By Dr. Subhash Kapila
“But what about an adversary that uses ‘salami-slicing’—the slow accumulation of small actions, none of which is a casus belli, but which could add over time to a major strategic change?
The goal of Beijing’s salami-slicing would be to gradually accumulate through small but persistent attacks, evidence of China’s enduring presence in the claimed territory, with the intention of having that claim smudge out the economic rights granted by UNCLOS and perhaps even the right of ships and aircraft to transit what are now considered to be global commons. With ‘new facts on the ground’ slowly but cumulatively established, China would hope to establish de-facto and de-jure settlement of its claims.” — Robert Haddick, Foreign Policy Journal, August 03, 2012.
The South China Sea dispute between China and its South East Asian neighbours which has been festering for decades assumed conflictual contours since 2008-2009 after China declared it as a ‘core interest’ for China, and on which it would be ready to go to war to defend its self-proclaimed sovereignty.
China’s such assertions should not surprise the international community as it is very much in keeping with China’s past posturings and its marked propensity to resort to conflict to resolve territorial disputes rather than by conflict resolution initiatives.
Noticeably, China after 2009 has embarked on what can be best described as on a dangerous course of military brinkmanship which not only is destabilising for the Asia Pacific region but could ignite China’s military confrontation and conflict with the United States over China’s military adventurism in these contested waters.
South China Sea disputes stand well covered in media analyses and need not be focussed in this Paper. Since China’s contentious military unilateralism and aggressiveness carries the dangers of spilling into a wider conflict what needs to be focussed on is as to why and how China feels emboldened to indulge in military adventurism over territorial disputes with its neighbors which could ordinarily be resolved through multilateral regional and international forums.
This paper therefore intends to examine the following related issues:
- China’s Escalated Brinkmanship on South China Sea Conflict: The Intended Target is the United States.
- China’s Timing of Escalated Brinkmanship Significant
- United States Strategic Dilemma in Effectively Responding to Chinese Brinkmanship on the South China Sea Conflict
- China’s Contending Claimants Options on South China Sea Conflict: ASEAN not an Option, the Effective Option is the United States
- Global Responses to China’s Escalated Brinkmanship on South China Sea Conflict
China’s Escalated Brinkmanship on South China Sea Conflict: The Intended Target is the United States
China’s escalated brinkmanship on the South China Sea conflict can no longer be limited to China’s burning desire to garner the control of the vast hydrocarbon reserves that not only lie in the South China Sea but also in the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea region. China’s disruptive strategies in the South China Sea region has now transcended onto a bigger strategic canvass, namely to checkmate the United States and assume the dominant role in Asia.
China can ride rough-shod over all its rival claimants in the South China Sea conflict with its military might any day but it will not do so as it can achieve the end result on a low-cost option by a graduated and incremental strategy which keeps the conflict boiling but yet does not boil over. In such a strategy China pre-empts a swift intervention by the United States and yet achieves its strategic objectives outlined above.
The South China Sea aggressive claims are but only a precursor for similar aggressiveness to follow in the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea where it will be pitted against a more powerful rival in Japan.
However to graduate to the seas in the North, China must first attempt to get the better of the United States in the South China Sea region, both geopolitically and geostrategically
Geopolitically, China’s aims against the United States is to belittle the United States image by its seemingly inaction against Chinese military adventurism in the South China Sea region. Symbolism carries weight and the image of a helpless United States to checkmate China could be damaging for the United States.
Geostrategically, the Chinese aim is to portray to South East Asian nations that the perceived lack of strong ripostes by the United States against China arise from lack of political and strategic will on part of the United States to confront China on contentious issues. More starkly China wishes to the strategic credibility of the United States as a reliable strategic partner of Asian nations in countervailing China.
China’s three-pronged strategy outlined above is a manifestation of what in an earlier Paper I had described as China’s strategy of asymmetric attrition of wearing down US military embedment in Asia Pacific leaving the field wide open for China to dominate the Asia Pacific.
China’s Timing of Escalated Brinkmanship on South China Sea Conflict Significant
China’s timing of escalated brinkmanship in the last few months is significant, especially as it goes against the grain of any strategic logic. China is always credited by the global strategic community as having strategic patience, long range strategic vision and that China is evolving into a responsible stakeholder in global affairs. But in the present process of China’s escalated brinkmanship on the South China Sea conflict these ingredients are visibly absent.
Then how does one make sense of its current military aggressiveness on the South China Sea conflict? China’s timing for escalated brinkmanship on South China Sea conflict can be attributed to the following factors/developments:
- China’s strategic consternation on United States strategic pivot to Asia Pacific and rebalancing its military postures in Asia Pacific. China hopes that by escalated brinkmanship on the South China Sea conflict it could deflect/disrupt United States rebalancing its military postures in Asia Pacific.
- China is seeking to impede the strategic gravitation of South East Asia nations to the United States camp and force them to arrive at strategic compromises with China by a bilateral process in which China’s political and military coercion can fully come into play.
- China senses that with the United States fully engrossed with Presidential Election year politics, the present time is opportune for exploitation of its geopolitical and geostrategic objectives stated earlier in this paper.
China has long been involved in sowing disunity amongst ASEAN nations as part of pursuance of its overall strategy to wean away Asian nations from US influence and which has a direct bearing on China’s aggressive brinkmanship posturing on the South China Sea conflict with ASEAN nations. ASEAN divisive disunity was starkly visible at last month’s ASEAN Foreign Minister’s Meeting in Cambodia. Cambodia on China’s prodding sabotaged ASEAN unity in a glaring fashion where Cambodia indulged in a proxy war against its ASEAN member nations.
