Amid Taiwanese aspiration, Chinese rage, and regional concern over whether the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, would visit Taiwan, she arrived on 2 August. The most senior US official to travel to Taiwan in a decade and the first sitting speaker to do so in twenty-five years, her itinerary was busy and full. She spoke with Mark Liu 劉德音, the chairman of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (TSMC); had breakfast at the American Institute in Taiwan (a non-official agency that functions as a de facto embassy); addressed the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s parliament) and met President Tsai Ing-wen 蔡英文 there; toured the Jing-Mei White Terror Memorial Park; hosted an exchange with Taiwan-based dissidents from Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and held a press conference. Her visit was high profile and widely covered by global media.
It infuriated Beijing. Before her flight even took off for Taipei, on 30 July, China announced a live-fire zone in Fujian Province across the Taiwan Strait, along with temporary import ban on certain Taiwan-manufactured foods on the grounds that they had not been registered in the PRC.
More retaliation measures were adopted after her flight had landed in Taipei. PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying 华春莹 expressed her government’s position: The US and Taiwan had been first to act provocatively, whereas China was compelled to act in self-defense. Any countermeasure to be taken by the PRC would be a justified and necessary response to the US obliviousness to Beijing’s repeated démarches and to the US’ unscrupulous behavior.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) carried out military exercises in a total of six zones on all sides of Taiwan for a week, continuing after Speaker Pelosi left Taiwan for Seoul. The government banned the import of more Taiwanese agricultural and fishing products, halted exports of sand (needed for infrastructure construction) and sanctioned individuals and organizations for ‘secession’.
The Communist Party of China (CPC) also released a White Paper titled ‘The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era’. The White Paper expresses Beijing’s long-term policy towards Taiwan: It describes ‘resolving the Taiwan question’ as ‘indispensible for the realisation of China’s rejuvenation’ and a ‘historic mission’ of the CPC. It describes Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of having an agenda of ‘independence’ and warns that while ‘peaceful reunification’ is the CPC’s goal, ‘We will always be ready to respond with the use of force or other necessary means to interference by external forces or radical action by separatist elements.’
The PLA’s Retaliation
The military retaliation measures demonstrated certain things about the PLA enhanced military capabilities. First, the PLA imposed six zones in this exercise, implying that it can mobilise sufficient force to encircle the whole island. In comparison, during the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the PLA also imposed six zones in the Taiwan Strait, but they didn’t carry activities out in all six zones at the same time.
Secondly, the size of some the August 2022 military exercise zones were double or triple those imposed in between 1995-96, implying a prioritised area for operation. Thirdly, the scope of certain zones enters the adjacent water of Taiwan’s twenty-four nautical miles or territorial sea baselines; in the 1995-96 crisis, they were all out of the adjacent water areas. As a result, the actions affected Taiwan’s shipping and civil aviation lines with the implication that the PLA could launch a blockade to choke off Taiwan’s external communications.
This shows that following four decades of military modernisation since 1980s, the PLA can launch a variety of military operations against Taiwan, ranging from coercive quarantine and total blockade to all out invasion. The number of zones and their size speak to the PLA’s capability.
It is not an exaggeration to state that this exercise served to test the PLA’s future operation plans. That the large-scale exercise was announced only several hours after Speaker Pelosi had departed Taiwan indicates that the exercise had been long in the planning and the PLA had simply been waiting for the right time to carry it out.
It also shows that the PLA’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) operations—a military tactic that holds that ‘the best way of prevailing over a distant adversary, especially if it is superior in overall military power, is to prevent it from deploying its forces into the theater of conflict in the first place’—are being factored into China’s military plans. What’s more, they can execute this operation against possible US forces simultaneously during a military operation against Taiwan, because one zone is located east of Taiwan where the US force is expected to pass.
The exercises also sent a warning signal to Japan not to cooperate with US forces in the event of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait: some of China’s ballistic missiles fell into Japan’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). It has been reported that President Xi Jinping deliberately chose the EEZ area as the target between two proposed targets.
There is no doubt that Australia is probably also factored into mainland military calculations, because one zone is located south southeast of Taiwan. In the framework of the AUKUS, a strategic defensive alliance agreed to in September 2021 by Australia, United Kingdom, and the US, Australia is perceived to play a role in a Taiwan Strait contingency.
In addition to its military function, the 2022 August military exercise carries a strong political message, namely, that the Taiwan Strait has been ‘internalised’ by the PRC and the PLA can cross over it wherever they see fit.
