Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Why China must respond to every Taiwan taunt

  • ‘Salami slicing’, long studied by game theorists as a political tactic, explains why Beijing has no choice but to counter every small and gradual move made by Taipei and its Western supporters towards independence

Told not to go in the water, a child sits by the bank but dips his feet. His parents are watching. He then submerges more of his legs, but still no parental response. Soon he is standing in the water. Worried, the parents tell him to back off. He moves back but tells them to chill. They let it slide. Before long, he is back to his old game. The father loses patience and pulls him out, with him kicking and screaming, “I wasn’t even in the water!”

OK, I modified the story a bit but that was the example the Nobel economics laureate and game theorist Thomas Schelling once used to explain how “salami slicing” worked in real life and how it could be countered.

It’s a child’s play that is often used as a political tactic – to make small and gradual moves to avoid an overwhelming response to achieve a goal or change the status quo. It seems obvious that Taiwan under President Tsai Ing-wen and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party have been doing precisely that. Chinese sometimes call the tactic cán shí or “a silkworm nibble”. In Taiwan, it’s jiàn dú, which literally means independence by a “gradualistic” approach. Taiwanese are fairly open about it, that is, if you know their language.

After Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, Beijing gets mad, as it has warned it would. The US Congress and White House have blasted China for overreacting; it was just a short visit, they say.

As if on cue, the European Union and Group of Seven nations put out similar statements decrying Beijing’s “overreaction”. However, in recent years, more and more senior US officials have been making the pilgrimage to Taipei; then came Pelosi, the most senior of them all.

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Of course, the same critics now say Pelosi’s visit will inspire more political leaders and parliamentary representatives from the European Union and the US to follow. And after Lithuania, more European countries are planning to allow the self-ruled island to use the name “Taiwan” for its representative offices, which will potentially upgrade them to consulates, or even embassies.

As game theorists such as Schelling would tell you, only a line drawn in the sand, followed by an overwhelming or “disproportionate” response could deter or slow down the nibbling silkworm.

Meanwhile, Taipei is shouting to the world media, “I wasn’t even in the water!”