American ‘salami tactics’ have brought tensions to the brink, and the senior Democrat’s trip could light the fuse
In recent years, the US has unilaterally withdrawn from security agreements with its main adversaries, which has set in motion an uncontrolled escalation. It has put the Americans on a path to war with countries such as Russia and Iran, and Washington is now also taking steps towards an accidental war with China by incrementally abandoning the One China Policy. Beijing is now warning of an unprecedented military response if US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi follows through on her planned trip to Taiwan.
The One China Policy and the policy of strategic ambiguity
The US and China established full diplomatic relations in the 1970s, as Washington switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Washington committed itself to the One China Policy, which stipulates there is only one China, and Taiwan is a part of it. However, the US is concurrently strengthening Taiwan’s ability to act as an independent state, by providing weapons.
Thus, for the past four decades, peace between the US and China has been based on strategic ambiguity over the status of Taiwan.
Throughout that time, the US and China have been engaged in a “deterrence dilemma.” Washington has strived to prevent Beijing from forcefully reunifying with Taiwan, by supplying the island with arms, while China makes Taiwan think twice about formally seceding, by threatening military intervention. As Beijing has grown stronger, American efforts to prevent China from using its army are instead provoking it to intervene.
In the past, the US was reckless in managing the One China Policy, but in recent years Washington has begun to deliberately hollow out the policy. The rise of Beijing threatens the US security strategy based on global primacy, and there is no willingness in Washington to accommodate a multipolar order. Time appears to be on China’s side as its influence in the region will only increase. In contrast, America’s power is declining, which creates incentives for changing its posture towards China, and the Taiwan issue.
A decade ago, the Barack Obama administration announced its pivot to Asia, which involved moving American military infrastructure towards East Asia in a bid to contain China. His successor, Donald Trump, launched an economic war against Beijing and began to use the One China Policy as a bargaining chip. Under President Joe Biden, it appears that the US will completely abandon its commitments.
Beijing sees the continued effort to hollow out the One China Policy in the wider context of US reluctance to adapt to the multipolar world, and thus settle relations with the other great powers.
Hollowing out the One China Policy
US military cooperation with Taiwan has become more frequent and overt, and Washington has pushed for expanded Taiwanese representation in the international system – for example by supporting Taiwan’s participation in the UN system. Restrictions on official exchanges with Taipei have been eased, and more US officials have visited the island in what some US lawmakers hail as support for Taiwanese sovereignty. American media and think tanks have also become blatant in denouncing the One China Policy and calling for the secession of Taiwan. Biden has proclaimed on several occasions over the past months that the US would defend Taiwan if China attacked, which unravels the decades-long policy of strategic ambiguity as to how the US would respond.
These events have occurred at a time of growing military and economic rivalry, coupled with wider efforts to destabilise China from within. Yet, as always, Washington proclaims it is not seeking confrontation with Beijing, but merely standing up for American values. This is consistent with the broader concept of American hegemony, in which belligerent policies to advance global primacy are framed as benevolent support for democracy and human rights.
Nancy Pelosi is now tipped to make a visit to Taiwan this week – the first trip by an official of her rank in decades. How should Beijing interpret and respond to this action? Is Pelosi merely a rogue element in the US, grandstanding to draw attention away from her personal corruption scandal, or is this part of the wider US salami tactics aimed at gradually severing Taiwan from China?
Towards accidental war
Beijing has warned of the most severe consequences if Pelosi follows through with her threat to visit Taiwan. This leads many to believe that Beijing is merely bluffing, as risking a war with the US over a trip by a Washington official does not appear proportionate or rational.
However, the nature of salami tactics is to portray all responses as disproportionate and irrational. They entail limited but repetitive advancements to create new realities on the ground. Revisionism in small steps is designed to avoid rapid escalation and eliminate opposition from adversaries and allies, as any response can be portrayed as disproportionate or unprovoked. The political dishonesty of salami tactics is how accidental war starts.