On a number of occasions now, I’ve taken to a number of different publications to rant about how the U.S. Department of Defense is ignoring the most immediate Chinese military threat. Specifically, while Washington has fixated on China’s emerging anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, and formulated an Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept in response, Beijing has been carving up the East and South China Seas with its salami slicing tactics.
To date, the Pentagon has largely acted as if these salami slicing tactics were not its problem. Instead, it has continued to fashion a future force geared toward executing its ASB concept. Being able to deter China’s high-end aggression is undoubtedly necessary and perhaps the most important task at hand.
However, there are at least two problems with this approach. First, so long as China is able to achieve its policy goals with salami-slicing tactics, it’s unlikely to move to more high-level aggression such as invading Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands, and Okinawa. After all, China has long pledged that it is committed to rising peacefully. There is little reason to doubt this assertion so long as it is able to achieve its policy objectives without resorting to war.
The second issue with the Pentagon’s approach is that it is building exactly the wrong force to deal with China’s salami slicing tactics. To execute an ASB concept, the Pentagon is sacrificing quantity for quality. That is, it is accepting a smaller force but one that is highly capable and at the leading edge technologically. Although this may allow the U.S. military to successfully execute ASB, it is precisely the wrong kind of force for countering China’s salami-slicing tactics. Countering China’s salami-slicing would require a large force to constantly patrol the massive waters of the East and South China Seas. These patrolling forces don’t have to be the most sophisticated technologically, as China generally relies on civilian maritime vessels to execute its salami slicing strategy.
The good news is that the Pentagon appears to finally be facing up to these realities. Last week a couple of reports in the Financial Times said that the Department of Defense has been examining ways to deal with China’s salami-slicing tactics.
“The U.S. is developing new military tactics to deter China’s slow but steady territorial advances in the South China Sea,” one of the reports, by Geoff Dyer and Richard McGregor, said. “The challenge for the U.S. military is to find tactics to deter these small-scale Chinese moves without escalating particular disputes into a broader military conflict.”
The bad news is that the solution that the Pentagon has come upon appears to be a wholly insufficient solution to the problem. “More extensive use of surveillance aircraft in the region could be coupled with a greater willingness to publicize images or videos of Chinese maritime activity. Some U.S. officials believe the Chinese might be given pause for thought if images of their vessels harassing Vietnamese or Filipino fishermen were to be broadcast.”
They are almost certainly wrong. The U.S. has tried shaming in many of its other interactions with China, including human rights. It has almost never been successful. If China can’t be embarrassed on low-level issues like human rights, it is hardly going to be “shamed” into abandoning its “core interests” in the East and South China Seas.
Moreover, it is unlikely that China will feel ashamed by videos and images of its vessels trying to protect its claims to the territorial waters it claims sovereignty over. In fact, these videos will prove extremely popular with the Chinese Communist Party’s domestic audiences. In addition, there is almost always enough ambiguity in clashes in the South China Sea that Beijing will be able to claim that the videos the Americans and its allies have released are “biased” in only showing China’s vessels doing the ramming. It will claim, however, that its vessels were only responding to the aggression of the other states. This is already what happened when Vietnam released videos and images of Chinese vessels ramming and using fire hoses against Vietnamese vessels over the oil rig incident.
In other words, while it is commendable that the Pentagon understands that it must do more to counter China’s salami-slicing, it needs to continue looking for better solutions.