BANGKOK (AP) – China’s response to the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan has been far from subtle – sending warships and military planes to all sides of the island’s self-governing democracy and firing ballistic missiles into nearby waters.
The dust still hasn’t settled as Taiwan conducts its own drills this week and Beijing announces more maneuvers are planned, but experts say much can already be gleaned from what China has and hasn’t done so far. China will also learn lessons about its own military capabilities from the drills, which more closely resemble what an actual attack on the island claimed by Beijing as its own territory would look like, and from the American and Taiwanese response.
During the nearly week-long maneuvers that followed Pelosi’s visit in early August, China regularly sailed ships and planes across the Taiwan Strait median line, claimed the de facto border did not exist, fired missiles over Taiwan itself, and enforced established norms firing missiles into Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
“I think we are facing a risky time where we need to test boundaries and see who can achieve escalating dominance in the diplomatic, military and economic arenas,” said David Chen, an analyst at CENTRA Technology, a US-based company consulting firm.
Pelosi was the senior US official to visit Taiwan for 25 years, and her visit came at a particularly sensitive time as Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares to later seek a third five-year term as leader of the ruling Communist Party Year.
Under Xi, China has increasingly said it must take control of Taiwan — by force if necessary — and US military officials have said Beijing could seek a military solution in the next few years.
Tensions were already running high as China regularly conducted military flights near Taiwan and the US routinely sailed warships through the Taiwan Strait to emphasize that it is international waters.
China accuses the US of promoting the island’s independence through arms sales and entanglements between US politicians and the island’s government.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying called Pelosi’s visit a “serious provocation” and accused Washington of breaking the status quo and “interfering in China’s internal affairs.”
“China is not the old China of 120 years ago, and we are not Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan – we will not allow any foreign power to harass, oppress or enslave us,” she told reporters in Beijing. “Whoever wants this will be on a collision course with the Great Wall of Steel forged by the 1.4 billion Chinese.”
The US continues to insist that it has not deviated from its “One China” policy and recognizes the government in Beijing while allowing informal and defensive ties with Taipei.
China hesitated with its maneuvers until Pelosi left Taiwan and turned its forces back before approaching the coast or Taiwan’s territorial airspace, showing a “minimum of restraint,” Chen said. However, he noted that another visit to Congress after Pelosis prompted the announcement of more drills.
“We are likely to enter a period of regular military demonstrations in and around China’s maritime area,” he said.
“The Chinese Communist Party is also quite capable of creating cross-domain responses, as has been seen in the cyber space. In addition, we could see escalating movements in space, in the South China Sea, in Africa, in the Indian Ocean or in the South Pacific.”
Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said the scale and coordination of the exercises indicated China was looking past Taiwan to establish dominance in the western Pacific. These include cross-strait control of the East and South China Seas and the ability to impose a blockade to prevent the US and its allies from coming to the aid of Taiwan in the event of an attack.
Armed conflict aside, a blockade of the Taiwan Strait — a major global trade thoroughfare — could have a significant impact on international supply chains at a time when the world is already facing disruption.
Taiwan, in particular, is a key supplier of computer chips to the global economy.
Though it was reportedly a response to Pelosi’s visit, it’s clear that China’s drills had been long planned, said Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow in the German Marshall Fund think tank’s Asia program.
“I think they were looking for an opportunity to escalate,” she said. “It’s not something that you prepare after the announcement (of the visit) and then pull it off so quickly and so easily.”
The US held back throughout the maneuvers, keeping a carrier group and two amphibious assault ships afloat in the area but not near the island. Taiwan avoided active countermeasures.
Kurt Campbell, the Biden administration’s coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, said this week that the US is pursuing a “calm and resolute” long-term approach that would include continued crossing of the Taiwan Strait, support for Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities, and more Deepening the connection with the island.
To that end, the US announced on Thursday that it would begin talks with Taiwan over a wide-ranging trade deal.
Campbell said Washington saw China’s actions as “part of an increased pressure campaign against Taiwan that is ongoing.”
“We expect it to continue to unfold over the coming weeks and months,” he said.
The US Department of Defense has recognized China’s increasingly capable military, saying it has become a real rival and has already surpassed the American military in some areas, including shipbuilding, and now has the largest navy in the world.
The cautious American response to the recent drills appeared designed to avoid any accidental confrontation, which could have escalated the situation but also boosted China’s confidence, Ohlberg said.
“The basis of China’s thinking is that the US is on the decline and that China is on the rise, and I guess the reaction in Beijing would have validated that thinking,” she said.
The US and China came perhaps the closest to the blows when China, angered by increasing American support for Taiwan, fired missiles into the waters about 30 kilometers off Taiwan’s coast in 1996 ahead of Taiwan’s first presidential election.
The US responded with its own show of force, sending two aircraft carrier groups into the region. At that time, China had no aircraft carriers and little means to threaten American ships, and it backed down.
China then embarked on a massive modernization of its military, and the recent drills showed a “quantum leap” of improvement over 1996 and demonstrated a joint command and control coordination that has never been seen before, Chen said.
However, before the Chinese military is confident enough to launch an actual invasion of Taiwan, it needs to do more to reassure the country’s political leaders that it will be successful, he said.
“These recent exercises are likely part of the demonstration of that capability, but more needs to be worked out before they can be confident of conducting a full-scale amphibious invasion of Taiwan,” he said. “They only demonstrated the naval blockade and air control parts of this campaign, without resistance.”
After the visit, China released an updated “white paper” on Taiwan outlining how it envisioned a possible annexation of the island.
It said it would follow the “one country, two systems” format employed in Hong Kong, which critics say has been undermined by a sweeping national security law that claims Beijing’s control over speech and political participation. The concept was thoroughly rejected in Taiwanese opinion polls, where respondents overwhelmingly endorsed their current de facto independence.
Significantly, the new white paper scrapped a promise in its previous iteration not to send troops or government officials to an annexed Taiwan.
China has refused all contact with Taiwan’s government since shortly after the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. Tsai was overwhelmingly re-elected in 2020.
China’s bellicose response to Pelosi’s visit could have the unintended effect of bolstering the DPP in midterm elections later this year, said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the College of International Affairs at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University.
Ideally, it would be in Taiwan’s best interest for both sides to back down and find “reasonable ways” to settle differences, he said.
“There’s an old saying that when two big elephants fight, the ant and the grass suffer,” he said.
AP journalist Johnson Lai from Taipei, Taiwan contributed to this story.