CAO: China’s salami-slicing strategy

Beijing presents a serious challenge to Obama’s Asian ‘pivot’

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Beijing seems to have mastered the salami tactics of the old Soviet Union’s leadership. The term was first used by Hungarian communist leader Matyas Rakosi and praised by Josef Stalin. Rakosi claimed the path to victory involved “cutting” off pieces of what one wanted “like slices of salami.” The Chinese leadership today also likes to describe this approach as a “cabbage strategy,” which is certainly on display in its quest for regional expansionism.

Salami slicing is a delicate art with each slice being small enough not to appear to inflict too much pain on the salami’s current owner. Thus, each slice has to be thin enough not to draw attention. Beijing’s latest act of salami slicing, its incursion into the Paracel Archipelago, which is claimed by Vietnam, has been masterful as it has attracted little worldwide interest while at the same time furthering China’s hegemonic ambitions and undermining U.S. influence in East Asia.

Under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China ratified in 1996, the Paracel Archipelago falls within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. Nonetheless, since 2008, China has been strongly asserting claims to the region, fueled at least in part by its growing need for energy. Despite China’s promises not to start energy exploration in the area, the China National Offshore Oil Corp. blatantly launched a $1 billion oil rig in early May, under the protection of its navy. This slice may have been thin enough for most of the world, but it resulted in violent protests in Vietnam. In the past few weeks, tens of thousands of Vietnamese have taken to the streets of Hanoi and Saigon to protest what they see as Beijing’s brazen violation of Vietnam’s sovereign territory. The Vietnamese reaction to China’s actions should surprise no one even vaguely familiar with Vietnam’s 2,000-year struggle to escape China’s shadow.

The Obama administration’s highly touted “pivot” to Asia was seen in the region as a U.S. attempt to re-establish influence in Southeast Asia to counter Beijing’s assertive intimidation of its neighbors. Yet, in response to China’s latest hegemonic acts, Secretary of State John F. Kerry simply made a statement and described China’s aggressive move as “provocative.” U.S. allies in the region think a much stronger reaction might have made a difference, but they fear Mr. Kerry’s words will encourage China to slice off additional pieces of the region’s salami. Beijing will not stop at one oil platform; it will slowly carve off island after island in the South China Sea until there is no reversing its claims.

Vietnam is not the only victim of Chinese bullying. “This unilateral action appears to be part of a broader pattern of Chinese behavior to advance its claims over disputed territory in a manner that undermines peace and stability in the region,” said State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki. This broader pattern includes: China’s infringement on the territorial interests of the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal in 2012 that resulted in China gaining de facto control over access to the shoal; China’s continued harassment and pressure on the Philippines to vacate the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands; China’s sending Coast Guard ships to patrol and harass the Japanese-claimed Senkaku Islands; China’s declaration on Nov. 23 of an air-defense identification zone over the East China Sea that includes the Senkaku Islands; China’s diversion of the USS Cowpens in a high-seas game of chicken with its own ship on Dec. 5, 2013; and China’s enforcement of arbitrary and illegitimate fishing regulations against non-Chinese fishing boats in the international waters of the South China Sea. This is salami slicing, or cabbage strategy, at its best and follows the only rule of law that Beijing’s expansionist ambition understands: “Might is right.”

What has the United States done in the face of Beijing’s piecemeal expansionism? Obama administration officials have at least begun hinting that the United States is “losing patience” with what China is up to, but nobody knows if the Obama administration will take the sort of steps that might deter China. More is at stake than just regional territorial disputes in the South China Sea. At issue is Chinese expansionism; in particular, China’s claim to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone imposed by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which, if successfully asserted, will bar U.S. military exercises and missions within the zone. Thus, a rational and effective U.S. response must clearly identify U.S. interests; aim to diffuse tensions; establish protocols with the Chinese military to avoid accidental confrontations that could escalate; and build a united front with regional allies.

A U.S. failure to adopt appropriate policies now could allow the Chinese to continue slicing the salami until little is left, creating a truly serious security problem for Japan and the other Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries with whom we have security agreements. At that point, it may be too late for the United States to react to the events without a major confrontation that nobody wants.

Joseph Cao, a New Orleans lawyer, is a former Republican member of the House of Representatives from Louisiana.

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