Since 1949, there has been a median line in the Taiwan Strait to separate the PRC and Taiwan. This line was set by the US unilaterally during the Cold War when the historical feud between Taiwan’s then ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and the CPC precluded the two parties from communication. This median line had been observed by both Taiwan and the PRC as a de factor border between the two, though Beijing did not explicitly endorse it.
Starting from 2022, Beijing began to argue more frequently that, based on its long-held claim that Taiwan is an inseparable part of China, the PRC has sovereignty, sovereign rights and management rights in the whole of the Taiwan Strait.
The military exercise created serious repercussions for US-China relations. First, it worsened the already fragile US-China relationship and heightened US-China strategic competition: China, considering Taiwan as their core interest, has to push further in order to get reunification of Taiwan within reach, while US has to do its utmost helping defend Taiwan in order to safeguard its credibility. Any concession by either side would come with a political price tag.
Secondly, the exercises created a new normal in the Taiwan Strait. PLA military jets have crossed over the median line in the Taiwan Strait, and its missiles have landed within twenty-four nautical miles of Taiwan, nearly penetrating Taiwan’s sovereign waters. In other words,it is possible for the PRC to enforce its maritime claim over the Taiwan Strait. That could involve denying US warships future Freedom of Navigation Operations there.
Under such circumstances, further militarisation of US-China competition in the Taiwan Strait is conceivable. To make its goal of reunification with Taiwan reachable, China may likely stage their military exercises even closer to Taiwan in the future. This would serve two purposes: to damage Taiwan’s morale and confidence, and simultaneously discredit the US.
The element of political leadership has to be factored into any assessment of the risk of military escalation in the Strait. Seeking a third term, breaking long established norms in China since the 1980s, Xi Jinping is staking his legitimacy in part on progress on Taiwan’s reunification. His performance over the past two terms shows that he is an ambitious leader eager to establish his legacy. Backed by China’s growing military capability, he will likely push toward this goal.
Xi’s assessment of the external environment may embolden him. The US is spread thin with conflicts on many fronts globally while internal rifts over some political issues may weaken its national power. Russia, stuck in its long war with Ukraine, meanwhile, needs China more than ever, and for all reasons is very unlikely to attempt to constrain China from the north.
The likelihood for an all-out invasion against Taiwan at this stage is low. Organising a large-scale invasion of Taiwan, including coordinated actions between naval, air force and infantry combat troops, as well as the logistical support they’d require across the Taiwan Strait, remains too difficult a task for the near future. Its cost, both in material terms, potential casualties (including civilian casualties in Taiwan) and reputational harms, would damage China’s global standing and jeopardise Xi’s dream of great national rejuvenation.
By contrast, the ‘salami slicing’ type of grey zone operation, in which, according to the Lowy Institute definition, ‘no individual provocation is large enough to force the other side to respond militarily’, along with enhanced disinformation, better serves Xi’s purposes. It can incrementally exhaust Taiwan’s resources, reduce Taiwan’s self-confidence, and drive a wedge between government and Taiwanese people. Doing it this way will give no excuse to the United States to intervene militarily, while there will be not much else that the United States can do directly to support Taiwan.
Taiwan will not sit idle. Aware of the consequences of inaction, Taiwan is very likely to push back so that the PRC will not be able to sustain new normal established in this military exercise. It also involves changing the rules of engagement by Taiwan military force. Needless to say, any push-back runs the risk of conflict breaking out between Taiwanese and Chinese militaries.
US involvement in the Taiwan Strait of some sort will be inevitable. The Taiwan Relations Act requires the US government to take action (it is however up to the US President to make the ultimate decision), because it stipulates that it considers ‘any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States’.
China’s military exercises and ‘salami slicing’ grey zone operations are definitely a threat to ‘the peace and security of the Western Pacific area’. I would argue that the US has to react to help safeguard US credibility. In the wake of growing Chinese military capability and the subsequent asymmetric situation between Taiwanese and Chinese militaries, US involvement will inevitably be extensive, and at least including providing more arms and combat training. Even short of a commitment to defend Taiwan militarily, its involvement will infuriate China and it will take further actions as a result, creating a vicious cycle.
The US also need to take a stance on China’s legal claim over the Taiwan Strait. As in the South China Sea, the US must continue to execute the freedom of navigation operation in the Taiwan Strait to refute China’s claim of exclusive sovereignty. Helping Taiwan maintain its de facto independence will indirectly help the US maintain its image as the only power in the world capable of upholding the ‘rules-based order’ on which so much of global economic, political and other cooperation depends.
Taiwan has become the focal-point of US-China geopolitical competition, and has ensured that the competition would be militarised. With relations spiraling, we all need to buckle up.