Let the Salami-Slicing Begin: The Pentagon Must Address the Unmanned Island Problem – As military challenges to the rules-based order go, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may be the exception rather than the rule.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine was so blunt that it demanded a Western response. Putin neither employed the plausible deniability that accompanied Russia’s initial assault on Crimea nor sought to avoid major population centers. Instead, he attempted to cleave off vast sections of the country, occupy its major cities, and even target Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. His public speeches questioned Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state. He forgot that, beginning with the United States’ entry into World War I, every time one country invaded another to eradicate it, the United States became involved: World War II, South Korea, South Vietnam, Kuwait, Bosnia, and Kosovo.
Salami-Slicing Goes Global
Not every revisionist leader is reckless enough to force an immediate reaction, however. This has been the logic of China’s “salami slicing” in the South China Sea. Beijing has seized reefs, rocks, and atolls belonging to the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Its dispute with the Philippines is especially egregious as the ‘islands’ it seized belonged to the Philippines when the United States took the country from Spain in 1898, and then in 1946 when the Philippines gained independence from the United States.
If China seeks to test U.S. resolve on Taiwan, it is likely to attempt the same strategy as it has in the South China Sea. The Taiwan Relations Act defines Taiwan narrowly as consisting of only Taiwan [Formosa] island and the Pescadores [Penghu]. This replicates the dynamic created by Secretary of State Dean Acheson who, in January 1950, left Korea outside the defensive perimeter that the United States pledged to enforce. This omission, in turn, encouraged North Korean leader Kim Il-sung to believe he could attack South Korea with impunity. This miscalculation sparked the Korean War and led to the deaths of more than two million civilians.
While the White House embraces strategic ambiguity with regard to Taiwan’s defense, the exclusions of Matsu and Quemoy, epicenter of the Eisenhower-era Taiwan crisis, as well as other islands strips much of the ambiguity from the existing U.S. posture by suggesting the United States would compromise on Taiwan’s territorial integrity. Should mainland China seek to test American resolve, Taiwanese officials are especially nervous about Pratas Island and the Dongsha Atoll, a sparsely populated and isolated Taiwanese national marine park about 200 miles southeast of Hong Kong. If Chinese President Xi Jinping sought to further challenge Taiwanese and Western resolve, he could act to seize the Kinmen [Quemoy] and Matsu group of islands that are today home to perhaps 150,000 Taiwanese. Many of these lie just five to ten miles from the mainland Chinese coast and so are far more accessible to the People’s Liberation Army than is the more distant and topographically difficult Taiwan island.
Not Just a South China Sea Issue
Half the world away in the Aegean Sea, the United States faces an analogous situation. Turkey, like China, is a revisionist state whose dictator consolidates control and seeks to use external aggression to distract from corruption and economic mismanagement. Just as Chinese officials crafted the “Nine-Dash Line” out of thin air, so too does President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his handpicked inner circle increasingly now claim half the Aegean Sea. While journalists and many Western diplomats dismiss the threat of a Turkish invasion of Greece as hyperbole, too often, they base their dismissal on strawman arguments. No one suggests Turkish warplanes and troops will bombard or seek to capture Athens or even Greece’s most populous Aegean islands. Instead, the danger is that Turkish special forces might strike at small and relatively unpopulated islands such as Agathonisi, Farmakonisi, Kandeliousa, and Kinaros.
While General Konstantinos Floros, chief of the Hellenic Armed Forces’ General Staff, has publicly stated that Greece will not differentiate between a limited crisis and a major war, such rhetoric may not translate well into reality. Nor is it clear if a more limited Greek response with artillery barrages on Turkish occupiers would be sufficient, especially if Turkey provided its marines with air cover or threatened to escalate. Simply put, the danger is that Erdogan may believe that the West or a distracted NATO may see a frozen conflict or even a compromise as preferable to an intra-NATO war. Indeed, Turkey’s pursuit of the long game in Cyprus by wearing down diplomats and using settlers to change demography could convince Erdogan that an Aegean gamble is worth it.
Nor is the problem only islands. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s embrace of moral equivalence and ‘bothsiderism’ repeatedly exacerbates conflict in the South Caucasus. In the latest example, he called Azerbaijan’s foreign minister ‘courageous’ in pursuit of peace after the Aliyev regime twice invaded sovereign Armenian territory. Azerbaijan’s response? To demand far more Armenian territory. Blinken may believe such rhetoric sophisticated, but revanchists in Baku see him as weak and his statement as a green light to further aggression. Perhaps Ilham Aliyev will order his forces to seize a mountaintop, a valley, or a village. The target may be unclear, but the test is now inevitable.
Wishful thinking in Washington is not a strategy, nor is bothsiderism a deterrent. Revisionist actors probe for weaknesses in doctrine and then exploit them. Salami-slicing over unpopulated islands or mountaintops today represents the next step in military aggression against democracies in Taiwan, Greece, Armenia, and, by extension, against the rules-based liberal order.
What Should Be Done
With the elections over in Washington, it is time to get serious about the challenges revisionist regimes pose and move to plug holes in strategy. It is time the United States ended its strategic ambiguity not only in the Taiwan Strait but also in the Aegean and the Caucasus. Blinken should state that the United States sees no difference between a strike on an island or mountaintop on one hand, and a capital city on the other. Put another way, the United States would not compromise over Hawaii; it should not expect Taiwan or Greece to do likewise. To force Armenia to compromise over Zangezur would be even worse: the equivalence of bargaining with an enemy over ownership of Nebraska. It is time either to extend an unambiguous umbrella over democracies or ensure that each has a qualitative military edge that can blunt the threats they face from neighboring dictatorships.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).
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