China is framing the Taiwan visit of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, as part of a big shift in US policy towards open support for Taiwanese independence and away from its traditional “strategic ambiguity” of deterring China from invading Taiwan and Taipei from declaring nationhood. Deemed a security threat, this perceived repositioning is allowing Beijing to show greater resolve in and further justification for its “historic mission” of re-unifying with Taiwan. China has also suspended cooperation with the US in eight areas, including climate, military and transnational crime.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Eastern Theater Command said on its Weibo account that regular exercises will be conducted in the Taiwan Strait to step up combat readiness, after completing the recent mission. This is further indication of Beijing’s ongoing intention to build up its military presence in the region. In a white paper released Wednesday, Beijing said it will not renounce the use of force and will take all necessary measures to guard against all "separatist activities".
Since Pelosi landed in Taipei last week, the PLA has turned up the heat on Taiwan by launching dozens of flyovers with fighters and drones and sea crossings by warships. 20 Chinese and Taiwanese naval vessels were reportedly locked in a standoff in the Taiwan Strait. A Taiwanese activist, Yang Chih-yuan, was also arrested by state security officers in China, who alleged that he engaged in “separatist” activities by starting a pro-Taiwanese independence party.
Orchestrated to exhibit military capability and intimidate the Taiwanese, China’s display of force is routine at this time of year and took place in broad daylight. There was no element of surprise. Beijing had also given ample warning so that commercial ships and aircraft could plan diversions. Nevertheless, the drills, the economic coercion and other threats are part of a maximum-pressure campaign to force Taiwan into submission.
Taiwan is no stranger to such threats, sanctions and incursions from China. Defiant but careful not to further escalate tensions, Taipei has put its defense forces on high alert and deployed ships and planes to monitor – and in some cases even shadow – Chinese vessels simulating attacks close to Taiwanese territory. The military also carried out its own live artillery drills this week.
Taiwanese lawmakers from across the political spectrum have condemned Beijing’s actions, while calling for calm and dialogue. The chairman of the pro-China Kuomintang Party, Eric Chu, publicly supported Pelosi’s visit and decried China’s military aggression – even if some party colleagues expressed very different views on the matter. The escalation in tension is happening at a politically important period in Taiwan. Local elections take place in November and campaigning for the 2024 presidential race starts next year.
Inevitably, the Taiwanese are also anxious. Island-wide air-raid exercises have resumed after being suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic. Taipei has also created an app for residents to find the nearest air-raid shelter in the capital. Demand for first-aid and self-defense courses has risen, and more resources have been committed to bolstering combat forces. The government is drafting a proposal to extend mandatory military service for men.
President Tsai Ing-wen also warned of psychological tactics through disinformation campaigns on social and traditional media. This came after false reports that Pelosi had been paid millions by Tsai’s administration to visit Taiwan and rumors swirled online that China was evacuating its citizens from Taiwan.
Even though Pelosi’s visit was considered “not a good idea” by the US military, it has shed more light on China’s strategy in the Taiwan strait. Its latest military exercises appeared to simulate a ringfence of the island, which could cut off Taiwan’s access to support during a conflict.
But China’s actions are not going to be a one-off knee-jerk retaliation to the perceived Pelosi provocation. The PLA has long been training and preparing to defend what it sees as the country’s rightful territory. With Xi Jinping vying for a third term as chief of the party state at the 20th Communist Party Congress this fall, a full-on war would be too big a risk for the CCP right now. Confronted by multiple challenges at home, Beijing also cannot afford to let cross-strait tension spiral out of control.
“Cross-strait tension is unlikely to ease off in the near future, not least because China’s long-term trajectory in Taiwan is re-unification.” says Analyst Valarie Tan. “While Beijing looks set to normalize such military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, they are not without risks and disruptions. A miscalculation also means that China will have to bear some, if not most of the consequences in the event of a major crisis in the Taiwan Strait.”
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