United States Strategic Dilemma in Effectively Responding to Chinese Escalated Brinkmanship on the South China Sea Conflict
The United States is not a passive bystander to China’s escalated brinkmanship over the South China Sea conflict. Even before it enunciated the Obama Doctrine of strategic pivot to Asia Pacific, the United States had already put into motion a southward realignment of US Forces to Guam with the aim of swift responses to any outbreak of conflict in the South China Sea region.
The United States has also been refining and redefining its military doctrines specific to any military threats that China may pose in the region, in particular the Air-Sea Doctrine which is aimed at neutralising China’s Anti Access strategies .
However it seems that in terms of responding to China’s piecemeal coercive military actions against its ASEAN neighbours claimants to territories in the South China Sea, the United States is in a strategic dilemma.
The United States dilemma is best reflected in the words of the author quoted above, and he observes: “But policymakers in Washington will be caught in a bind attempting to apply this (US ) military power against an accomplished salami-slicer (China). If sliced thinly enough, no action will be dramatic enough to justify starting a war.”
He further observes that “A salami slicer puts the burden of disrupting actions on his adversary. That adversary will be in the uncomfortable position drawing seemingly unjustifiable red lines and engaging in indefensible brinkmanship. For China that would mean simply ignoring America’s Pacific Fleet and carrying on with its slicing under the reasonable assumption that it will be unthinkable for the United States to threaten a major power over a trivial incident in a distant sea.”
The United States however needs to recognise that historically that such trivial military brinkmanship provocations have a tendency to cumutavely add upto major flashpoints which could have been best pre-empted and nipped in the bud at the nascent stage.
Further, the United States in order not to allow its political and strategic image and stature in Asia Pacific be undermined by China’s nibbling provocations in the South China Sea region, is honour-bound to ensure that it provides the necessary security against China to its existing Allies and those whose strategic partnerships it is seeking like Vietnam.
China’s Contending Claimants Options on South China Sea Conflict: ASEAN is Not the Option; the Effective Option is the United States
Confronting China for control of disputed islands/shoals that dot the China Sea are South East Asian countries all of which are members of ASEAN. The ASEAN grouping as an organisation had all along been trying to involve China for a dialogue on the South China Sea conflict but without success. China all along resisted that the dispute dialogue be a subject of multilateral discussions.
Additionally, the ASEAN nations, most of them were till recently adopting hedging strategies on China unsure that the United States would have the resolve to confront China on the South China Sea conflictual disputes. The picture seems to have changed after the enunciation of the Obama Doctrine.
China’s response was to inflict a divisive blow on ASEAN by proxy use of Cambodia to scuttle issue of a Communique after last month’s ASEAN Foreign Minister’s meeting in Cambodia, which would have incorporated critical references to China’s current postures on the South China Sea dispute.
ASEAN is likely to emerge as more deeply divided as China’s brinkmanship escalates on these territorial disputes. All that this bodes is that ASEAN cannot as a grouping hope to be an effective counterfoil against China on behalf of its members involved in territorial disputes with China.
Even if ASEAN was united in its stand against China’s coercion, it still does not have the military muscle to confront China. That is the stark reality.
The other stark reality for ASEAN is that China is averse to any multilateral dialogue with ASEAN grouping and this is best explained by Haddick who rightly surmises that : “ The collapse of ASEAN’s attempt to establish a code of conduct of conduct for settling disputes in the seas(South China Sea) benefits China’s ‘salami-slicing’ strategy. A multilateral code of conduct would have created a legitimate demand for dispute resolution and would have placed all claimant countries on an equal footing. Without such a code, China can now use its power advantage to dominate bilateral disputes with its small neighbours and do so without the political consequences of acting outside an agreed set of rules”
ASEAN countries confronting China on the South China Sea territorial disputes are left with no option but to strategically rely on the United States for a security cover and countervailing force against China. In doing so they would have to be ready to enter into security relationships with the United States.
Global Responses to China’s Escalated Brinkmanship on South China Sea Disputes.
The global responses are best illustrated from a reading of speeches given at the Shangri La Dialogue June 2013 deliberations at Singapore. The common thread running through these speeches was that the global community and major powers were committed to the security of the “global commons” and to the “freedom of the high seas” and that no country had a right to declare them as national territories.
The United States, UK, and the new French Foreign Minister emphasised that all of them stood committed to the security and stability of South East Asia. The new French Government through its Foreign Minister made clear that France and European nations had a stake in South East Asia and the stability and security of the region was their strategic concern. He further emphasised that France would support any regional security grouping in the region.
China fearful of critical reference on its South China Sea posturing virtually stayed away from the Singapore annual event and sufficed it with a low level representation.
Undoubtedly, China stalks the South China Sea as a lone ranger bent on establishing its hegemony over the South China Sea and to be followed by similar provocative posturing later on the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea.
Fearful of the above, China’s power rival in the region, Japan has issued some initial cautionary warnings. While China seems to be getting away with military bullying of its smaller ASEAN claimants in the South China Sea, the same walk through may not be possible for China when it confronts Japan on similar disputes up North.
China’s recent escalated brinkmanship on South China Sea disputes with small ASEAN countries needs to be viewed as a strategic and military gauntlet flung at the United States in the nature of a challenge to provide effective United States countervailing power against China and security guarantees to South East Asia countries locked in territorial disputes with China on the South china Sea
United States responses to China’s provocations and brinkmanship are being carefully being scrutinised in ASEAN capitals and Asia Pacific capitals as eventually the success of the American strategic pivot to Asia Pacific would overwhelmingly depend on United States resolve in effectively checkmating China and before The China Threat cumulatively becomes too hot for the United States to handle.
United States declared neutrality on South China Sea disputes is no longer a viable option for the United States. The United States needs to see through the diabolical ‘Salami-Slicing Strategy” being practised by China in the South China Sea and effectively checkmate China before China prompts a United States exit from Asia Pacific.
(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email:[email protected])