An aerial shot taken on April 21, 2017, shows a reef in the disputed Spratly islands. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

Wikipedia explains “salami slicing” as “a series of many small actions, often performed by clandestine means, that as an accumulated whole produces a much larger action or result.” China’s nibbling actions along Indian borders are a relevant example of salami slicing. The receding exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of countries on the South China Sea littoral because of the continuous push of Chinese assertiveness is another example.

Multiple facets of salami slicing

China has also enhanced the application of salami slicing to areas beyond enlarging its territorial or maritime boundaries. On the larger canvas of employment of salami slicing are gradually making economies in indebted to China, in the bargain slicing into the sovereignty of nations, and core values of international institutions like the World Health Organization.

Back at home in China itself, Hong Kong and Tibet, the list includes salami slicing to induce demographic change, curtailing liberties to practice one’s own faith and values of free societies.

Beijing itself would definitely acknowledge that overall, salami slicing, however illiberal it may be, has earned an excellent return on investment. Bankrolled by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it has served Chinese expansionism. However, is the tide turning?

Bridging soft and hard power

Salami slicing could also be considered as a bridge that links China’s soft power with the harder variants. The means that are used include coercive diplomacy, cartographic aggression, saber-rattling, gunboat diplomacy, population-control measures, loans, project funding leading to debt traps, educational programs and incentives.

These activities could be in discordant areas in China’s own provinces, or in other nations. At the highest political levels, they ensure the survival of an allied regime (such as North Korea and Pakistan). Wherever applied, salami-slicing tactics can be appealing at the grassroots level too; it holds out promises of economic progress – until, of course, those promises evaporate.

Territorial claims

The most common slicing indulged in by China is in the area of territorial claims, both across its land borders and off its coastline. The Line of Actual Control between India and China is one that has been viewed most flexibly by Beijing to suit its requirements. Incursions across the LAC by Chinese forces is almost an annual ritual.  

Innumerable rounds of talks, at the levels of national security advisers, down to the sector commanders at the front lines, have failed to find common ground. Currently, the armies of both countries face each other, eyeball to eyeball, as a tenuous peace prevails.

Similar problems extend across the South China Sea. The Nine-Dash Line makes the sea a Chinese pond. Countries bordering the South China Sea have been bearing the shrinkage of their EEZs.

Where there are no territorial issues, for example with Indonesia, the Chinese militia of fishermen strikes, claiming historical fishing rights.

Salami slicing is an ongoing phenomenon in the South China Sea. It has led to reclaimed reefs, airstrips on such reefs, positioning military equipment and creating logistics infrastructure. China has disputes with the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, North Korea, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

Along the land borders, the disputes also involve Laos, Bhutan, Nepal, and most of all Tibet – a country that Beijing has usurped.

Debt traps

The recurrence of small countries being sucked into Chinese debt traps is reaching alarming proportions. Rather than starting the narrative with Africa, where the Chinese slicing into local economies has impacted hugely, let’s start with the Indo-Pacific region.

Papua New Guinea is in a precarious state. Its budget deficit this year is expected to pass 7.1 billion kina (US$2 billion). PNG owes heavily to the Exim Bank of China. Telikom PNG, a government-owned establishment, has huge repayment problems with Huawei. It’s unable to raise enough revenues to meet its debt commitments.

In addition to the telecom sector, the Chinese are developing Kavieng Airport and a network of highways. PNG doesn’t have the funds for these projects and may not be able to pay back its debts either. Thus Chinese salami-slicing has bored deep inside the PNG economy.

More examples in the Indo-Pacific region include Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, a critical asset that has been leased to the Chinese for 99 years. Gwadar Port in Pakistan, on the fringes of the Indo-Pacific region, at best a work in progress, is already leased out for 40 years. It provides China easy access to the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean region, through a land route running mostly through a strife-ridden Pakistan.

The massive BRI is the backbone on which the whole game rests. In Africa, Kenya is already on the edge. Various reports indicate between 21% and 70% of its external debt is with China. It has borrowed from the Exim Bank of China for a rail link between Nairobi and Mombasa. The assets of the Port of Mombasa might go to China with the rail line not paying for itself.

The situation in Djibouti is even more critical. Most of its economy is Chinese-owned. The first Chinese offshore base was in Djibouti. The People’s Liberation Army has also stationed marines at Djibouti.

Egypt and Ethiopia also face debt traps. China is the largest source of finance for infrastructure projects in Africa.

Sovereignty

The China-Tajikistan relationship is an example of salami-slicing leading to the renunciation of sovereign territorial rights. In 2011, Beijing coaxed a debt-ridden Dushanbe to give away 1,158 square kilometers of land in the Pamir Mountains. Today, the Tajiks owe the Chinese US$1.2 billion of their total foreign debt of $2.9 billion.

