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Doklam And Beyond: India Must Brace For China’s Land-Maritime ‘Salami Slicing’

There’s potential for war…

18/08/2017 8:30 AM IST | Updated 18/08/2017 8:30 AM IST
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Among watchers of its international behaviour, China has been known for its "salami slicing" tactics—its gradual accumulation of small, deceitfully innocuous actions, none of which individually pose an existential threat to another nation, but when seen in unison add up to significant changes in the economic, political and strategic dimensions. Within the larger "salami slicing" strategy of China is encapsulated another popularly known as the "cabbage strategy", which refers to the simultaneous evocation of multi-layered security-contestation dynamics around a disputed area that not only lays claim to the area but also blocks access to that region/entity for all other countries. The latter strategy also falls within what is broadly understood as China's anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) regional strategy to keep warring parties out of its claimed areas in the Asia-Pacific.

These strategies have come together to substantially alter Chinese claimed geography and sovereignty through historical-cum-territorial assertions in the Asia-Pacific region. The evocation of history has allowed two regionally unsettling transformations for other countries that are at a crossroads with Beijing. Firstly, it has allowed China to venture out of its traditional maritime circumference defined by the nine-dash-line, and secondly, it has made the probability of Beijing's renunciation of any of these claims further remote. In the past few years, China has claimed more than 80% of the SCS, and more apprehensively, continues to advance westward in Asia.

The seemingly benign salami slicing strategy of China, essentially associated with its sovereignty assertion in the Asia-Pacific, is spreading over the rest of Asia and carries the potential to go beyond...

Beijing's advance to its west, particularly in the maritime regions of the Indo-Pacific and the Indian Ocean, has caused tremendous concerns in New Delhi. More recently, its attempt to cage much of Asia within the peripheries of its land-maritime-combined revival of old trade routes in Asia smacks of a new form of imperialism. Both the "Belt" and the "Road" in its One Belt One Road have been estimated to include more than 60 countries and 4.4 billion people, passing through Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East and will cover up to 40% of global GDP. Furthermore, China's recent agreement on a 99-year lease to operate a strategically located deep-water port at the southern tip of Sri Lanka, its de facto control of Pakistan's Gwadar port, the phenomenal increase in the frequency of Chinese submarines plying in the Indian Ocean waters and, to top it all, its first international naval base at the strategic Indian Ocean node Djibouti, are all instances of ostensibly innocuous yet cumulatively calamitous changes in geopolitical realities of the Indian Ocean particularly and the larger Asian domain more broadly— a quintessential component of "salami slicing."

The seemingly benign salami slicing strategy of China, essentially associated with its sovereignty assertion in the Asia-Pacific, is spreading over the rest of Asia and carries the potential to go beyond in the near future. Given the nature of Chinese advance, sovereignty assertions and rhetoric, it would not be a false assessment to see Beijing's salami slicing tactics beyond the Asia-Pacific in Asia with the same strategic lens as in that region.

On the continental front, there have been numerous attempts by Chinese soldiers to cross Indian borders, assert their sovereign rights over parts of Indian territory and retreat. This strategy has been replicated with non-aggressive intrusions at Demchok, Chumar, and the Barahoti sectors in the past. All of these are part of China's continental aggression that seeks to extend its maritime arc of offensive diplomacy and merge it with a continental circumference of trade-and-connectivity dominance. Individually these transgressions and claims by Beijing hardly make sense but the cumulative impact of these unobjectionable contentions carry future war potential. The severity of this future challenge is on live-display at Doklam where the two countries are locked in a battle-mode with rhetoric flaring higher each day.

While holding China off temporarily at Doklam, India's larger strategy should focus on preventing regional realities on the ground from changing.

At Doklam, China's attempt to extend a motorable road and change the status quo blends perfectly into its salami slicing strategy which is fast packing a continental pack in the Asian domain, adding to its already existing robust maritime component. India's ongoing explicit military stand on behalf of Bhutan, where China attempted yet again to change regional geography and hence status quo, depicts a resolve in New Delhi not to let China change regional realities and most of all resist its attempt to anneal such changes. While holding China off temporarily at Doklam, India's larger strategy should focus on preventing regional realities on the ground from changing.

As such, India should brace for a combined land-maritime juggernaut of Chinese salami slicing tactics—one that is surreptitiously headed towards the Himalayas in the north and the Indian Ocean in the south.

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