Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
In the aftermath of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s ill-timed trip to Taiwan, China’s leaders were determined not to let a good crisis go to waste. They conducted unprecedented military drills, launching ballistic missiles near Taiwan and dispatching fighters and naval warships across the Taiwan Strait median line in an attention-getting show of force. China also released a white paper, only the third it has ever issued on Taiwan, laying out its terms for achieving unification—peacefully if possible, forcibly if necessary.
China’s reaction is part of a broader pattern. In 2012, Beijing responded to Japan’s nationalization of the Diaoyu Islands (known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands)—an archipelago historically claimed by China, Japan, and Taiwan—by sending coast guard and navy patrols to the area, tactics that have continued and expanded. In 2019, China similarly used a flare-up of tensions along its border with India as a pretext to add to its forces, facilities, and patrols in disputed areas. And the same year, it pointed to student-led protests in Hong Kong as a rationale for dismantling the “one country, two systems” model—which had given Hong Kong a great deal of autonomy—and imposing a national security law to enforce obedience to Beijing.
In the case of Taiwan, Beijing appears to be putting force behind two of its recent assertions. The first is that China does not recognize any median line in the Taiwan Strait. The second is that China has “sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait.” From Beijing’s perspective, these positions stem from its policy that Taiwan is a part of China. By operating aircraft and naval vessels across the median line of the Taiwan Strait in unprecedented numbers after Pelosi’s visit, Beijing is seeking to establish that its military will no longer be constrained to its half of the Taiwan Strait. And by lobbing ballistic missiles into waters near Taiwan’s commercial ports, Beijing appears to be signaling that from now on, it will act militarily wherever it deems necessary in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing’s firing of multiple missiles into waters within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone similarly serves as a warning to Tokyo about further involvement in cross-strait affairs.
Some argue that China’s recent actions would have happened sooner or later, regardless of whether Pelosi visited the island. Even if one accepts such debatable logic, Pelosi’s trip created a pretext for China to accelerate its plans. But now that the damage is done, it is imperative to focus on what comes out of this crisis. It is not inevitable that the situation in the Taiwan Strait is locked into a path of permanent deterioration. Taipei’s response has been calm and nonescalatory. With discipline and clarity on objectives, U.S. policymakers might still be able to seize the moment to arrest the slide in cross-strait relations and put Taiwan on a more solid footing.
From Beijing’s vantage point, Pelosi’s visit was a consequence of two broad trends: Taiwan’s drift away from China and the United States’ determined efforts to raise Taiwan’s international profile. China would strongly prefer for the rest of the world to ignore Taiwan so that Beijing can treat the matter as an internal affair and impose its will on Taiwan. Pelosi’s visit offered an opportunity for Beijing to stage an intervention and, in so doing, seek to permanently tilt the status quo in its favor. Washington and Taipei must act smartly to forestall the erosion of Taiwan’s security situation.
For Washington, there is an urgent need to prevent Beijing from establishing a different status quo on Taiwan. To that end, it may be useful to consider how previous U.S. presidents were able to prevent Beijing from taking advantage of incidents in the past. One case study worthy of review is President Barack Obama’s success in forestalling China from conducting land reclamation at Scarborough Shoal, an atoll in the South China Sea claimed by both China and the Philippines, in 2016. Early that year, there was chatter that Beijing might seek to expand its artificial island construction at Scarborough Shoal. If China had proceeded, the United States might have become involved, since it had an alliance commitment with the Philippines.
Obama recognized that the only way to prevent the United States from getting drawn into a conflict with China was to speak directly and discreetly with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Issues involving the Chinese military must be addressed to leaders within the chain of command, and Xi was and is the top link in that chain. Such issues must be handled quietly, too, since doing so gives Chinese leaders room to maneuver and allows them to avoid worrying about being painted as soft for solving a problem with an American counterpart. At the same time, Obama’s negotiating hand was strengthened by the deployment—without public fanfare—of U.S. military assets near Scarborough Shoal.
The situation in the Taiwan Strait is not necessarily on a path of permanent deterioration.
