Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.

Confronted with the failure of the Soviet Union, Marxists used to protest that Moscow hadn’t tried real communism, but only a curious hybrid known as “state capitalism.” That was ideological codswallop. Real state capitalism is to be found in Beijing, under the studied direction of the Chinese Communist Party. “To get rich is glorious!” said Deng Xiaoping, and by all accounts the leadership’s families have not dared ignore his command.

Pragmatism, however, is their chief attitude to ideology and, whatever their economic failings, Old Communists knew a thing or two about how to keep democracies on the back foot. Among such techniques are found “salami tactics” – the philosophy of expansion, slice by slice.

It assumes that democratic countries will balk at responding to all but the most blatant of provocations, and may occasionally let even those slide (for evidence see: Crimea, Putin’s annexation of). Neighbouring dictatorships can, if they are smaller, be intimidated in the traditional manner.

The latest round involves irredentism around a “nine dashed line” which China claims demarcated its territory at the time Hadrian had his wall constructed, and which encompasses almost all of the South China sea. It has led to standoffs with Vietnam and the Philippines, and produced anti-Chinese riots tolerated by Hanoi.

In principle, the United States guarantees Asian security but, particularly after last week’s decidedly unreassuring foreign policy speech from President Obama, its Asian allies may be left wondering how serious Washington really is. An intervention by the vastly overrated Chuck Hagel at a security conference over the weekend did enough to provoke the Chinese, whose delegate, General Wang Guangzhong, tore up his own speech to denounce Hagel’s as hegemonic, provocative and cooked up as part of a plot with Japan —without reassuring anyone else.

Salami tactics aim to test their opponents’ (conventional) capacity for deterrence. They constitute a bet that minor aggression will be allowed to pass because nobody wants a serious confrontation, let alone a war.

Opposing the gambit is tricky, because each slight is small enough that a response sufficiently strong to deter its repetition would appear absurdly provocative. It’s highly unlikely that the officers staging minor provocations against Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan were authorised to start a serious incident. But China is sufficiently opaque — even the real size of its defence budget is secret — that nobody can quite be sure.

It’s better to see them as a kind of test. Ambitious Chinese officers are probing the fence that has been erected around them to see how strong it actually is (Washington’s insistence that it isn’t trying to contain China is true only in the Clintonian sense). They may not ever be required to do anything more aggressive but it’s nice, from Beijing’s point of view, to know that they are getting some practice in.

If China’s position in Asia is like Russia’s in Europe, the resemblance isn’t entirely accidental: “while the cat’s away” and all that applies to foreign affairs, too. But there’s one important difference. While European countries have been getting more pacifist — one could have imagined Blair or Sarkozy sending a brigade to Poland — Japan has been getting less. General Wang’s outburst was in part provoked by the earlier Speech given by Japan’s Prime Minister Abe, an essentially unveiled attack on Beijing, spiced with a promise to supply patrol boats to Hanoi and Manila.

Salami tactics do not have to be met with calm rational calculation. It can be just as effective to let it be known that you might react with unpredictable aggression yourself. That nobody wants to eat a prickly pear has been essential to Israel’s security strategy.

As China as a lot more to lose than, say, Hamas, the deterrence does not have to be so strong. But the riots Vietnam’s normally intolerant police allowed, and which caused the evacuation of thousands of Chinese citizens, may have been in part an asymmetric signal to back off.

That this strategy is dangerous is self-evident. But in the absence of effective American reassurance it may be the only alternative available to China’s relatively small neighbours. Washington would probably respond to naked aggression, but seems flummoxed by coercion short of war. A miscalculation, perhaps caused by the Beijing leadership needing to distract its people from internal terrorism or their own glorious enrichment, would be disastrous.

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