After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s ill-timed trip to Taiwan, China’s leaders were determined not to let a good crisis go to waste. they conducted unprecedented military exercisesfiring ballistic missiles near Taiwan; and sending warplanes and naval warships across the Taiwan Strait centerline in an attention-grabbing demonstration of power. China also released a white paper, only the third it has ever issued on Taiwan, outlining its terms for unification — peacefully if possible, violently if necessary.
China’s response is part of a larger pattern. In 2012, Beijing responded to Japan’s nationalization of the Diaoyu Islands (known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands) – an archipelago historically claimed by China, Japan and Taiwan – by deploying coast guard and naval patrols to the area, a tactic which has proven itself continued and expanded. In 2019, China similarly used a flare-up of tensions along its border with India as an excuse to bolster its forces, facilities and patrols in disputed areas. And that same year, she cited student-led protests in Hong Kong as the reason for the dismantling of the one country, two systems model – which had given Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy – and the introduction of a national security law to enforce obedience to Beijing .
In the case of Taiwan, Beijing appears to be mimicking two of its recent claims. First, China does not recognize a cross-strait midline. The second is this China has “sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Straits”. From Beijing’s point of view, these positions stem from its policy that Taiwan is part of China. By deploying planes and naval vessels across the center line of the Taiwan Strait in unprecedented numbers following Pelosi’s visit, Beijing is trying to establish that its military will no longer be confined to its half of the Taiwan Strait. And by launching ballistic missiles into waters near Taiwan’s trading ports, Beijing appears to be signaling that it will henceforth take military action anywhere across the Taiwan Strait wherever it sees fit. Beijing’s firing of several missiles into waters within Japan’s exclusive economic zone similarly serves as a warning to Tokyo against further involvement in cross-strait affairs.
Some argue that China’s recent actions would have happened sooner or later, regardless of whether Pelosi had visited the island. Even accepting such questionable logic, Pelosi’s trip created an excuse for China to accelerate its plans. But now that the damage is done, it’s imperative to focus on what emerges from this crisis. It is not inevitable that the situation in the Taiwan Straits will be on a path of permanent deterioration. Taipei’s response was calm and without escalation. With discipline and clear goals, US politicians might still seize the moment to stem the downturn in cross-strait relations and put Taiwan on a more solid footing.
From Beijing’s perspective, Pelosi’s visit followed two broad trends: Taiwan’s drift away from China and the United States’ determined efforts to raise Taiwan’s international profile. China would strongly prefer the rest of the world to ignore Taiwan so that Beijing could treat the matter as an internal matter and impose its will on Taiwan. Pelosi’s visit provided Beijing with an opportunity to intervene in an attempt to permanently tip the status quo in its favour. Washington and Taipei must act wisely to forestall the erosion of Taiwan’s security situation.
There is an urgent need for Washington to prevent Beijing from establishing a different status quo for Taiwan. To that end, it may be useful to reflect on how previous US Presidents have been able to prevent Beijing from exploiting past incidents. A case study worth reviewing is President Barack Obama’s success in 2016 in preventing China from conducting land in Scarborough Shoal, an atoll in the South China Sea claimed by both China and the Philippines . Earlier in the year, there was talk that Beijing might try to expand its artificial island construction at Scarborough Shoal. If China had proceeded, the United States might have gotten involved as it had an alliance obligation with the Philippines.
Obama realized that the only way to avoid being drawn into a conflict with China was to speak directly and discreetly with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Matters affecting the Chinese military must be directed to the leaders within the chain of command, and Xi was and is the top link in that chain. Even such issues need to be handled quietly, as this gives Chinese leaders room to maneuver and allows them not to worry about being labeled soft when solving an issue with an American counterpart. At the same time, Obama’s negotiating hand was strengthened by the stationing – without public fanfare – of US military installations near the Scarborough Shoal.
The situation in the Taiwan Strait is not necessarily on the road to permanent deterioration.