Obama understood that Chinese leaders need to feel that their concerns are being taken seriously in order for them to address our own. And as with every major issue that has been managed or resolved between the United States and China, the Scarborough showdown was handled by two leaders who had built a relationship with each other and who understood each other’s requirements and constraints. Both were capable of elevating diplomacy above politics. They both recognized that strong leaders sometimes need to do hard things to prevent war. Ultimately, China never pursued land reclamation at Scarborough Shoal.
Applying this case study to the current situation in the Taiwan Strait provides a number of lessons. Direct leader-level diplomacy is a requirement to ensure that each side knows the other’s concerns and requirements. Discipline and discretion are the currency of crisis management. Clever arguments without credible deterrence contribute little to managing challenges. And China’s leaders will not take steps to defuse tensions unless they believe their concerns are being heard.
These lessons suggest that the situation in the Taiwan Strait is likely not yet ripe for a lowering of tensions. Beijing seems to believe it is making progress in erasing the median line in the strait and establishing a precedent of operating anywhere around Taiwan it sees fit. That said, Beijing’s overreaction to Pelosi’s visit will make it easier for Washington to advance several near-term priorities with Taiwan. For example, Beijing is demonstrating that Taiwan urgently needs to accelerate its efforts to position critical munitions, energy, medicine, and food supplies on the island before conflict breaks out. China’s threatening actions could also offer opportunities for Washington to quietly encourage greater bipartisanship in Taiwan for strengthening fiscal and public support for Taiwan’s defense.
Washington could also harness Beijing’s bullying to push forward coordination with Taiwan on supply chain resilience, agreements on twenty-first-century digital trade issues, and other measures to strengthen economic relations. All these efforts fall well within the bounds of existing U.S. policy. They would also strengthen U.S.-Taiwan ties and put Taiwan on a firmer footing to deal with whatever comes next. It will be important to avoid the emergence of any daylight between Washington and Taipei. Divisions in the relationship would benefit only Beijing.
One issue in need of attention between policymakers in Washington and Taipei is how they define the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. Senior officials in Washington and Taipei have vowed to uphold the status quo, but neither side has provided much clarity on how they identify it. If Washington and Taipei publicly define the status quo narrowly around pushing the Chinese military back across the Taiwan Strait median line in the near term, they risk setting themselves up for failure. Rather than grant Beijing such a perception of progress, Washington and Taipei would be wise to define the status quo around a more principled set of objectives. These could include preserving non-war in the Taiwan Strait, maintaining Taiwan’s political autonomy, steadily strengthening U.S.-Taiwan relations, preventing the Chinese military from operating in Taiwan’s territorial waters or airspace, and continuing to fly, sail, and operate anywhere that international law allows. Washington’s and Taipei’s interests align on these objectives, and both sides remain capable of upholding them.
Beijing’s militarized response should also generate momentum for the United States to deepen collaboration with Australia and Japan. Beijing’s operational response offers a road map for what needs to be done to strengthen deterrent conditions. In addition to sustaining a steady military presence in the region, Washington and its allies should advance joint efforts to expand military access, planning, and preparedness for contingencies. Progress along these lines would bolster Washington’s ability to remind Beijing of its own vulnerabilities, not in ways that induce public humiliation but in ways that would prod China’s leaders to consider the risks of pushing too far. The United States and its partners would have more impact on China’s calculus if they did more and said less.
In due time, U.S. officials will also need to explain to their Chinese counterparts how they define unofficial relations with Taiwan. Doing so would invariably fail to satisfy Beijing, but it would set expectations and reassure Beijing that the United States still recognizes limits on the conduct of its relations with Taiwan. As part of such discussions, U.S. officials should underscore that the visibility of the United States’ support for Taiwan will be influenced by the degree of China’s pressure on Taiwan. If China is serious about advancing its goal of peaceful unification, it needs to appeal to Taiwan’s 23 million people, whose opinions will be decisive. U.S. officials should emphasize to their Chinese counterparts that military intimidation will only push the Taiwan public to support leaders and policies that run counter to China’s stated goals.
Even as Washington and Taipei demonstrate that they will not be intimidated into backpedaling on Taiwan’s security, they should also focus on lowering risks, bolstering deterrent capabilities, strengthening Taiwan’s footing, and advancing U.S.-Taiwan relations. Beijing’s overreaction to Pelosi’s visit has created opportunities for progress along these lines. Such opportunities should not be squandered.
Being Ready Is the Best Way to Prevent a Fight With China