encouraging pacifism and working hard to keep the US Navy from being built up into a superior force to the Royal Navy.

  • ...

    Information Processing recently drew attention to an old interview with Lee Kuan Yew in Der Spiegel in 2005. Here’s the part Hsu excerpted:

    SPIEGEL: The Chinese Government is promoting the peaceful rise of China. Do you believe them?

    Mr. Lee: Yes, I do, with one reservation. I think they have calculated that they need 30 to 40 — maybe 50 years of peace and quiet to catch up, to build up their system, change it from the communist system to the market system. They must avoid the mistakes made by Germany and Japan. Their competition for power, influence and resources led in the last century to two terrible wars.

    SPIEGEL: What should the Chinese do differently?

    Mr. Lee: They will trade, they will not demand, “This is my sphere of influence, you keep out”. America goes to South America and they also go to South America. Brazil has now put aside an area as big as the state of Massachusetts to grow soya beans for China. They are going to Sudan and Venezuela for oil because the Venezuelan President doesn’t like America. They are going to Iran for oil and gas. So, they are not asking for a military contest for power, but for an economic competition.

    SPIEGEL: But would anybody take them really seriously without military power?

    Mr. Lee: About eight years ago, I met Liu Huaqing, the man who built the Chinese Navy. Mao personally sent him to Leningrad to learn to build ships. I said to him, “The Russians made very rough, crude weapons”. He replied, “You are wrong. They made first-class weapons, equal to the Americans.” The Russian mistake was that they put so much into military expenditure and so little into civilian technology. So their economy collapsed. I believe the Chinese leadership have learnt: If you compete with America in armaments, you will lose. You will bankrupt yourself. So, avoid it, keep your head down, and smile, for 40 or 50 years.

    SPIEGEL: What are your reservations?

    Mr. Lee: I don’t know whether the next generation will stay on this course. After 15 or 20 years they may feel their muscles are very powerful. We know the mind of the leaders but the mood of the people on the ground is another matter. Because there’s no more communist ideology to hold the people together, the ground is now galvanised by Chinese patriotism and nationalism. Look at the anti-Japanese demonstrations. …

    I believe the bolded font in the last answer was Hsu’s. I’ll include the link to Hsu’s post (which includes a few other things) in a separate comment, so that this can go through now.

    But it is also possible that Lee was slightly optimistic with that 15 to 20 year time frame at the end. This is about nine years on from that interview, remember.

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    Link to Hsu’s post:

    Keep your head down and smile

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    And while it might not be our territory, we do have interests in the area, including out historic interests in keeping the sea lanes open. An overly powerful AND aggressive Chinese military could make that problematic.

  • PD Shaw

    So I gather there area a series of actual and forthcoming disputes over an assortment of reefs, islets, atolls, cays and heaven knows perhaps an actual island or two, that have no perceived value in themselves, except as claims to land features from which maritime claims to water rights permeate.

    I see the solution as rather simple; destroy the land features. We certainly have the capacity, but we want plausible deniability. We need to develop a technology that will make these land features disappear under the sea gradually, almost imperceptibly — as if by natural occurrence. Boiling the frog if you will. If we’re clever we might get the Chinese to assist. Developing.

  • ...

    LOL @PD Shaw

  • TastyBits

    @PD Shaw

    There are oil, gas, mineral, and fishing rights, but there are also territorial rights to the air, surface, and subsurface. It increases the standoff distance among other things.

  • TastyBits

    Chaos can be profitable. If they are worried about China, sell them lots of arms.

  • As I’ve said, our interests are not identical with those of Japan or, say, India. As I see it our interests are two: freedom of travel in the sea lanes and stability. The present situation is unstable if for no other reason than that it assumes a weak China. I can imagine several different ways to stabilize the situation and at this point the one that appeals most to me would be a revival of something resembling the old SEATO.

    That would require Japan, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines to spend more on defense. I’m not as worried as Michael seems to be about the rise of a militaristic Japan.

  • TastyBits

    @Dave Schuler

    … The present situation is unstable if for no other reason that it assumes a weak China. …

    This is a really astute point, and it would save a lot of time to start a discussion with – weak or strong China?

    I would add Russia also.

  • steve

    China needs markets. The neighbors have some leverage, and if they work together they make a military force too costly for China to take on. Not sure how those countries feel about teaming up with Japan. Not sure how well it works with none of these countries having nuclear capabilities, but nukes are mostly a defensive weapon so I guess it could work.

    Steve

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