The Tajiks understand how salami-slicing is initiated and objected to it. The Chinese claim apparently covers the entire Pamir region now.

The BRI has been the reason for debts climbing steeply not just in Tajikistan, but Pakistan, Madagascar, Mongolia, Maldives, Kyrgyzstan Montenegro and Laos are a few examples of countries now heavily in debt to China.

Cultural inroads   

China-based think-tanks are mushrooming in the US and European Union. Confucius Institutes for spreading Chinese culture and language are under a cloud in Australia, the UK and the US. More than 100 such institutes operate in US universities already.

According to an August 20 report in the Indian newspaper The Hindu, China has “established 550 Confucius Institutes and 1,172 Confucius Classrooms (CCs) housed in foreign institutions, in 162 countries.”

One hundred trained Chinese language teachers are being made available to Nepal to teach Mandarin. Currently, Chinese is being taught in 85 institutions in Nepal.

Indian universities have agreements with the Chinese. Journalists are regularly sponsored for China visits. Many journalists have studied in China on scholarships and faced concerted attempts by Beijing to ensure they accept, appreciate, and promote the Chinese narrative.

Technology

Chinese stealing cutting-edge technology from global leaders in diverse fields is perhaps a well-established pattern that raises few eyebrows. The Maritime Security Review’s February 11 issue ran an article with a screaming title: “FBI is investigating more than 1,000 cases of Chinese theft of US technology.”

The article quotes John Demers, US assistant attorney general for national security, telling a seminar, “The threat from China is real, it’s persistent, it’s well orchestrated, it’s well resourced, and it’s not going away any time soon.

“The thefts are not necessarily carried out by launching major espionage operations, but it’s more by spreading the Chinese net far and wide into every sector to include research, commercial, government, non-government, defense, in fact, every possible establishment. They scope out small slices bit-by-bit and then put the relevant details together to pose a greater threat.”

Demographic change, diluting traditions

Various measures, including legislation, have been used for what’s popularly termed the Sinicization of Tibet. Beijing tried to change the demographics of Tibet by way of a flow of Han Chinese into the region. However, statistics don’t indicate an overwhelming success. Han came into Tibet for new jobs created by development schemes, but how many of them have lasted beyond that is not very clear.

China has shown poor concern for local traditions. In 1995 when the Dalai Lama confirmed a boy as the next Panchan Lama reincarnate of the Gelugpa sect, the boy and his parents disappeared, never to be heard of again.

China has been vocal about the 15th Dalai Lama’s reincarnation having to be in conformity with Beijing’s dictates. Schools in Tibet advise students not to go to monasteries, an ancient tradition. Deviations could lead to forfeiture of government subsidies.

Recently Beijing passed an “ethnic unity” law to increase assimilation pressures on Tibetans. The law was severely criticized by the Dalai Lama’s representative Ngodup Tsering.

The plight of Uighurs is a shameful patch on the world’s conscience. If even half the reports are true, Beijing is infringing on human rights every day. A September 18 report in The Guardian by Emma Graham Harrison titled “Chinese white paper on forced labor suggests unease at Western pressure” provides adequate details for alarm bells to ring loud.

More than a million people are in internment, apparently, at any one time. They can neither register protests nor raise their voices to be heard by the free world. 

Epilogue

No country can be victorious in every mission it undertakes. Every power needs to judge its capabilities continuously and evaluate its strengths. Its leadership needs to plot the fine line dividing its reach and over-reach.

President Xi Jinping has floundered somewhere along the way. A handpicked senior Chinese leadership, hugely servile, as is commonly encountered in autocratic states, continues to boost his ambition of transforming an often-heard call “our time has come” into a reality, without delay.

Undoubtedly, China has done extremely well. However, its over-reliance on coercive diplomacy, military muscle and economic blackmail is not working to its advantage any more. The world is getting wiser. The woes of debt-ridden countries forced into a Chinese orbit have set off the alarms in other capitals.

The Covid-19 pandemic has torn into China’s image. The Belt and Road Initiative is no longer being viewed as the road to prosperity; rather, the perception that it could lead its participants to be bound hand and foot to Beijing’s dictates is gaining ground.

The Chinese have always been famous for patience; a civilizational trait. They could do with a generous dose of the same today.

To quote a Chinese proverb: “Patience is power; with time and patience, the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.”

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S K Chatterji

Brigadier S K Chatterji (Retired) served in the Regiment of Artillery of the Indian Army and is a prolific writer.