China’s recent activities and behavior in and around its periphery have shown that its current regime seems intent to push its foreign policy and security boundaries. Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis China has sought to expand its influence at an unprecedented pace, across all domains and in a multitude of locations.
China has escalated its border conflict with India, leading to violent clashes between 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 grid. Furthermore, it has significantly increased its operations against Taiwan: It has sent its People Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) past the long-mutually-respected median line in the Taiwan Strait and has escalated the situation further by intruding into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) with ever-increasing numbers of military aircraft. In addition, China deployed its carrier force to the eastern waters of Taiwan to conduct drills, while casually remarking that such entrancement-and-encirclement operations would become the norm in its foreign relations and interactions with other, principally neighboring, states.
In its conflict with Japan, China has also increased its operations, now regularly sailing its Coast Guard into Japanese territorial waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands at a rate that seems to double its present tempo of naval incursions compared to 2020. Finally, it has sought to expand its footprint and control in the South China Sea, recently dispatching nearly 200 boats from its para-military maritime militia to the Whitsun Reef, entering the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Observing the sum of these actions, it is apparent China has changed course in its security policy. Its security policy approach in the Indo-Pacific was long-seen as centering on the use of salami slicing tactics. We have previously discussed the various possible aspects and angles of how China was, and could further pursue, salami-slicing with the aim of advancing its security interests in adjacent regions. Yet it is evident that China has given up on its salami slicing tactics in favor of a more aggressive approach in and around its periphery. Indeed, several locales within the Indo-Pacific domain have already played host to more assertive foreign and security policy approaches that have little in common with China’s previous salami slicing tactics.
In his 2012 article for Foreign Policy, Robert Haddick defined salami slicing as “the slow accumulation of small actions, none of which is a casus belli, but which add up over time to a major strategic change.” Haddick and Erik Voeten, building on the work of scholars such as Thomas Schelling and James Fearon, emphasize how the success and effectiveness of salami slicing tactics is found is the minor size of any single action. As Voeten notes the “key to salami tactic’s effectiveness is that the individual transgressions are small enough not to evoke a response.”
This divide-and-conquer tactic is efficient over a longer period of time, slow and subtle enough to avoid evoking an unwanted response by states that might oppose both the policy as a means and its goals. While the gains are important, the actions are too minor to compel any state to go escalate significantly and potentially risk a (military) conflict that would otherwise result in far more destructive outcomes. The awareness of the reluctance of other states is an important element for the salami-slicing actor. This was best illustrated in the South China Sea, where China’s salami slicing tactics, and the absence of strong responses from its adversaries, primarily other claimant states, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has facilitated China’s military control over the area.
Yet, the recent Chinese actions are neither “small actions” nor “small transgressions,” and they have generated responses. The volume of China’s actions has grown sufficiently large and visible enough that its adversaries should take notice – and they have. While it is one thing to sail several ships in and through contested waters, it is an entirely different level of action to sail a fleet of 200 ships into contested waters – and to remain there. Similarly, crossing the median line with a few aircraft represents an entirely different magnitude of assertiveness as opposed to sending a squadron of fighters and bombers into an ADIZ. China has changed its modus operandi from “small actions and transgressions” to more dramatic, sweeping moves, the primary aim of which appears to be conjoined with heightened visibility.
Concurrently, it is evident that China’s actions are evoking responses among its biggest adversaries. Indeed, the initial reluctance to respond to Chinese actions has changed and opposing actors are now responding in various ways. First, on the political level, China’s adversaries are increasingly seeking to form partnerships and other cooperative initiatives with the aim of counter China’s growing power. The Quad, the Australia-Japan-India-U.S. alliance, long regarded as a diplomatic exercise, seems to have been revitalized in the wake of recent Chinse assertiveness. Japan, generally a cautious actor when it comes to its China policy, recently, for the first time since 1969, affirmed the necessity for a secure and stable Taiwan in a joint statement with the United States. Meanwhile, Taiwan-U.S. relations strengthened under former President Donald Trump, and President Joe Biden has demonstrated that his administration is intent on bolstering the relationship further. The Philippines, which under President Rodrigo Duterte has pursued a pro-China, 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 latter two nations have signed their own agreements that cover the exchange of military forces – a novelty for Japan, which has not signed any such agreement since its first and only agreement with the United States in 1960. Across the Indo-Pacific, nations are increasing their political and military collaboration as a result of China’s highly visible pressure tactics.
On the military level, we likewise find strong responses to China’s actions. Taiwan has increased its defense budget; so have Japan and Australia. Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s government approved Japan’s ninth consecutive increase in military spending, putting money into the development of 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 a view to increasing its defense spending by 40 percent over the course of the coming decade. Finally, the United States is further increasing its presence in the Indo-Pacific and seems intent on countering the growing Chinese military power. Chief among its most recent initiatives is its new anti-access/area denial A2/AD) missile plan, which aims to deploy medium- and long-range missiles as a tool to counter growing Chinese naval power.
The sum of these responses makes it obvious that China is now facing a new resoluteness among its adversaries to counter its security policies. In this environment and under these security dynamics, it seems unlikely China will be able to advance its security policies as successfully in the region, because its current tactics have violated the principles that make salami slicing effective. At times, the slices have become too thick and too frequent. These factors have played a considerable role in exposing the threat posed by China’s foreign policies. China’s incrementally bolder and sometimes clumsily blatant moves have resulted in a deeper awareness in its neighbors about the dangers of Chinese policies beyond China’s borders. At the same time, other states’ perceptions of China’s strategic outlook and intentions show little signs of being shaped and formed by Beijing, leaving China with less room to craft an alternative explanation for its actions.
While our view is that China by no means can be regarded as the sole perpetrator of assertiveness, aggression, and hostility with its neighbors and their strong allies (notably the United States), we find that salami slicing has possibly run its course. Hence, the Chinese regime has looked to increasing the pace and portion of its interests. This has created an acquisition spiral with the pursuit of its claims at its core.
What has now become more apparent than ever is that China’s objective of establishing itself as a superpower is at stake. To reach that goal, salami slicing may no longer seem a relevant tactic – after all, it requires time for the state to see the slow but steady accumulation of gains. Chinas’ stridently aggressive approach signals the end of any period of timidity for Beijing. As the regime moves to more aggressive posturing, it may expect to see its moves translate into rapid gains and influence over other states.
However, it remains to be seen how other actors in the Indo-Pacific (and further abroad) will react to China’s new approach. For now, we can conclude that its new foreign policy approach increases the risk of misperceptions and miscalculations, and increases the potential for conflict escalation throughout the Indo-Pacific.