Opinions | What Game Theory Says About China’s Strategy

On March 19, 1956, The New York Times carried a interview with Matyas Rakosi, described as “Hungary’s ebullient Communist boss.” Rakosi said his enemies accused him of using “salami tactics,” that is, cutting all the opposition’s slices. He did not deny it: “That is the job of any good political party – including the Communists,” Rakosi said.

Salami-slicing may have originated as a metaphor in Hungary, but in the decades since, it has entered the vocabulary of politicians, military tactics and editorial writers far off the banks of the Danube.

China, for example. In August, The Global Times, a newspaper published under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party, write, “The Biden administration is gradually promoting ties with the island of Taiwan by using salami-slicing tactics.” China itself has been accused of salami slicing tactics including intrusions into surrounding waters Taiwan, nasa South China sea and here border of India in the Himalayas. (The Chinese term for salami-slicing is “pwede shi, “Means smooth like a silkworm.)

Economics, specifically the discipline known as game theory, has a lot to say about the salami slice. The strategy is to move against an enemy in small increments, always staying below the threshold to provoke a response.

Thomas Schelling, the game theorist who received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science in 2005, memorably described the approach in his 1966 book, “Arms and Influence”:

“The tactics of Salami,” we may be sure, were invented by a child; who first explained the long-in the correct version understood that principle when he was young. Tell a child not to go into the water and he will sit on the bench and dip his bare feet; he is not yet “in” the water. Acquiesce, and he will stand; he was no more in the water than before. Think about it and he will begin to sink, not deepen; take a moment to decide if it’s different and he’ll go a little deeper, arguing that’s because he’s back and forth that all averages out. We immediately call on him not to swim out of sight, wondering what has happened to all our discipline.

A countermove against the salami slice is to draw a red line: far and not that far away. Expressing a red line is not just a communication; the announcement itself enhances the obligation by making it harder to give up, Schelling wrote in “Arms and Influence.”

To be effective against salami slamers, though, commitment must be more than cheap talk. Otherwise the salami slicer will not be suppressed. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has successfully summoned President Barack Obama bluff after Obama promised in 2012 that any use of Assad’s chemical weapons would be made cross a red line. Assad remains in power today.

Getting a reputation for being a bit crazy, and occasionally overreacting, is another way to prevent a slam of salami. As it puts it in Schelling, “If a person can’t buy clearly identifiable and fully reliable tripwires, an occasional booby trap placed randomly can serve the same purpose in the long run.”

It takes us back to Hungary’s Rakosi, the original salami slicer. Rakosi, a Stalinist, thought he could kill the opposition a little. But he was wrong. Just four months after he was interviewed, he was forced to resign and leave for the Soviet Union. And just three months later, Hungary erupted into a brief uprising against Stalinist domination led by Rakosi. Sometimes the salami refuses to be sliced.


5.9 percent

The change in China’s industrial output in August from a year earlier, according to an estimate by Action Economics of Boulder, Colo. That’s down to an annual change of 6.4 percent in July and 8.3 percent in June. China’s production has been hampered by “flooding, higher raw material costs and anti-pollution curbs,” according to FocusEconomics of Barcelona, ​​Spain. China’s National Bureau of Statistics will report the official figure tomorrow.


“Money makes the world go round.”

– Fred Ebb, lyrics from “Money, Money” from “Cabaret” (1966).

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