Dire Straits – the Price Taiwan Needs to Pay in the Wake of Pelosi’s Visit

Written by Li-Chiang Yuan.

Image credit: Tsai Ing-wen/ Facebook.

“The fastest track to a bloody war between China and the United States runs through Taiwan.”

Graham Allison

To counteract the United States Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, China warned the US that it was “playing with fire” through wolf warrior diplomacy and punishment of Taiwan. After Pelosi left Taiwan, China conducted the largest-ever military exercise against Taiwan since the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) 4-day live fire exercise from 4th to 8th of August, 2022, has broken the record and set “three firsts”: 1. Missiles directly flying over Taiwan; 2. PLA’s crossing the median line of Taiwan Strait, and 3. Exercise areas encircle Taiwan, and PLA reaches Taiwan’s 12 territorial seas and airspace. Naturally, no one in Taiwan would welcome these “Firsts”.

The seven exercise areas encircle the sea and airspace of Taiwan, which has caused an unprecedented “quasi-blockade” of Taiwan. Most importantly, the median line as a decades-long buffer zone between two sides of the Taiwan Strait has been broken and will no longer exist. This is the most profound and serious consequence as military confrontations (especially navy and air force) within line of sight will become a daily business. It could easily trigger a full-scale war if the militaries of both sides do not exert self-restraint. As a career military officer who has experienced the 1996 missile crisis, the author considers the current exercises (still ongoing) are much worse than the 1996 missile crisis. From the military perspective, erasing Taiwan Strait median line is highly likely to force Taiwan to pay a much bigger price. Furthermore, Taiwan Strait’s security has attracted world attention and become a new international community focus after the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war. Despite many countries expressing their concerns and opposition to China’s use of force to intimidate Taiwan, China keeps sending military assets to nearby waters and airspace of Taiwan with no sign of stopping.

China’s much-elevated tone and scale toward Taiwan with military exercises reflect Beijing’s frustration with the current internationalisation of Taiwan’s issues and its eagerness to curb the continued development of this trend. Beijing alleges Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan caused a serious escalation of the substantive relationship between the US and Taiwan and seriously violated the US commitments to the Chinese government on the One China Policy. China also accuses the United States of colluding with the Taiwan pro-independence forces, which is the fundamental reason for the tension in the Taiwan Strait. China believes that the US is playing the “Taiwan card” by using the country to check and balance China, continuously improving the level of contact between the US and Taiwan, and increasing arms sales to Taiwan. China’s military exercise has fully demonstrated Beijing’s growing worry about the enhanced partnership between the US and Taiwan. China attempts to counter independence and facilitate reunification by drawing a red line to limit the development of US-Taiwan relations and to dominate the security environment in the Taiwan Strait.

China’s first aggressive “Encircling-Taiwan Military Exercise” highlighted Beijing’s threat of “military reunification” of Taiwan, apparently challenging the US bottom line of “peaceful resolution” of the Taiwan issue prescribed in the “Taiwan Relations Act” and taking the opportunity to test President Biden’s two previous security commitments to Taiwan.

China’s military intimidation in the Taiwan Strait has once again demonstrated the differences between Washington’s “One China policy” and Beijing’s “One China principle”, as well as the fundamental conflict between the “peaceful resolution” of the Taiwan Strait disputes by the US and China’s active use of force to coerce cross-strait reunification. Although the US has dispatched the USS Ronald Reagan carrier battle group to patrol the adjacent waters of Taiwan to monitor the PLA’s activities, in the face of China’s use of military exercises tremendously exceeding the scale of the 1996 Crisis to maximise pressure on Taiwan, it is equivalent to a direct slap in the face of the Biden administration’s invest, align, compete” three-pillar strategy against China.

In fact, in contrast to the 1996 Crisis in which US aircraft carriers patrolled the Taiwan Strait, due to China’s much enhanced Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities, no US warships entered and patrolled the Taiwan Strait this time. Therefore, it is futile to talk without taking real action. Suppose the Biden administration cannot immediately propose more concrete measures to counter Beijing’s military exercise, thereby deterring China from coercing Taiwan with force. In that case, it may fuel China’s ambition to “unify” Taiwan by force. This will damage the credibility of the US in the world.

In the face of the threat and intimidation of China’s military exercises and encirclement, Taiwan has received some (but not much) support from the international community. However, the scope and strength of China’s “encircling Taiwan military exercise” have violated the “definition of aggression” stipulated in UN Resolution 3314 and Resolution 2625: “Recalling the duty of states to refrain in their international relations from military, political, economic or any other form of coercion aimed against the political independence or territorial integrity of any state”. Therefore, although the statehood of the Republic of China (Taiwan) under international law is controversial, it does not affect Taiwan as a factual entity regulated and guaranteed by international law.

Based on the political consideration of “anti-independence and facilitating reunification”, China has been exerting significant pressure on Taiwan and the international community through military exercises, obstructing the interaction between Taiwan and the US, oppressing Taiwan’s space for activities in the international community and international organisations, and undermining the rules-based international order. In fact, the US and NATO have accused China of its “coercive policy“, which has also led to an unprecedented joint statement between the G7 and the EU, expressing concern about China’s intimidation of Taiwan’s military exercises and twice mentioning its commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. In this regard, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi responded arrogantly without changing the nature of wolf warrior diplomacy, “the joint statement is a piece of rubbish“.

The NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, “the visit of Nancy Pelosi is no reason for China to overreact or threaten Taiwan or to use threatening rhetoric“. Liz Truss criticised China’s “inflammatory” response to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and called for a de-escalation of military drills. Even the ASEAN, which has always emphasised neutrality, issued a rare statement: “ASEAN is concerned with the international and regional volatility, especially in the recent development in the area adjacent to the ASEAN region, which could destabilise the region and eventually could lead to miscalculation, serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences among major powers”.

China’s intimidation and pressure on Taiwan’s military exercises have attracted significant attention from the international community and dramatically increased the visibility of Taiwan in the world. Maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait has clearly become the international community’s consensus. China’s use of military force to intimidate Taiwan is bound to have the opposite effect. It will not only fail to prohibit it but will encourage more international leaders to visit Taiwan. In addition, China’s strategic goal of reunifying the two sides of the Taiwan Strait by “anti-independence and facilitating reunification” through military exercises will be difficult to achieve. On the contrary, the security issue across the Taiwan Strait will accelerate the internationalisation of the Taiwan issue and become a new trend that cannot be avoided.

To conclude, cross-strait conflicts exacerbate, and neither side is communicating. Judged by the worsening cross-strait relations in recent years, Taipei City mayor Ko Wen-je believes that the cross-strait relations will keep deteriorating and show no sign of improving. Therefore, he strongly urges both sides to set aside nationalism and resume dialogue to prevent misjudgement and war. It is the fundamental way to resolve the Taiwan Strait tension.

Dr Li-Chiang Yuan is the Deputy Director of the Taiwan Studies Center at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. He was the Defence Attache to the UK.

This article was published as part of a special issue on “US-Taiwan-China: What’s next?”.

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