A Temptest in The Taiwan Straits – Analysis

By Dov Katzenstein

A military jet fighter flies above the Taiwan Strait as seen from the 68-nautical-mile scenic spot, the closest point in mainland China to the island of Taiwan (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan went according to plan, including the aftermath. The Speaker stayed on the island for a little short of a day, meeting with political and business leaders, showing U.S. support for the de facto nation, all under the cover of an increased American military presence in the straits that separate the island from mainland China. Also, as promised, no sooner had Speaker Pelosi departed, did Beijing make good on its warning that it would act in response to what its foreign ministry repeatedly said it viewed as a provocation.

The past week has been marked by an escalating series of military drills around Taiwan. Those included the largest scale exercises, simulating what a pre-invasion strategy could look like. Most provocative were missile launches which fired into waters Taiwan claims control over. Chinese ships and planes encircled the island from six angles, effectively creating a blockade.

“Connect the six areas in a line, like a noose, with the knot of the noose right in the southwest direction,” Meng Xiangqing, a professor at China’s PLA National Defense University, told the state-run CCTV as quoted by CNN. He went on to explain how the operation could cut off Taiwan from U.S. bases in Japan and Okinawa, which would be the first to potentially aid the island’s defense.

China took political revenge as well, halting on-going defense and climate talks with the U.S. and sanctioning Speaker Pelosi. It also banned a long list of Taiwanese food exports, amounting to a third of the food items imported from the island to mainland China. The island has also been hit by increased waves of Chinese cyberattacks.

Hopes that the protest drills would end after the initial four-day round were dashed when this Sunday, the Chinese military announced a new set of live-fire exercises. Taiwan said that it detected 39 aircraft and 13 naval ships positioned around its straits on Monday and that several planes had crossed into its air defense zone. Taiwan said that the craft were poised to simulate “attacks on the island of Taiwan and our ships at sea.”

China’s Eastern Theatre Command also said it would be conducing anti-submarine drills, which many see as a warning sign of how they could move to clear the area of U.S. defenses ahead of an invasion.

On the sidelines of a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Cambodia, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told the press that China was using the Speaker’s visit as a “pretext to increase provocative military activity in and around the Taiwan Strait.”

“I reiterated the points that we made publicly as well as directly to Chinese counterparts in recent days, again, about the fact that they should not use the visit as a pretext for war, escalation, for provocative actions, that there is no possible justification for what they’ve done and urge them to cease these actions,” he said.

In one of her first public statements on China’s reaction to her trip, Speaker Pelosi defended her Taiwan visit and said that Chinese leader Xi Jinping was “acting like a scared bully.”

“We were not going to take Taiwan off our list because the president of Taiwan has invited us. President of China does not do our schedule,” she told an MSNBC interviewer this Tuesday.

The White House quietly advised the Speaker against visiting Taiwan, but the administration has publicly backed her right to go and said that China’s reaction is incongruous with a peaceful diplomatic mission. It also sighted precedent of former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s visit in 1997.

China staunchly defended its reaction to Speaker Pelosi’s visit, casting it as a provocative act which threatens its national integrity.

“The U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted on visiting China’s Taiwan region in disregard of China’s grave concern and firm opposition,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin at a press conference. “China is not only firmly safeguarding its sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also upholding the international law and the basic norms governing international relations, particularly non-interference in countries’ internal affairs, which is the most important international norm enshrined in the U.N. Charter.” 

The present Taiwan flare-up can hardly be pinned on the Speaker’s visit alone. The island, which has functioned as an independent nation for over 70 years, exists in a diplomatic grey zone. When Republic of China forces under Chiang Kai-shek were chased off the Chinese mainland by the communists in 1949, they made Taiwan their government in exile, unofficially turning it into “free” China and winning the west’s recognition.

China regularly threatened and shelled Taiwan and surrounding islands, while inundating it with pro-communist propaganda.

