Home » Beware China’s Salami Tactics in Taiwan
China Global News Taiwan

Beware China’s Salami Tactics in Taiwan

Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and host of the weekly podcast “World Review with Ivo Daalder.” 

Shortly before setting off for Japan and Taiwan to lead a delegation of prominent Chicagoans on a visit, I received an email from one of the travelers asking whether we had contingency plans for getting out of Taiwan in case something happened.  

The question didn’t surprise me —discussions in the United States regarding China and Taiwan have focused on the increasing likelihood of war in the region for months now. Whether China will invade the island seems to be a given at this point — the questions are when and how.  

Our visit to Taiwan, however, underscored that this debate misses the point: There’s no doubt that, under Xi Jinping, Beijing is bent on ensuring the People Republic of China’s control over the island it regards as sovereign territory — and few in Taiwan doubt he’s willing to use force to that end.  

However, an outright invasion is currently the least likely contingency, as China’s decade-long political, economic and military encroachment on Taiwan may well achieve its goal just as well.  

Beijing knows that an outright invasion would be difficult and costly — mainly because the U.S. and its regional allies and partners have woken up to the possibility and started to respond by bolstering defenses.   

Washington has taken the lead here, increasing its military and diplomatic presence throughout the Indo-Pacific. A visit to Okinawa highlighted the U.S. military’s shift in focus and mission there, transitioning from managing alliance relationships to preparing for conflict. The Marines, in particular, are rapidly transforming their misplaced focus on fighting land wars in the desert with heavy armor into becoming an agile force able to communicate, sense, shoot and move in a maritime environment that’s characterized by long distances.  

As one commander put it, “tanks don’t drive well at sea.”  

Equally important, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has also worked assiduously to build and strengthen its alliances in the region. 

The U.S.-Japan security relationship is now the strongest it’s been in decades, bolstered by Tokyo’s decision to double defense spending over five years, while investing in new capabilities necessary to defend itself and enhancing deterrence throughout the region. Australia has also adapted its defense strategy and posture to focus on maintaining a strong deterrent in the Pacific. And Washington has successfully prodded both Tokyo and Seoul to set aside their differences to strengthen their bilateral and trilateral relations. The Quad leaders of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. now meet on a regular basis as well, most recently at the margins of the Hiroshima G7 meeting.  

Finally, as Taiwan absorbs the lessons of Ukraine and starts increasingly investing in asymmetric capabilities to thwart a much more powerful foe, the combined effort is sending Beijing an unmistakable message that war across the Straits would be bloody and costly — and its outcome far from certain.  

G7 Leaders at the the Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island | Kenny Holston/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

In other words, deterrence is strong and will only get stronger in the years ahead. And Beijing knows it.  

While warning that time is running out and keeping the use of force to unify Taiwan very much on the table, China’s overarching goal isn’t to invade its neighbor but to bring it under its sway. It’s something China’s been at for decades — steadily encroaching on Taiwan’s political, economic and military room for maneuver. And it is succeeding, in part because neither Taipei nor Washington and its allies has an effective response to Beijing’s slow strategy of steady strangulation.  

Take the South China Sea, for example. While Beijing has long claimed sovereignty over the maritime area it shares with other countries, it eventually started building an island chain on reefs and shoals by dredging sand and adding other materials. This, even though Xi promised former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2015 that China wouldn’t militarize the islands — which is precisely what it’s been doing ever since. And though the U.S. and other navies regularly transit the area to deny China’s sovereignty claims — as the International Court of Justice ruled in 2016 — Beijing remains undeterred, steadily expanding its presence and control over the region without an effective response.  

Or take Hong Kong. When Britain agreed to hand the territory back to China in 1997, Beijing committed to respecting the democratic and legal system it had enjoyed for at least another 50 years. But in 2019, China brutally ended this so-called “one country, two systems” experiment, putting Hong Kong under direct rule — ending its democratic freedoms and its citizens’ legal protections. And though widely condemned, Washington, its allies and its friends have largely accepted this new reality.  

We’ve seen Beijing embark on similar salami tactics in and around Taiwan as well.  

Last August, following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei, China launched a blistering military response, shooting missiles across the island and exercising how it might blockade access to the island. In the process, it obliterated the median line in the straits, which both sides had seen as effectively impervious until a few years earlier. Chinese military planes and ships now cross the median regularly, as many as 10 times a day, further encroaching on Taiwan’s freedom of maneuver.  

And while the extent and duration of China’s military exercises, launched after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen met with U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy earlier this year, were shorter than before, the number of planes and ships involved exceeded those previously employed — sending Taipei and Washington an unmistakable signal of menace.  

It’s not just China’s military that’s steadily encroaching on Taiwan either — it’s doing so politically and economically as well.   

Beijing effectively uses its economic leverage to punish countries that get too close to Taiwan, as it recently did to Lithuania when Vilnius allowed Taiwan’s trade office to use the country’s name. Over the past few years, the number of countries that recognize Taiwan has fallen by more than a third (from 21 to 13), and Taipei continues to be excluded from international agencies like the World Health Organization.  

Investors are also taking note. Earlier this month, business magnate Warren Buffett announced he had sold his stake in the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation — which dominates advanced chip fabrication — because he doesn’t like its location. And if the “Oracle of Omaha” decides it’s time to pull up anchor, other investors will likely follow — to Beijing’s great delight.  

Beijing’s salami-slicing strategy poses a challenge that’s quite different from the threat of an outright invasion. It places the onus of escalation on Taiwan and the U.S. — which both are reluctant to do for fear of provoking China and triggering the very war everyone is trying to avoid. And thus China is getting its way — moving ever nearer to exerting control over Taiwan and shaping its future.  

Taiwan’s slow, steady strangulation by China is the real threat — one Washington ignores at its peril when focusing too much on the improbable threat of an invasion.

Source: Politico