Imagine that in 2020, China learns that the United States will soon deliver an unusually large and comprehensive arms package to Taiwan. Determined to continue growing its military advantage – and therefore its leverage – vis-à-vis Taiwan, China declares a red line against the delivery, threatening severe consequences if the United States proceeds. That announcement ignites a standoff in the Taiwan Strait. Each side mobilizes its forces and prepares for the possibility of armed conflict.
This hypothetical scenario captures one of the most likely crises that could break out between China and the United States in the coming years. Because Sino-American relations may come to define the international landscape of the 21st Century, it is essential to anticipate and, if possible, avert exactly this sort of flare-up, which could divert that critical relationship down the wrong path. Fortunately, this particular danger is largely preventable through subtle changes in policy that require no major sacrifices to the American national interest.
To avoid a future crisis with China over arms sales, the United States should dispense with the “arms package” approach to arms sales to Taiwan and instead conduct the sales in a steady stream of small increments. Nobel-prize winning strategist Thomas Schelling coined the term “salami tactics” to describe this approach, a reference to slicing off an objective in a series of gradual steps rather than all at once. Using salami tactics does not mean selling fewer arms. It means spreading out the same sales across a series of transactions that are each individually too small to provoke a violent Chinese response. This approach would have two core principles: no large arms packages, no long lulls between arms sales.
Adopting salami tactics would represent a marked change in U.S. policy. In 1992, the George H. W. Bush Administration approved an arms package that included 150 F-16A/B fighters, exactly the sort of unusually large package that could one day trigger a crisis with an increasingly powerful and assertive China. More recent arms packages have been smaller, but still larger than necessary. In 2008, the United States announced $6.5 billion in arms sales to Taiwan, a package that included Patriot missiles, Apache attack helicopters, and upgrades to the Taiwanese Air Force’s F-16s and F-5s. In protest, China suspended military-to-military ties with the United States. In 2010, President Obama approved another $6 billion package featuring Patriot missiles, Blackhawk helicopters, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and additional F-16 upgrades. China condemned the sales and sanctioned some participating U.S companies. In 2014, the United States approved the sale of four Perry-class frigates. It is currently common practice to announce up to several years’ worth of sales together.
Last December, the United States announced a $1.83 billion arms package for Taiwan that included two Perry-class frigates, amphibious assault vehicles, anti-tank missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and upgrades to a variety of other weapon systems. Predictably, China objected, with a spokesman declaring, “We resolutely oppose sales of weaponry or military technology to Taiwan by any country in any form or using any excuse.” China has yet to put its full power behind attempting to halt an arms sale, but that may change as China begins to flex its newfound muscles.
The question is: why combine these sales into one larger package that is so much more likely to provoke a stronger Chinese response? Adopting salami tactics would have meant splitting up the sales into multiple transactions announced and delivered separately, bringing the price tag for each well below $1 billion. There is simply no need to treat as one package a set of unrelated weapon systems. Indeed, there is no need to sell large numbers of the same weapon system all at once.
Salami tactics can help to avoid a crisis in which China learns of an impending arms deal and declares a red line against it. China would find it difficult to threaten war over the sale of a few surface-to-air missiles or a single frigate, especially after tolerating a similar delivery only months beforehand. How could such a large threat be credible for such a small infraction? Rather than declare a red line it cannot enforce over yet another modest and ordinary sale, China would more likely opt not to set one at all.
Just as important as avoiding large arms packages is avoiding long periods without any arms sales. A prolonged suspension of arms sales, even one that begins for reasons other than assuaging China, will gradually solidify into a precedent. Once a no-sales precedent is in place, then even a small sale after ten years of none will become more provocative than it would be today. China might seriously consider accepting grave risks to uphold a new status quo of zero arms sales to Taiwan.
Taiwan will sometimes need to quietly agree to larger multi-year deals so that U.S. arms manufacturers know, for instance, to keep a particular production line open. However, when this proves unavoidable, the United States can still announce and deliver these sales in increments. Because China would find it difficult to threaten to go to war in response to rumors or media reports of private U.S.-Taiwan arrangements, China is far more likely to make any red lines contingent on announcements or, more likely, actual deliveries. In short, to adopt salami tactics would mean choosing strategic benefits over administrative and commercial inconveniences.
The key to the salami tactics approach is avoiding any single act that so harms Chinese interests – as defined by Beijing – that China would seriously consider using or threatening force to prevent it. Right now, U.S. policy draws too heavily on the arms package approach and consequently risks just that. Opportunities to prevent serious crises without sacrificing the national interest do not come along often. It is vital to take advantage of them.
Dan Altman is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the International Security Program in the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center at Harvard University.