It can be gleaned from the ‘Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis’ that China has immensely enhanced its defence capabilities.
One of the outcomes of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) was that Taiwan and Penghu Islands were ceded to Japan by Qing China; these were returned to the Republic of China (ROC) in October 1945 only after Japan’s defeat in World War II. However, the ROC was overthrown by the Communist Party of China in a four-year-long civil war (1946-1949), resulting in the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and retreat of the ROC to Taiwan, and hence the notion “Two Chinas” and both pledging to unify the other. Mao’s PRC attempted to take Quemoy and Matsu islands controlled by the ROC in December 1954, what is also known as the “First Taiwan Strait Crisis,” but in vain, resulting in pushing the United States and the ROC signing a defence treaty. In October 1958, the PRC shelled the islands once again, creating the “Second Taiwan Strait Crisis”, but was forced to retreat when the US sent forces in defence of Taiwan. The ROC continued to represent China in the United Nations until it was “expelled” and the seat restored to the PRC in 1972 in the backdrop of the US-China rapprochement aimed at containing the Soviet Union.
In 1979, when the US established formal diplomatic relations with the PRC, the US also signed the Taiwan Relations Act that mandates the US to supply defence articles for Taiwan’s self-defence capability. The communiques the US signed with the PRC in 1972 and 1982 “acknowledge” the Chinese position that there is but “One China and Taiwan is part of China”. This is also the origin of US’ policy of ambiguity on Taiwan, nonetheless, US-China relations flourished in the field of economy, technology and defence, except briefly post the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown when the US suspended military sales to China and imposed sanctions. Relations further deteriorated when pro-independence leader Lee Teng-hui won elections in Taiwan and the US granted him visa to visit his alma mater, the Cornell University. Between 1995 and 1996, the PRC conducted a series of military exercises and fired missiles in the Taiwan Strait and surrounding Taiwan, precipitating the “Third Taiwan Strait Crisis”. The US, in a display of force, sent its aircraft carriers, forcing China to back down. By now, China’s market was too big to be ignored, and the US normalised its trade relations with China in the year 2000, which set the stage for China’s accession to the WTO.
These were the years, when China-Taiwan exchanges were also cemented—the “Three Nos” (no contact, no negotiation, no compromise) of the Chiang Kai-shek era paved way to “New Three Nos” (no independence, no unification and no use of force) aimed at maintaining status quo, while deepening economic and people to people ties with the PRC. No wonder, today over 2 million Taiwanese work and live in China. In Shanghai and its surrounding areas alone, more than 400,000 Taiwanese businessmen and their families stay. Conversely, nearly 339,000 Chinese spouses reside in Taiwan, accounting for close to 65% of the 533,000 new immigrants from Mainland over the past decade. Taiwan’s exports to mainland increased from $85 billion in 2011 to $125.9 in 2021, accounting for 42.3% of total Taiwanese exports. Last year, Taiwanese approved FDI into the Mainland was $5.86 billion. However, in recent time, in the face of realignment of forces post Covid and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Taiwan is diversifying its trade and investment from Mainland to other regions, but decoupling won’t be easy. Furthermore, the PRC, having bridged its economic and technological gaps including military capabilities with the US, believes it has no compulsion to behave the way it did in the last two decades, forcing the US to pronounce China as a revisionist and coercive power.
Added to this, the autocracies versus democracies narrative orchestrated by the US has vindicated China’s fears of its containment. The Indo-Pacific strategy, the Quad, AUKUS and Five Eyes Alliance have made China believe that the US and its allies have formed “small cliques” to encircle and diminish its rise and influence, and that Taiwan all along has been used as a card. China has also come to believe that the US has gradually shed its ambiguity on Taiwan, as was demonstrated by Joe Biden’s remarks during a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in May 2022. It is in this background that the US Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit should be viewed, albeit there are other elements such as domestic compulsions and her own anti-China traits too.
Pelosi’s visit sparked instant outrage from China once the Financial Times published the story on 19 July. The spokesperson of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, Zhu Fenglian urged (敦促) some people in the US Congress to “stop condoning and supporting the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces, and stop all acts of playing with the fire (停止任何玩火行径)”. Zhu firmly opposed any form of official exchange (任何形式的官方往来) between the US and Taiwan, and above all Pelosi’s “sneaky visit” (窜访) to Taiwan. This set the tone for China’s fierce opposition and psychological escalation, with Wang Wenbin, the spokesperson of Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), cautioning that “we will do what we say” (我们说到做到); Tan Kefei, a spokesperson of China’s Ministry of National Defence, warning that the “Chinese military will by no means sit idly by” (中国军队绝不会坐视不管); and Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson of MOFA, reiterating the warning that “if the US insists on going its own way (一意孤行), and “challenges China’s bottom line” (挑战中方底线), it will be resolutely countered”. These warnings culminated into Xi Jinping bluntly telling President Joe Biden in a phone call on 28 July that “those who play with fire, will perish with it” (玩火必自焚). In order to deter Pelosi’s visit, China announced live ammunition training missions (实弹射击训练任务) near the Pingtan islands off Fujian on 29 July.
