The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has reportedly fired several DF-15B ballistic missiles into the seas around Taiwan as part of large scale military drills announced in response to the visit this week by the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi.
The areas chosen for these exercises are unprecedented in their proximity to Taiwan, coming much closer than those of the previous Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1995-1996 and dramatically raising tensions in the region. Taiwan’s defence ministry has denounced the drills as tantamount to a military blockade of the island.
Uniting Taiwan with the mainland has been the goal of the Chinese Communist Party ever since it won the 1946-49 civil war on the mainland against Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, who fled across the strait with his supporters to install the government of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan.
In 2021, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, reiterated that: “Resolving the Taiwan question and realising China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakeable commitment of the Communist Party of China.”
From Beijing’s perspective, US support for Taiwan has remained a – if not the – major obstacle to achieving unification. Following the outbreak of the Korean War, the US put a stop to any possible invasion plans by Beijing by deploying the 7th fleet in the Taiwan Strait. Later, in 1954, it entered into a defence treaty with Taiwan. The US did eventually terminate that treaty after establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979. But the US Congress responded by passing the Taiwan Relations Act, which mandated the US to provide Taiwan defensive weapons and “maintain the capacity of the United States” to basically defend Taiwan.
Although the US did also withdraw diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, Beijing has remained acutely sensitive to any actions that would suggest Washington is seeking to inject any “officiality” into the relationship, as it believes this would constitute an erosion of US commitments to China over the status of Taiwan. This was a key issue at stake in the Taiwan Straits Crisis of 1995-1996, when the US permitted then Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui to visit his alma mater, Cornell University. Pelosi’s visit – being the first in decades by such a high-ranking US politician – also touches on this nerve.
What is at stake
For Beijing, this is not just about Pelosi’s visit.
First, Beijing perceives an alarming larger trend in Washington’s relations with Taiwan. There has been a significant pace of arms sales approvals, a series of statements from US president Joe Biden about defending Taiwan (something previously left ambiguous), and a variety of US officials and politicians recently visiting the island, among other things. The US government has repeatedly declared that its basic stance has not changed, but for Beijing all this suggests that – in the words of China’s foreign minister Wang Yi – Washington is surreptitiously seeking to “hollow out” its policy. Pelosi’s visit now appears to be the point at which Beijing sees the need to send a powerful signal to reverse this trend.
Second, Beijing has put its reputation on the line by explicitly warning against the trip. A speaker for the foreign ministry threatened that the People’s Liberation Army “will not sit idly by”. And Xi cautioned Biden that “those who play with fire will eventually get burned”. Beijing’s larger reputation and prestige have thus been threatened, and this increases the stakes all the more.
Last but not least, in a few months China will open its 20th party congress. Party congresses are a major political event that happen only every five years and which usher in major changes in key political positions and personnel. This upcoming party congress is set to be particularly significant, as by many accounts Xi is likely to break with precedent and seek a third term as leader of the Chinese Communist Party.
Even if Xi’s position is assured, this will still involve much political manoeuvring and potential infighting. So Xi will not want to leave himself exposed on other issues – especially one as sensitive and central as Taiwan. The domestically safe course of action is to take a hard line on Taiwan.
There is precedent to this. In 2012, Japan defied Beijing to purchase the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. This was just before the 18th Party Congress when Xi was to take over from his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Beijing responded vehemently. Reportedly it was Xi who was put in charge of leading the response, and taking a hawkish stance made political sense. It would be two years before Sino-Japanese relations got back on track.
With the Pelosi visit now playing out so publicly, Xi will likely not want this as a point of vulnerability.
What to expect
Given Beijing’s diplomatic playbook, this will likely mean a forceful performance of outrage (what I have labelled elsewhere a “diplomacy of anger”) to make the US, Taiwan and other potential audiences realise the sensitivity of the issue. In the past this has included fiery rhetoric, suspension of various meetings and diplomatic contacts, sanctions against individuals, targeted economic punishment and the arrest of select foreigners on national security charges.
It also has included military exercises. In the last Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-1996, Beijing launched ballistic missiles into the waters around Taiwan, leading to much concern in Taipei and Washington.
As is obvious, we are already seeing some of these measures, but Beijing now has a much larger toolbox so we may see new forms of punishment as well, particularly in the cyber sphere. These in turn will have knock-on effects on Taiwan’s currency, stock market, aviation and shipping, among other things.
The optimistic scenario is that once Beijing feels that it has sufficiently conveyed its message and the 20th Party Congress has passed, things will subside. But it may be that we see a new status quo of regularised Chinese military or paramilitary incursions across the median line of the Taiwan Strait.
The pessimistic scenario is that Beijing will take actions that Washington views as too incendiary to leave uncontested, sparking mutual escalation. Last time (1995-1996) the US sent two aircraft carriers. If this time around each side sees itself as having to react to the other’s perceived provocations, things may enter a very dangerous spiral.