Brahma Chellaney, Forbes
China’s territorial creep is now on open display: After laying a formal claim to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, it has established in the East China Sea a so-called air defense identification zone that encompasses Japanese-controlled islands. China has also ratcheted up territorial tensions with the Philippines, Vietnam, and India. For example, it persists with efforts to disturb the status quo along the long, disputed Himalayan border by repeatedly sending military patrols into Indian territory.
China’s behavior in the South and East China Seas reflects its conduct along the land borders it disputes — a strategy to assert its claims by incrementally changing facts on the ground, with little regard for international norms and rules.
Its incremental encroachments into neighbors’ borderlands can be described as a “salami-slice” strategy — or what Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) last May called a “cabbage” strategy. This involves asserting a claim, launching furtive incursions into the coveted territory, and erecting — one at a time — cabbage-style multiple layers of security around a contested area so as deny access to a rival. The establishment of an expansive air-defense zone in the East China Sea is its latest cabbage-style security layer move.
By moving quietly and gradually to achieve a strategic transformation in its favor, China undercuts both the relevance of U.S. security assurances to allies like Japan and the Philippines and the value of building countervailing strategic partnerships between and among Asian states and the United States.
The pace at which China’s bit-by-bit strategy proceeds depends on the extent to which the opponents marshal political will and capability to resist it. The strategy, for example, has run into stiffer obstacles vis-à-vis a resolute Japan than with a weak Philippines.
Let’s be clear: Changing the territorial status quo has been the unfinished business of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949, when it set out to forcibly absorb the sprawling Xinjiang and Tibetan plateau — actions that increased the landmass of China by 44 percent.
An emboldened China then went on to seize the Switzerland-size Aksai Chin plateau of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in the 1950s, the Paracel Islands in 1974, the Johnson South Reef in 1988, the Mischief Reef in 1995 and, most recently, the Scarborough Shoal (2012) and the Second Thomas Shoal (2013). Propelled by its growing military might, China is still working to redraw political boundaries.
Along land frontiers, rodent-style surreptitious attacks usually precede its salami slicing. The aim is to start eating into enemy land like giant rodents and thereby facilitate the slicing. The use of this strategy is becoming increasingly apparent along the Himalayan border with India, the world’s longest disputed frontier.
Here one form of attacks has involved the Chinese military bringing ethnic Han pastoralists to the valleys along the Himalayan line of control and giving them cover to range across it, in the process driving Indian herdsmen from their traditional pasturelands and opening the path to land grab. This strategy, which can also begin with the Chinese army directly nibbling at an unprotected border area, has been especially employed in the two highly strategic Buddhist regions located on opposite ends of the Himalayan frontier — Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.
While the Chinese army flexes its muscles in the mountainous borderlands with India, China’s navy and new coast guard assert territorial and maritime claims in the South and East China Seas.
In the East China Sea, China has employed paramilitary agencies, such as the Maritime Safety Administration, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, and the State Oceanic Administration, in a campaign of attrition against Japan over the Senkaku Islands — a campaign that has already succeeded in shaking the status quo by making the rest of the world accept that a dispute exists.
This has emboldened Beijing to step up the frequency and duration of its incursions into the uninhabited islands’ territorial waters and to violate the airspace over them. The November 23 establishment of an air-defense zone extending to the Senkakus (which it calls the Diaoyu Islands) is just the latest example of its jurisdictional creep and increasingly muscular approach.
Taking on Japan, its former occupier and historical rival, is part of Beijing’s larger search for new seabed resources and for strategic ascendancy in the western Pacific by breaking out of what it perceives to be “first island chain” — a string of islands and atolls extending along China’s eastern periphery that includes the Senkakus, Taiwan, and the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Its longer-term objective is to push U.S. military assets to the “second island chain,” farther out to the Pacific.
In the South China Sea, China aims to gradually legitimize its presence in the more than 80 percent of the sea it now claims formally. Through repeated and growing acts, China is etching a lasting presence in the claimed areas.
Among the ways Beijing has sought to establish new facts on the ground in the South China Sea is to lease hydrocarbon and fishing blocks inside other disputant states’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs), as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Such leases are designed to limit the UNCLOS-granted economic rights of the other claimant states while expanding China’s control of the region’s resource wealth, including hydrocarbon reserves.
China has even established “Sansha City” on Woody Island in the Paracels as its administrative base for the South China Sea, setting up a local civilian government and a military garrison there to oversee the entire region. And in its latest effort to present a fait accompli over its occupation of the Paracels, it has started tourist cruises to those disputed islands.
To be sure, Beijing, as a skillful salami slicer, is usually careful to slice very thinly so as to avoid any dramatic action that could become a casus belli by itself. China proceeds in ways not only to undercut its opponents’ deterrence strategy but also to cast the burden of starting a war on them.
Any targeted state is presented with a strategic Hobson’s choice: either put up with China’s territorial creep or face a dangerous and costly war. This is the choice, for example, Manila has faced over China’s 2012 seizure of the Scarborough Shoal, located well within the Philippines’ EEZ, and the controlling presence of Chinese vessels this year near Second Thomas Shoal, part of the Spratly Islands.
China’s strategic aim is not to merely gain control of some shoals (essentially rocks) but to dominate the South China Sea, a critical waterway linking East Asia with the Indian Ocean region and beyond to the Persian Gulf and Europe. In the East China Sea, too, the issue at stake is who will exercise influence over the vast region.
Against this background, China’s tactics and strategy pose an increasing challenge to several of its neighbors, who face a deepening dilemma over how to thwart its expansionism. China’s strategy of constant outward pressure on its borders also threatens to destabilize the economically vibrant but politically volatile Asia.
China’s neighbors must overcome their differences and collaborate strategically. Separately, they are outclassed by China but, collectively, they have the potential means to rein in China and defend their territorial and economic rights against its expansionism.