Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable: Uncertainty, Brinksmanship, and Salami-slicing in East Asia

The largest of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

By John Chen, Columnist

Though China has used salami tactics on its periphery over the last 40 years, most notably in the Paracel Islands in 1974, Johnson Reef in 1988, and Mischief Reef in 1995,[1] the rapidly quickening pace of China’s territorial expansion since 2009 has attracted increased attention from various Asian regional governments, the United States, and news media at large. If the United States seeks to stop Chinese salami tactics in the East and South China Seas, US policymakers may be forced to get comfortable being uncomfortable by introducing more risk into an already dangerous arena.

In the context of international politics, salami tactics are a form of brinksmanship typically undertaken by a challenger state intent upon changing a territorial status quo by the use of small land grabs. These small aggressions individually fail to amount to a casus belli, but collectively account for a major change in the status quo. If each individual action sits below the threshold for war, the defending state has little justification to punish the challenger until what was to be defended has already been taken.[2] Successful salami-slicing strategy hinges upon an accurate calculation of what actions a defending state is willing to tolerate and extracts concessions by forcing the last clear chance to avoid war to the defending state.[3]

Increasingly assertive tactics have complemented China’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. In 2011, Chinese navy warships threatened to ram Filipino survey ships in the Reed Bank area in the South China Sea.[4] In June 2012, Beijing began to lease fishing and hydrocarbon rights inside the exclusive economic zones of other claimant states, namely Vietnam.[5] The following month, China established Sansha City in the disputed Spratly Islands chain[6] and may yet install a garrison there.[7] Chinese vessels have intruded into the areas surrounding the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, with the number of incidents increasing sharply from two in 2008 to four in 2012 and 25 in April 2013 alone.[8] In November 2013, Beijing unilaterally established an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea that overlapped with Japanese, South Korean, and Taiwanese zones without giving prior notice to other states.[9] Satellite imagery from January 2015 indicates that the Chinese are building a heliport about 190 miles away from the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, with significant implications for its ability to project power into the surrounding area and Beijing’s recently declared ADIZ.[10]

Though the United States pointedly flew B-52 bombers through China’s self-declared ADIZ, its responses to Chinese salami tactics thus far have been largely ineffective. Washington admonished its commercial air carriers to inform Chinese authorities of their flight plans through the newly established ADIZ, despite flying B-52 bombers through the zone,[11] thereby partially legitimizing the Chinese claim and relinquishing the opportunity to pass Schelling’s “last clear chance to avoid war” to Beijing. On its face, the Chinese ADIZ seems to have worked – most civilian aircraft passing through China’s new ADIZ notify Beijing of their flight plans, and while the ADIZ’s establishment caused an initial uproar, the flurry of media reports on the ADIZ has since died down. Chinese attempts to reaffirm its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea have continued – a November 2014 report from IHS Jane’s indicated that China is turning Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands into a land mass that could accommodate an airstrip.[12] China’s salami tactics continue despite uproar in various countries.

These salami tactics are inherently difficult to counter because they involve the manipulation of risk to gain a more advantageous outcome. If the United States seeks to stop Chinese salami tactics in the East and South China Seas, US policymakers may be forced to introduce more risk into an already contentious arena. A more effective, albeit risky, approach would involve the introduction of unpredictability. Since salami tactics work when the challenger knows what actions will not trigger war, introducing uncertainty about where the threshold for war is may deter further provocative action – in this case, from China. Thomas Schelling famously suggests that creating a reputation for randomly punishing minor transgressions may deter challengers from taking further slices of the salami.[13] Defending freedom of navigation along China’s periphery therefore presents a profoundly unappealing proposition for US policy makers: either eventually enter into a game of chicken with an increasingly assertive China, or concede incrementally, allowing Beijing to walk right up to clearly defined US red-lines should the Chinese so choose.

Many of the possible US responses to Chinese territorial expansion are flawed, but introducing risk might better deter China from acting on claims that it makes. For instance, had the United States ordered its commercial airliners not to notify Chinese authorities when entering China’s disputed ADIZ, as Japan did,[14] it would have successfully pushed the burden of enforcement and punishment to Beijing – an example of relinquishing the “last clear chance to avoid war” to the opponent. The possibility of a downed US airliner makes such a move especially weighty, but other options are potentially worse. The United States could openly declare certain Chinese actions off-limits and then resort to heavy-handed tactics ranging from naval patrols to outright use of force to stop Chinese territorial grabs, but this would require a level of public support not easily attained and easily worn thin. The United States is unlikely to go to war over a series of small islands on China’s periphery, and sounding the alarm too early or too often could create a “boy-who-cried-wolf” effect that would weaken public support when more important interests are threatened. Heavy-handed responses would be more useful when US red-lines are actually crossed. Until and unless the United States is prepared to go to war over Chinese sovereignty claims, manipulating risk to deter the Chinese salami tactics may remain the best of bad options.

The inherent nature of salami tactics presents difficult problems for a defending state. Whatever reasons for optimism exist, namely that regional powers will start to balance against Chinese assertiveness, remain sullied by difficulties in translating those tendencies into effective policy. American policymakers may have to face the unhappy reality that the United States must eventually be willing to risk war to defend freedom of navigation through international air and sea space.


John Chen is a columnist at the Georgetown Security Studies Review and an MA Candidate in the Security Studies Program. He holds an AB in Government from Dartmouth College and writes on East Asian security issues. 


[1] Brahma Chellany, “China’s Salami-Slice Strategy,” The Japan Times, July 25, 2013,

[2] Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 66-67

[3] Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 44-45, 70, 118.

[4] Prak Chan Thul and Stuart Grudgings, “SE Asia Meeting in Disarray Over Sea Dispute With China,” Reuters, July 13, 2012,

[5] Randy Fahbi and Chen Aizhu, “Analysis: China Unveils Oil Offensive in South China Sea Squabble,” Reuters, August 1, 2012,

[6] Lu Hui, “China Establishes Sansha City,” Xinhua News Agency, July 24, 2013,

[7] “Sansha Military Garrison Established,” China Daily, July 27, 2012,

[8] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Records of Intrusions of Chinese Government and Other Vessels Into Japan’s Territorial Sea,” January 19, 2015,

[9] Rick Gladstone and Matthew L. Wald, “China’s Move Puts Airspace in Spotlight,” The New York Times, November 27, 2013,

[10] Prashanth Parameswaran, “Is China Building A Base Near The Senkakus?” The Diplomat, January 23, 2015,

[11] Erik Voeten, “‘Salami Tactics’ in the East China Sea,” The Washington Post, December 3, 2013,

[12] James Hardy and Sean O’Connor, “China Building Airstrip-Capable Island on Fiery Cross Reef,” IHS Jane’s, November 20, 2014,

[13] Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 68.

[14] Hiroyuki Kachi, “Japan’s Airlines Alone In Defiance of China’s Air Zone,” The Wall Street Journal, December 12, 2013,

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.