This month, tensions in the Taiwan Strait reached levels not seen in nearly thirty years. In response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei, Beijing launched joint military exercises around the island and suspended or canceled eight official military dialogues and cooperation channels with the United States. Taiwan faced unprecedented provocations, including ballistic missile launches over the island, air and naval operations across the centerline and on the edge of Taiwan’s territorial waters, and a volume of cyber attacks “23 times higher than the previous daily record.”
Aerial incursions across the median line have continued on a near daily basis, and China has announced additional monthlong live-fire drills in the Bohai Sea and south of the Yellow Sea. Similar to prior instances of heightened tension in the Taiwan Strait, the most recent episode is likely to drag on for multiple weeks, if not months, ushering in a new, increasingly volatile status in cross-strait and U.S.-China relations.
What was the state of U.S.-China relations prior to Pelosi’s visit?
Pelosi’s trip came at a particularly fragile moment. Over the preceding months, frictions between Washington and Beijing were growing amid China’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. During the most recent phone call between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden neglected to raise the prospect of tariff reductions, despite expectations to the contrary, and Xi accused the United States of “play[ing] with fire” over its Taiwan policy. Notwithstanding continued senior-level diplomacy, U.S.-China relations had failed to find a floor.
The visit also came at a time when Washington and Beijing are gearing up for important domestic political events. In May, China’s most senior diplomat warned that, in the run-up to the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress, Beijing would “resolutely respond to any scheme, rhetoric or act by the U.S. side to contain China.” At the Congress, Xi is widely expected to secure a norm-breaking third term and to appoint political allies to key leadership positions, notably, for the premiership and the Politburo Standing Committee. Against this backdrop, Xi could be particularly reluctant to back down from perceived international challenges, especially at a time when China faces internal problems such as recurring coronavirus outbreaks and a slowing economy. Early reports indicate that some members of the Chinese public were “disappointed” that Beijing did not prevent Pelosi’s plane from landing in Taiwan, implying that Xi would have public backing if he escalates the crisis.
Washington, for its part, is heading into the midterm elections, where the Democrats face challenges of their own, from persistent inflation to low approval ratings for Biden. Given broad public support for Taiwan, the House speaker may have reasoned that her visit would win over swing voters. Prior to Pelosi’s trip, a group of twenty-five GOP senators issued a statement praising the speaker’s decision to visit the island. Domestic pressures in both Washington and Beijing, therefore, appear to be creating a dynamic in which escalation is rewarded and restraint is criticized.
Are there other factors driving the heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait?
Cross-strait dynamics have been riddled by three concurrent trends since the election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016.
First, the Taiwanese public has grown more skeptical of Beijing due to the increasingly closed and repressive political environment on the mainland. Polls conducted by Taiwan’s National Chengchi University in 2019 and 2020—as Beijing prepared to impose Hong Kong’s National Security Law—showed an uptick in support for moving toward independence and a decline in support for moving toward unification. In 2019, Tsai stated that the “overwhelming consensus among Taiwan’s 23 million people is our rejection of ‘one country, two systems.’” To put this in context, four years prior, in a historic face-to-face meeting, former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou told Xi that “one China, different interpretations” was the “basis of relations” across the strait—a position that Ma himself now rejects.
Second, Beijing’s anxieties over Taipei have risen. For its part, China views trends in Taiwan’s politics as a lurch toward independence, further eroding the supposed understanding reached in the “1992 consensus” on the “one country” aspect of “one country, two systems.” Beijing has long held that Taiwan’s only choices for its political future are unification or independence—the latter of which would warrant a “non-peaceful response”—while rejecting Taiwan’s de facto autonomy. A new white paper delimits even less space for Taiwan’s political, judicial, administrative, and defense autonomy than the two prior versions released in 1993 and 2000.
Increasing demonstrations of support for Taiwan by the United States and its allies have also convinced Beijing that Taipei could move to declare de jure independence, despite the Taiwanese people’s overwhelming preference for the status quo. The Chinese leadership now believes that Washington is using Taiwan as a strategic asset to contain the mainland within the first island chain in the Western Pacific. In this context, Beijing has opted to use military means short of war—such as live-fire exercises off the coast—to deter independence and to potentially prepare for non-peaceful reunification. The mainland has also used diplomatic, economic, and other tools to exert pressure—for example, by poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, conducting cyber attacks against the government, detaining Taiwanese politicians and activists, and embargoing Taiwanese products.
Finally, the United States has grown increasingly wary of Beijing’s gray-zone tactics toward Taiwan. These tactics are seen as forcing a political settlement that would contradict China’s assurance to strive for “peaceful unification.” In a speech in May, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that “[the United States’] policy has not changed—what has changed is Beijing’s growing coercion . . . like flying PLA [People’s Liberation Army] aircraft near Taiwan on an almost daily basis.” Washington has continued to supply Taiwan with weapons to defend itself, maintained contacts with Taipei, advocated for the island’s participation in international organizations, and voiced support for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait with allies—all of which the United States views as consistent with its “one China” policy. Mainland China, on the other hand, views these actions as deviations from the “consensus” reached in the three U.S.-China communiques and pretexts for Taiwan to declare de jure independence.
Evolving perceptions on all three sides have led to an escalatory spiral in which each side believes it is responding to changes initiated by the other; actions or statements that one side views as reaffirmations of existing policy are perceived by the other as changes to the status quo, necessitating a counter response. Like the security dilemma often ascribed to military dynamics, the action-reaction cycle in cross-strait relations has the potential to quickly escalate from a political crisis into armed conflict.
Will Pelosi’s visit have a lasting impact on the situation?
