Thursday, May 3, 2012

China rules the waves with 'salami slicing' tactics

Apr 28, 2012

By William Choong

JONATHAN Lynn and Antony Jay, the writers of the 1980s political satire Yes Prime Minister, have a great way of making difficult concepts accessible.

In one episode, Britain's chief scientific adviser (who with an Austrian accent seems to be styled after Dr Strangelove) grills the prime minister about when he would 'press the nuclear button' to prevent Soviet encroachment in Europe.

Will he press the button if the East German fire brigade crosses from East to West Berlin? No, the premier says. When the firemen are replaced by East German soldiers? Not quite, the PM answers.

Will the prime minister press the button when the Soviet army is poised to invade Britain? Well no, the premier says, saying that nukes were meant to protect Britain only.

'What is the last resort? Piccadilly?' the adviser scoffs.

In a six-minute clip, Mr Lynn and Mr Jay had just explained salami tactics. This entails a divide-and-conquer strategy that demands 'a little more each day, like cutting up a salami, thin slice after thin slice'. Soon, the opponent realises that he has lost most, if not all, of his salami.

But salami tactics is not an artefact of Cold War history. Today, Asian countries are seeing China replicate exactly the same strategy over the disputed South China Sea.

In early April, Chinese fishing boats went to the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by Beijing and Manila. The Philippines sent in its biggest warship to arrest the fishermen, but China deployed civilian maritime vessels to block the warship. Manila then pulled back the warship and replaced it with a smaller coast guard vessel.

On Sunday, one Chinese surveillance ship remained in the area after two others pulled out.

In essence, the incident has left the Philippines with a thin slice of salami. And if China's past behaviour is any guide, Manila risks losing a huge chunk.

Since the 1990s, China has employed salami tactics in staking its claim to the South China Sea - what Filipinos call a 'creeping invasion'.

The classic example is the aptly named Mischief Reef.

In 1994, China built structures on the reef, which is located just 210km from Palawan. Manila protested, but China said the structures were for fishermen. In 1999, China added fort-like structures on the reef.

Each time China slices the salami, the Philippines is faced with a dilemma - escalate the incident and risk a military conflict, or step aside and allow China to expand its territorial claims.

One Asian naval officer told me that Manila has effectively chosen the latter option. 'The Philippine Navy bungled the whole thing. They should have arrested the Chinese fishing crew and took them to Manila. Now they have let China step all over them,' he says.

China's salami tactics might reap dividends in the long run, since the occupation of any disputed islands bolster its legal case for sovereignty.

More importantly, China's salami tactics challenges Washington, which has declared that it would 'pivot' or return back to Asia.

To its credit, the US has gone to great lengths to show its support for Asian countries which have South China Sea disputes with Beijing. In 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton riled China when she said that the disputes should be settled multilaterally.

That said, each time China wins tactical victories against US allies such as the Philippines and Japan, Asian countries will increasingly question US security guarantees.

To mark the 60th anniversary of America's alliance with Manila in November, Mrs Clinton boarded the USS Fitzgerald, one of the US Navy's most powerful warships while it was anchored in Manila Bay. She declared that the US 'will always be in the corner of the Philippines and we will stand and fight with you'.

The fact is that the Philippines was left to its own devices during the Scarborough incident.

Granted, the US has sought to make all the right noises on the issue. As the US and the Philippines conducted the Exercise Balikatan series of war games recently, US Marine Lieutenant-General Duane Thiessen was asked whether the US would come to Manila's aid if Chinese armed forces attacked Philippine units over conflicting claims to the Scarborough Shoal.

Said Lt-Gen Thiessen: 'The United States and the Philippines have a mutual defence treaty which guarantees that we get involved in each other's defence and that is self-explanatory.'

Professor Donald Weatherbee at the University of South Carolina argues that there is no automacity in US support for Manila, given that there is enough 'wiggle room' in their defence treaty for the US to shirk responsibility. 'It would seem realistically that the MDT (mutual defence treaty) has little deterrent value,' he writes in a report for Pacific Forum, a Honolulu-based think-tank.

The same applies to Japan's tussle with China over the disputed Senkaku islands. In 2010, a Chinese fishing trawler collided with a Japanese Coast Guard ship. The crew of the trawler was held in custody, but all were released following high-level Chinese protests.

And note that Tokyo's embarrassing back-down comes amid US officials' insistence that the Senkakus is covered by Tokyo's military alliance with Washington.

Granted, the US faces the same dilemma as the Philippines - it could escalate and activate its alliances, or remain passive. Pivot notwithstanding, however, the US is displaying little push-back against China's salami slicing.

Meanwhile, the geopolitical map in Asia is being rearranged. China, according to Japanese academic Yukio Okamoto, now views the East China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea as its own 'internal waters'.

And pressed by China's so-called anti-access area denial (A2AD) strategy that threatens US Navy ships approaching China's coastline, the US has moved troops and ships farther off from China. It has stationed marines in Darwin and plans to rotate ships and subs through naval bases in Perth and Brisbane.

Understandably, the US will pick its fights with China very carefully. But as in the Cold War, the logic of salami slicing will apply - if one doesn't push back against someone slicing your salami, the salami will all be lost someday.

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