On 31 July, Pelosi confirmed that she was “leading a Congressional delegation to the Indo-Pacific to reaffirm America’s unshakeable commitment to our allies & friends in the region”. Taiwan certainly was one of the “friends”, though she didn’t mention it in her itinerary for obvious reasons. As anticipated, she landed on 2 July, stayed overnight and met President Tsai on 3 July before her onward journey to South Korea. China fumed with anger and announced another round of live military drills between 3 and 7 July in the surrounding waters of Taiwan; two of the six areas China marked for these drills were well within the 12 nautical miles of Taiwanese territorial waters. Five of the 11 missiles it fired reportedly landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone and four were fired over the Taiwan’s outer space, a warning to both Japan and Taiwan not to breach China’s “bottom lines”. Though the fighter jets have been crossing the Median Line, but the battleships are still off limits, an indication that a serious conflict is ruled out.
Nevertheless, it can be gleaned from the “Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis” that China has immensely enhanced its defence capabilities. Today, China’s air, naval and missile power has grown by leaps and bounds; it has broken through the “first island chain” and has challenged the “second island chain”. On 31 July, the Global Times posted a video featuring the launch of a “DF-17” hypersonic missile, termed as the “aircraft carrier killer”, a warning to the US that China has anti-access/area denial capabilities, and that it will not hesitate to use force if required to defend its core interests. The missile was publicly displayed at the National Day military parade on 1 October 2019, in Beijing. It is in this context that Shen Yi, director of Research Institution for Global Cyberspace Governance at Fudan University, has argued that the US must “avoid misunderstanding China’s strategic capability to defend its core interests” and that gone is the “era of extremely asymmetrical power balance between China and the United States.”
For President Xi Jinping, Taiwan’s unification is part of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” project. Xi’s third term is closely linked to the unification agenda. Therefore, in the face of China’s stringent “dynamic zero” Covid policy, slower economic growth, real estate and mortgage crisis, show of force will rally good public support for a strong leader before the Beidaihe meeting and subsequently the 20th Party Congress. Taiwan, Japan and India are rallying points for Chinese leaders to divert attention from the domestic troubles. Recently, when social media suddenly discovered a “Chinese Yasukuni shrine” inside the Xuanzang Temple in Nanjing, where memorial tablets of Japanese war criminals [Matsui Iwane, Hisao Tani, Takeshi Noda and Gunkichi Tanaka] were displayed for worship, it sparked a public outcry at a time when Japan debated to amend its pacifist constitution. Notwithstanding the “Hu Xijinisation” of China, Xi Jinping can ill afford to let the situation go out of control before the 20th Party Congress, therefore, a military conflict at this juncture is a big no. Had it been the case, China would have started military exercises in the surrounding waters of Taiwan on 3 not 4 August. What China is likely to respond with in coming days is to render the Median Line ineffective by air and sea intrusion and assert its sovereignty; fire missiles in the surrounding waters, demonstrate its capabilities to blockade Taiwan, launch cyber-attacks, pass the unification law as was done in the case of Hong Kong security law, and impose economic sanctions to cripple Taiwan. China did resort to some of these in the wake of Pelosi’s visit, more will depend on posturing from both the sides, especially after Xi’s “re-election” later this year.
As for the US, it is clear that Pelosi’s Taiwan visit has been politicised owing to the upcoming mid-term elections. She was incited and challenged by the Republicans—with former Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo telling her “Nancy, I will come with you” and former President Donald Trump slamming her for making the “China mess” even worse. As for President Biden, though he didn’t make moves to stop her, but he did tell the public that the military “thinks it’s not a good time right now” for her travel. In such a situation, had she cancelled her visit, it would have been a loss of face for her as well as the Biden administration. The US would have been levelled as a “paper tiger” and its international prestige further dented. However, since Pelosi defied all odds, breached China’s “bottom line”, she managed to rally the American opinion in support of her visit, called China’s bluff, but also exposed Taiwan and the region for greater turbulence.
As for Taiwan, it has been caught between a rock and a hard place. While there is a bipartisan support for Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, however, there are also voices who have opposed the visit. Chen Hui-wen, a Taiwanese journalist, while hosting a UFO Network programme, requested Nancy Pelosi that “you (Pelosi) are on a graduation trip (毕业旅行), and we (Taiwanese) will bear the cost of Taiwan Strait crisis for you? Are you worth it?” The silence of President Tsai Ing-wen and her administration was understandable as Taiwan couldn’t have afforded to offend Washington and anger Mainland at the same time. Nevertheless, Tsai Ing-wen chose Washington over China. Though Pelosi said that the “US will not abandon Taiwan”, but it would be tested when the PLA uses force to liberate Taiwan in future. Undoubtedly, Pelosi’s visit is a precursor to a dangerous conflict in the Taiwan Strait.
B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.