Astone makes a thousand waves. This old Chinese saying can best describe the impact of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s official visit to Taiwan on major power relations and regional stability. The Chinese government had raised serious and principled objections to the visit, but still failed to dissuade Pelosi from landing in Taiwan. The historical volatility in bilateral relations further worsened Chinese perceptions regarding America’s ultimate intentions over Taiwan. The Chinese government, therefore, deemed that corresponding reactions were needed and, subsequently, the People’s Liberation Army announced a series of military exercises around Taiwan.
To the Chinese government, the issue of Taiwan means a prolonged civil war since the 1940s when its attempts to liberate the island were interrupted by the US. A forgetful world might be oblivious to historical facts, but unlike most territorial disputes between countries, the belonging of Taiwan to China is historically recognised by the international community. The Chinese military is, therefore, still called a liberation army. The Chinese government is thus obliged to fulfil the remaining task to liberate the island, and the aggression that China could sense from Pelosi’s visit helped it enhance domestic cohesion to stand strongly against the provocative move.
As compared with earlier China-US crises on Taiwan, the PLA’s military exercises around Taiwan this time involved a bigger amount of military personnel and more comprehensive weapons, with bomber formations sent to fly across the Taiwan Strait and long-range air strike capabilities tested. The PLA was convinced that what it was doing corresponded to US provocation because, as the second highest ranking official in the line of succession to the US president, Pelosi was warned against “undermining China’s sovereign security interests”, a blunt intervention into China’s domestic affairs and against the American commitment about not developing official relations with Taiwan.
The White House announced that it would conduct ‘freedom of navigation’ transits in the Taiwan Strait, which would further worsen the situation. Such actions and reactions between the two superpowers are still unfolding and will undoubtedly put regional stability to test. But from what observers can see, neither the PLA navy nor the US navy wants further escalation. So far, both sides have displayed relative calmness and professionalism.
As for China, the remarks by its foreign ministry spokesperson and other ranking officials have sent a clear message to the US and the international community that it had determined the current crisis to be caused by opportunistic moves of the Democratic Party to boost its midterm election prospects and Pelosi to leave a legacy as a staunch anti-China warrior. Based on such conviction, rather than seeking to solve the problem once and for all, its countermeasures focus on deterring Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party authorities and extreme anti-China forces in the US from making further moves in pursuing de facto independence.
Historically, the Chinese government has demonstrated sufficient patience in finding a peaceful way for reunification, while separatist forces in Taiwan have tried all means, including incremental tactics, to revise historical and cultural bonds with the mainland and invite outside forces to stoke confrontation. A further proof for China’s continued patience is a recent controversy over Taiwanese being trafficked to Cambodia by telecom scam gangs, to which the Chinese embassy in Cambodia has made it clear that people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are Chinese and that the embassy is ready to help those Taiwanese victims at any time.
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For the US, playing the Taiwan card is a traditional and classic way to distract and contain China’s rise, even as it serves to perpetuate Taiwan’s security reliance on the US. The strategy has worked well so far and in terms of business, the Biden administration has made five rounds of arms sales to Taiwan since taking charge, of which four rounds happened this year. American strategists prefer a ‘neither-war-nor-peace’ status across the Taiwan Strait as they believe that it can best serve US interests. The US does not want to escalate the already intense crisis at a time the Biden administration is wrestling with a hostile Russia over the Ukraine invasion. A showdown on Taiwan will put the US in direct confrontation with a nuclear power of significant military and economic leverage.
This scenario, however, does not rule out completely the possibility of an escalation, especially while considering the Biden administration’s larger strategic goals in containing China. After the turmoil caused by Pelosi’s visit, the Biden administration is proposing the Chip 4 alliance. Taiwan, which is a semiconductor powerhouse, is invited to play a vital role in helping the US regain dominance over the global chip market. Nobody knows what exactly is in store for other states when the US takes control of the semiconductor industry chain, but the butterfly effect is clear: all major economies will run into a stringent semiconductor supply crisis and the already fragile global economy will encounter a critical strike.
Time has come for the world to start worrying about the spiralling escalation amid the “extreme competition”–a phrase favoured by President Biden–between the two most powerful states and it can have a much larger impact globally. The Biden administration is unveiling its plan against China step by step and the whole world has to wait for the dust to settle and absorb the resulting shocks.
The author is an associate professor at the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai, China.