Chinese Military Drills After Tsai-McCarthy Meeting Will Be Used for Political Ammo by Both Camps

Written by Brian Hioe.

Image credit: 04.06 「民主夥伴共榮之旅」總統與美國眾議院議長麥卡錫會談並與跨黨派議員進行雙邊領袖會議 by 總統府/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.

One of the striking effects of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last August was to what extent it highlighted the perception gap within Taiwan as compared to outside Taiwan.  

At the time, much international discourse acted as though the Pelosi visit could be a prelude to World War III. Drama ensued from the visit’s onset, with the flight that Pelosi took to Taiwan followed by over 700,000 users on flight tracking website FlightRadar24–setting new records. Op-eds in international media outlets such as the New York Times framed Pelosi’s visit as unnecessarily provoking China.  

Once the Chinese military began live-fire drills around Taiwan, this was also reported on with a great degree of high-pitched rhetoric. Certainly, the drills took place closer to Taiwan than during the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis, but all eyes were on Taiwan in international media as though one would imminently see the outbreak of hostilities between Taiwan and China. This occurred even though it was known that an invasion of Taiwan was not planned, seeing as troop movements would have to occur months in advance and would be detectable by satellite. However, at the time, the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense (MND) framed the exercises as aimed at simulating a blockade and a de facto blockade.  

By contrast, there was no such tension within Taiwan. The Taiwanese public largely did not react to the drills, with life going on as usual. 

Likewise, after the Pelosi visit, polling designed by Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research and carried out by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University suggested two months later that Taiwanese generally approved of the visit, seeing as the visit was seen as an expression of support by the US for Taiwan. On the other hand, brooking’s polling, carried out in two rounds in September 2022 and January 2023, suggested more mixed views of the Pelosi visit. However, interpreting the results also suggests that views divide due to partisanship among those surveyed.  

It is worth thinking about the Tsai-McCarthy meeting in light of the divides in perception illustrated by the Pelosi visit. For one, the meeting took place in McCarthy’s home state of California rather than in Taiwan as part of an effort by Taiwan to avoid unnecessarily provoking China. This occurred after the Tsai administration shared intelligence on how it thought China would react to the visit, though McCarthy has not ruled out a future visit to Taiwan.  

Certainly, the Tsai-McCarthy meeting was not as widely reported on as the Pelosi meeting. This was partly because it took place in the US and not Taiwan. But by contrast, there was more reporting on former president Ma Ying-jeou’s visit to China in the same timeframe. This was the first visit by a former Taiwanese president to Taiwan since the Chinese Civil War. For his part, Ma framed the visit as a bid to reduce cross-strait tensions and to pay tribute to his ancestors. However, in this light, the visit can be understood as another attempt by Ma to reinforce the claim that the KMT is the only political party in Taiwan able to conduct peaceful relations with the CCP. This has historically been the basis of the KMT’s claim that it should hold political power in Taiwan in elections.  

With China announcing a new set of military exercises after the Tsai-McCarthy meeting, one expects to see two different narrative framings from the pan-Blue and pan-Green camps. The pan-Blue camp will allege that the military exercises result from the DPP’s drawing Taiwan too dangerously close to the US in a way that provokes China. To this extent, pan-Blue politicians such as Terry Gou have increasingly sought to frame the DPP as warmongering through strengthening ties with the US, including military exchanges, while positioning the KMT as the party of peace.  

Indeed, in past months,  the KMT has increasingly leaned into scepticism of the US as part of its political messaging. This includes sowing doubt about US weapons sales to Taiwan, such as alleging dangers from Volcano landmines and whether the US would seek to hollow out Taiwan’s “silicon shield” through poaching semiconductor talent at TSMC’s newly inaugurated fab in Arizona. This discourse, which has itself been termed “US-sceptic discourse” (疑美論), seems to have completely undercut party chair Eric Chu’s much-vaunted pivot to the US. Chu originally took the KMT chair, promising to change the KMT’s pro-China image by embracing ties with the US, but this now seems to have been abandoned entirely, probably as part of efforts by Chu to politically distinguish himself from possible rivals for the KMT’s 2024 presidential candidate. Tsai’s visit to the US has been framed similarly by the KMT.  

By contrast, the DPP is likely to lean into the narrative that Ma’s visit to China was useless since it did not prevent Chinese military exercises from taking place. Interestingly, at a time in which the KMT has sought to rally its base with the argument that the DPP is denigrating national symbols of the ROC, such as the flag or national emblem, the pan-Green camp often sought to frame Ma’s visit as a form of national dignity. This would be with the suggestion that Ma was not treated with the respect that should be given to a former head of state, including with permission to carry firearms denied to Ma’s security detail, Ma declining to mention his former title as president or times in which Ma refrained from mentioning the ROC.  

The most important effect of China’s drills after the Tsai-McCarthy meeting in domestic politics, then, will be with regards to how each respective political camp uses it as fodder for attacks on the other camp to reinforce differing narratives of the visit by Tsai to the US and Ma’s visit to China. This will seemingly be of more importance than the drills themselves. In addition, the drills may have carried import regarding capacity signalling between the Taiwanese and Chinese military. This is perhaps most visible in the videos of footage of the daily drills by the People’s Liberation Army, with Taiwan’s MND responding in kind each day by releasing footage of Taiwanese troops observing the drills. But such signalling is opaque for the general and, as with the post-Pelosi drills, while the exercises were a front-page issue in the Taiwanese news cycle, they were one issue among many. In this sense, the primary impact of the drills will be with regards to how they affect domestic politicking in Taiwan, rather than psychological intimidation or the lack thereof targeting the general Taiwanese populace.  

Brian Hioe is one of the founding editors of New Bloom. He is a freelance journalist, as well as a translator. A New York native and Taiwanese-American, he has an MA in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University and graduated from New York University with majors in History, East Asian Studies, and English Literature. He was Democracy and Human Rights Service Fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy from 2017 to 2018 and is currently a non-resident fellow at the University of Nottingham’s Taiwan Studies Programme. 

This article was published as part of a special issue titled “Tsai’s Stopover in the USA: Wins for Taiwan?

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