Obama understood that in order for Chinese leaders to address our own, they need to feel their concerns are being taken seriously. And as with any major issue handled or resolved between the United States and China, the Scarborough showdown was handled by two leaders who had developed a relationship and who understood each other’s demands and limitations. Both were able to prioritize diplomacy over politics. Both recognized that strong leaders sometimes have to do hard things to avoid war. Ultimately, China never pursued land reclamation at Scarborough Shoal.
Applying this case study to the current situation in the Taiwan Strait offers a number of lessons. Direct diplomacy at senior level is a requirement to ensure each side understands the concerns and needs of the other. Discipline and discretion are the currency of crisis management. Clever arguments without credible deterrence do little to address challenges. And China’s leaders will take no steps to defuse tensions unless they believe their concerns will be heard.
Take advantage of bullying
These lessons suggest that the cross-strait situation is unlikely to be ripe for easing. Beijing appears to think it is making progress on eliminating the centerline in the straits and setting a precedent to operate anywhere in Taiwan, which it sees fit. However, Beijing’s overreaction to Pelosi’s visit will make it easier for Washington to advance several near-term priorities with Taiwan. For example, Beijing is demonstrating that Taiwan urgently needs to speed up efforts to position critical munitions, energy, medicine and food supplies on the island before conflict erupts. China’s threatening actions may also present opportunities for Washington to quietly promote greater bipartisanship in Taiwan to bolster fiscal and public support for Taiwan’s defense.
Washington could also use Beijing’s bullying to advance coordination with Taiwan on supply chain resilience, agreements on 21st-century digital trade issues, and other measures to strengthen economic ties. All of these efforts fall well within the bounds of existing US policy. They would also strengthen US-Taiwan relations and put Taiwan on a more solid footing to deal with what comes next. It will be important to avoid the advent of daylight between Washington and Taipei. Divisions in relations would only benefit Beijing.
One issue that needs to be considered between policymakers in Washington and Taipei is how they define the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. Top officials in Washington and Taipei have vowed to uphold the status quo, but neither side has provided much clarity on how they identify him. If Washington and Taipei publicly define the status quo narrowly around the near-term pushback of the Chinese military across the Taiwan Strait midline, they risk failing themselves. Rather than allow Beijing such a perception of progress, Washington and Taipei would do well to define the status quo in terms of a set of more principled goals. These could include upholding non-war across the Taiwan Strait, safeguarding Taiwan’s political autonomy, steadily strengthening US-Taiwan relations, preventing the Chinese military from deploying in Taiwan’s territorial waters or airspace, and continuing to fly, sail and operate anywhere there include where international law applies allows. Washington’s and Taipei’s interests align with these goals, and both sides remain able to uphold them.
Beijing’s militarized response should also give the United States an impetus to deepen cooperation with Australia and Japan. Beijing’s operational response provides a roadmap for what needs to be done to strengthen deterrence conditions. In addition to maintaining a steady military presence in the region, Washington and its allies should make concerted efforts to expand military access, planning, and emergency preparedness. Advances in this direction would strengthen Washington’s ability to remind Beijing of its own vulnerabilities, not in a way that would provoke public humiliation, but in a way that would cause China’s leaders to consider the risks of going too far draw. The United States and its partners would have more leverage in China’s calculus if they did more and said less.
In due course, US officials will also have to explain to their Chinese counterparts how they define unofficial relations with Taiwan. This invariably would not satisfy Beijing, but it would raise expectations and reassure Beijing that the United States still recognizes limits on how it conducts its relationship with Taiwan. As part of such discussions, US officials should stress that the visibility of US support for Taiwan is affected by the level of Chinese pressure on Taiwan. If China is serious about advancing its goal of peaceful unification, it must appeal to Taiwan’s 23 million people, whose opinion will count. US officials should stress to their Chinese counterparts that military intimidation will only persuade the Taiwanese public to support leaders and policies that run counter to China’s stated goals.
While Washington and Taipei show they will not be intimidated into backing down on Taiwan’s security, they should also focus on reducing risk, strengthening deterrence capabilities, strengthening Taiwan’s foothold and US relations and advance Taiwan. Beijing’s overreaction to Pelosi’s visit has created opportunities for progress in this direction. Such opportunities should not be wasted.