In 1979, America recognized communist China’s legitimacy, and adopted the “one China policy,” a deliberately ambiguous policy which both China and Taiwan can interpret as favoring their respective positions. In tangent, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which allowed economic interactions with the people of Taiwan while conducting state business through a federally funded non-government organization. The act also gives a vague U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan from invasion by China.

China never renounced its claims to the island, but its threats largely ceased, punctuated by a heightened tension in the 1990s.  

A Chinese J-11 military fighter jet flies above the Taiwan Strait near Pingtan (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

That has changed in recent years as China’s Mr. Xi ramped up rhetoric and military exercises that leave little room for doubt about his hopes to bring the island under Beijing’s control. Fears that he would move against the island have steadily increased amid what some saw as erratic foreign policy under the Trump administration, President Biden’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

China’s willingness to pursue an amphibious invasion likely pend on how confident Mr. Xi is that the west would limit its response to sanctions and the like, steering clear of military intervention. President Biden has said that he would order U.S. troops to defend Taiwan in the event of invasion, only to have aides walk back those statements, referring to the vague policies of the Taiwan Relations Act and the “one China” policy.

China is quickly proving that it can inflict serious damage on the island without invading it. 42% of Taiwan’s exports go to China, making it highly vulnerable to boycott threats. Actions like the present exercises scare off foreign investors, further squeezing the island’s economy.

Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, told CNN that China’s drills demonstrate an attempt to control Taiwan without landing an invasion force.

“The exercise … suggests Beijing would first isolate Taiwan and resort to air and missile strikes in hopes of breaking Taipei’s political will. A costly invasion probably is a last resort,” he said.

Ironically, Mr. Xi’s bellicose path only hurts the cause of building pro-China sentiment in Taiwan. In recent decades, very few Taiwanese want their island under Chinese rule, but most also oppose formal independence and want good relations with the mainland. As threats grow however, so does anti-Chinese sentiment — not unlike the effect Mr. Putin has had in bolstering Ukrainian nationalism.

The present tensions have ignited debate among experts on the likelihood of China risking war and its international standing to take Taiwan by force.

“China probably doesn’t want to go to war to achieve its ends,” Bradley Martin, a researcher at Rand Corporation, told the Wall Street Journal. “What we see as more likely is to exert a level of force below the level of outright conflict.”

Others have argued that amid a faltering Chinese economy, what many see as American weakness, and Mr. Xi’s desire to add Taiwanese reunification to his legacy, Beijing might be less risk averse than in the past.

“Mr. Xi has repeatedly said that the task of ‘liberating’ Taiwan cannot be passed down from generation to generation. In the mid- and late 2020s, he’ll have his best chance to accomplish that mission,” wrote Hal Brands of Johns Hopkins University and Michael Beckley of Tufts University, both of the American Enterprise Institute, in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. Their article said that the present decade was likely to see a “peak” in Chinese power and a dip in U.S. military strength, two factors they argue feed Mr. Xi’s readiness for invasion.

Facing these rising threats, a broad bipartisan group in Congress is looking to bolster U.S. support for Taiwan through a bill known as the Taiwan Policy Act, which gives a more direct pledge of economic ties and defense guarantees than the 1979 legislation.

It would authorize $4.5 billion in military aid to Taiwan and name it as a “major non-NATO ally.”

The White House has said little about the bill, referring publicly back to the U.S.’s commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act. Yet, media and some Republican legislators said that the Biden administration was lobbying against it. The showdown replays what has become a common refrain on Ukraine policy, with Congress members on both sides of the isle pushing for bolder action against Russia’s war and the President’s team slower to take moves it fears would agitate Moscow.

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez said that learning the lessons of the Ukraine war could prevent a similar result in Taiwan.

“This is a plan of attack eerily reminiscent of Putin’s in Ukraine,” he wrote. “We saw the warning signs for Ukraine in 2014 and failed to take action that might have deterred further Russian aggression. We cannot afford to repeat that mistake with Taiwan.”

To Read The Full Story

Are you already a subscriber?
Click to log in!