Ens. Jessica Cruz shoots a line of bearing on the bridge of the guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 62) as the ship conducts routine underway operations in the Taiwan Strait.

Ens. Jessica Cruz shoots a line of bearing on the bridge of the guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 62) as the ship conducts routine underway operations in the Taiwan Strait. U.S. Navy / Lt. (j.g.) Samuel Hardgrove

A Salami Slice for Taiwan’s Security

The U.S. can put a revisionist tactic to its own use in the Western Pacific.

In recent years, “incremental slicing” or “salami-slice” tactics have become an increasingly prominent feature of great power relations. Such tactics involve the use of military assets by a revisionist power – a power that seeks to upend or transform the existing international order – in ways that fall far short of the threshold of war, but that nevertheless cumulatively transform the geopolitical situation in its favor. While they can differ in the details, salami-slicing operations share one common denominator. They all involve the non-kinetic use of military or paramilitary assets to present the target country with a choice: accept the new geopolitical reality or take potentially war-triggering steps to restore the status quo ante. Given the stakes and potentially catastrophic effects of the latter, the basic assumption undergirding such tactics is that the status quo power will always opt for the former. 

Given all this, one might conclude that salami slicing is a quintessential “weapon of the weak.” Or, to put it slightly differently, one might see it as the weapon of choice of a revisionist power that wants to alter the existing geopolitical order, but does not want to trigger a war with the currently dominant power, either because they believe they could not win such a war or that a shooting war would otherwise have catastrophic consequences. 

But what if this is wrong? What if the United States – clearly neither a weak nor a revisionist power – were to find ways to use salami-slice tactics in pursuit of its own strategic interests? How, where and to what ends might the U.S. employ such tactics? And what would be the effects on international peace and security?

For illustrative purposes, let’s address these questions in the context of the U.S.-Taiwan-People’s Republic of China strategic relationship.

In this case, there are three sets of partly competing, partly overlapping interests at play. For Taiwan, the main national interest is to avoid the fate of being coercively incorporated into the PRC. Secondarily, but non-trivially, Taipei also has an interest in not being dragged into a catastrophic shooting war between the U.S. and the PRC. For Beijing, what it calls the re-incorporation of Taiwan into China is a “core interest,” a non-negotiable interest of paramount importance to the Chinese Communist Party. Being the weaker power, China also has an interest in engaging even in outright conventional combat with the U.S. As a global power with global concerns, the U.S. has global interests, only some of which intersect with the Taiwan issue. Whether on the general grounds of the credibility of its deterrent threat or the more specific grounds of denying the PRC dominance in East Asia, the U.S. has three basic interests at stake in the Taiwan issue. First, it cannot afford to allow China to coercively absorb Taiwan, for that would both weaken America’s geopolitical position in East Asia and undermine the credibility of American strategic threats and promises worldwide. And like Taiwan and the PRC, the U.S. would rather not find itself dragged into a war that it might either lose or win only at catastrophic cost. Either way, while Taiwan’s security is in America’s national interest, it is neither a core nor an existential interest.

Given Chinese perceptions of the relative stakes involved (high for the PRC, much lower for the U.S.), and China’s growing military power, Washington needs to find a way to make its commitment to the defense of Taiwan both iron-clad and unambiguously so. The obvious way to do this would be to adopt the kind of trip-wire strategy applied to such positive effect in Western Europe during the Cold War and in Korea to this very day. To wit, station U.S. troops on the island so that if the PRC were to invade, there would be American battle deaths – battle deaths that would ensure that the U.S. would be compelled to do everything in its power to defeat the invasion and restore Taiwan’s de facto independence. The challenge facing the U.S. is that, for a variety of reasons, U.S. troops have never been stationed on the Island, and that deploying them there now would be deemed a casus belli by Beijing.

So, the best possible strategy would seem to be off the table. But is it? Here’s a suggestion: act boldly to “home-port” an American warship at a Taiwanese port. Don’t telegraph whatever bilateral negotiations between Washington and Taipei would be needed to make this happen. Just sail the ship into harbor; leave it there; then, over time, develop the dockside infrastructure needed to support the vessel; then, again over time, increase either the size of the warship or the number of warships making that port home. In other words, play the salami-slice game, but in reverse: have the world’s premiere military power take a bold move short of the declared threshold of war, thus forcing its adversary either to accept the new status quo or attempt to re-establish the status quo ante

There would be risks, of course. In 2017, a Chinese embassy official told Congressional staffers that Beijing might respond to a U.S. warship's port visit with “non-peaceful means." But the situation is risky now. And, given the geopolitical circumstances, the risks of such a stratagem of stealth home-porting would be less than that of having tens of thousands of U.S. Marines or Army paratroopers suddenly land on the island and then establish permanent garrisons around the country.

If the U.S. were to signal its commitment in this way, as well as demonstrate that two can play the salami-slice game, it might just mean the end of PRC incursions into Taiwanese airspace. And beyond that, it might help stabilize the regional status quo while it still favors the U.S. and its democratic allies.

Andrew Latham is a professor of Political Science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and former assistant Director of the Centre for International and Security Studies, York University, Toronto.