Pelosi’s stop in Taipei brought the action-reaction cycle to an increasingly unstable equilibrium. From Beijing’s perspective, the visit constituted a “major political provocation” and sent the “wrong signal” to those in Taiwan in favor of independence. The fact that Pelosi, the second in line to the U.S. president, met with both Taiwan’s president and the leadership of the opposition Kuomintang party—which has historically been friendlier toward Beijing—confirmed Beijing’s perception that Taipei is growing more alienated from the mainland.
From Washington’s perspective, congressional and other delegations are regular demonstrations of support for Taiwan—as distinct from support for Taiwan independence—in the face of increasing pressure from Beijing. The United States views Beijing’s response as an unwarranted escalation of coercion toward Taiwan and potential evidence of the mainland’s intent to pursue a future blockade or amphibious invasion. U.S. Members of Congress appear adamant to continue visiting Taiwan, demonstrated most recently by Senator Ed Markey’s delegation to the island. Washington is also planning a road map for trade talks with Taipei in the coming days.
Longer term, Beijing’s military exercises could set a precedent for increased military activity in the Taiwan Strait with greater shows of force across the median line. Continued military drills could desensitize Taipei and Washington to future provocations and gradually wear down Taiwan’s will to defend itself. Beijing could also escalate the crisis by sending aircraft into Taiwan’s territorial airspace or encroaching upon Taiwan’s territorial waters. Like prior cases of Chinese military escalation during sovereignty disputes, Beijing may be keen to leverage its higher threshold of military conduct to irrevocably alter the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and seek a new normal of activities that are more frequent and conducted closer to Taiwan.
There is an additional risk if Beijing overreacts to Washington’s decision to resume freedom of navigation operations in the Taiwan Strait. Last week, White House Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell said that the United States will “continue to fly, sail, and operate where international law allows . . . and that includes conducting standard air and maritime transits through the Taiwan Strait.” In June, however, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin claimed that the Taiwan Strait is not international waters. Beijing could use an American freedom of navigation operation as a pretext to escalate the crisis further, potentially leading to an unsafe incident or encounter at sea or in the air. The breakdown in bilateral communication channels and the broader distrust between the United States and China only makes such a contingency more likely. Recent reports indicate that U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was unable to reach his Chinese counterparts after Beijing suspended multiple military deconfliction protocols.
How do China and Taiwan’s neighbors view these rising tensions?
Regional responses to Pelosi’s visit have varied, leading to concerns that tensions around Taiwan could contribute to divisions in the wider region, upend regional stability, and impede maritime commerce.
Japan set itself apart from most other countries in the region by joining the G7 in calling on China “not to unilaterally change the status quo by force.” Tokyo itself bore the brunt of Beijing’s live-fire drills when five ballistic missiles landed within Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Later, China skipped its foreign ministers meeting with Japan on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Cambodia.
Other capitals have been less critical of Beijing. Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn was quoted by the Chinese Foreign Ministry as stating that “the recent act by the US has encroached upon China’s sovereignty, violated the commitment it has made, [and] escalated tension across the Taiwan Strait.” Some speculate that South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol intentionally skipped an in-person meeting with Pelosi to avoid antagonizing Beijing.
The reality is that most governments in Asia prefer the status quo, which has by and large prevented a serious conflict since the normalization of ties between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and other Asian states. While few governments may perceive a direct equivalence between Pelosi’s visit and Beijing’s military response, many viewed Pelosi’s visit as an ill-advised test of the PRC’s bottom line.
That said, conversations with Southeast Asian experts reveal concerns about the unprecedented escalation of China’s military activity in and around the Taiwan Strait. Beijing’s activities directly impinge on important regional maritime and aerial passageways and signal the PLA’s heightened capacity to escalate tensions in other sovereignty disputes, particularly in the South China Sea. Some scholars even suggest that Beijing’s newly fielded capabilities could encourage states bordering the South China Sea to build up their own military capabilities. The bottom line is that the new status quo in the region will be one of increasing volatility if not further escalation.
How can Washington and Beijing stop this spiral?
Ending the escalatory spiral will be increasingly difficult in light of the breakdown in military dialogue channels. Beijing may have concluded that dialogue alone is not enough to deter the United States from following a “fake one China policy,” which Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused the United States of pursuing last October. Suspending dialogue constitutes a dangerous escalation at a time when communication is crucial to clarify intentions, reduce mistrust, and prevent a full-blown conflict.
If there is reason for optimism, it might be that the PRC has yet to officially suspend political communication channels at the executive and diplomatic levels, so a conflict could be deescalated through high-level interventions, as happened during the EP-3 spy plane incident in 2001. Biden and Xi could also agree to appoint presidential envoys tasked with the specific mission to ratchet down tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
The United States and China will also need to develop a longer-term framework to reverse the escalatory action-reaction cycle on Taiwan. This could begin with a process, laid out by former White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley, wherein the United States and China communicate their respective views of actions by the other side perceived to be undermining the status quo. From that starting point, the two sides could begin to “back it down” through phased and corresponding de-escalation steps.
One area the United States could potentially ease up pressure would be with respect to publicity around high-level contacts between Washington and Taipei. As Evan Medeiros noted in a recent conversation with Carnegie China, Washington should “say less and do more” on Taiwan. Beijing often views the publicity surrounding U.S.-Taiwan contacts as a provocation over and above the contacts themselves. Reducing symbolic support for Taiwan while raising tangible support could do more to deter Beijing’s resort to force and raise the potential for continued peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
The mainland, on the other hand, should recognize that resorting to military means to change the political calculus in Taiwan is unlikely to advance its own goals. Beijing should seek to gradually reduce its military activity in the Taiwan Strait and return to a policy that relies on carrots, rather than sticks, to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people.
But right now, neither side is taking the political steps necessary to defuse the crisis.
The authors are grateful for research assistance provided by Mike Tiernan.