The People’s Liberation Army declared a four-day drill in the Taiwan Strait on the day Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan. The drill officially ended on 8 August 2022 and has continued as a daily norm. Beijing has continued to cross the median line in the water and the air. The 180 kilometres water stretch that separates Taiwan from mainland China has been a stage for the power theatrics of Beijing. Since 08 August, 10 to 21 PLA aircraft have breached the median line daily.[i] The median line that Beijing refuses to recognize has been largely respected till Pelosi’s arrival in Taiwan, apart from a few ructions in the past. The braggadocio of Beijing seems to be creating a ‘new normal, thus wearing down the vigilance of Taiwan and its allies.
Qin Gang, the Chinese Ambassador to the United States, has asserted that Washington is violating the Sino-U.S. Joint Communique of 1982.[ii] The Communique states that the US would decrease the sales of weapons to Taiwan; however, the assurance builds on the commitment of China to seek a peaceful resolution of the cross-strait tensions. Beijing, for some time now, has also been dreading a shift in US support for the ‘One China Policy. Under the Trump administration, there was a revision in the rules for diplomatic engagements leading to increased coordination with Taiwan, which strained Sino-US relations. There have been occasional diplomatic differences thereafter, which have depleted chances of the normalisation of these relations anytime in the near future. Beijing feels that the US is going against the Normalisation Agreement of 1979 and thus threatening its territorial integrity.
Repercussions of Pelosi’s Visit
Apart from the live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait, China has suspended all military dialogues with the US, including defence policy coordination talks and Maritime Military Consultation Agreement[iii] and denied cooperation on issues like climate change, combatting transnational crimes, fighting drug trafficking[iv] etc. In retaliatory measures taken against Taiwan, China has imposed several economic sanctions, including the ban on Taiwanese food exporters numbering more than a hundred and a ban on the export of natural sand.[v] If the Taiwan strait crisis continues in the stead of the earlier problems, it may lead to the complete blockade of the island nation.
The Three Prong Domestic Political Quandary
Pelosi has been a long-standing and ruthless critic of Chinese domestic and international politics. However, her recent visit might not just be an extension of her disdain for Beijing. The forecast of the November mid-term elections puts the Democrats on the losing side in the House of Representatives. If the prediction turns out to be accurate, she has minimal time as the Speaker of the House. Keeping that in mind, the summer recess of the House provides her with an apt opportunity to make a personal statement before she departs from her position.[vi]
Biden administration, moreover, had its hand tied behind the back as far as Pelosi’s Taiwan visit was concerned. As Pelosi did not seem to back out of her plan to visit Taiwan, the administration could do nothing but suggest the parallel branch of the US government against this “bad move”.[vii] The bipartisan support that followed was not unexpected considering the deep-running anti-China support amongst both the parties and the general public. The Speaker’s visit has been followed by another delegation visit of US lawmakers led by Senator Ed Markey.[viii] This unannounced visit has further irked Beijing.
Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has made it clear that the unification of Taiwan into the mainland was an essential part of his ‘natural rejuvenation’ programme. The visit of a high-ranking diplomat followed by a lawmaker to Taiwan in quick succession leaves no scope for Xi other than to retaliate. The zero-Covid policy and unrestrained lockdowns in China have led to a significant economic slowdown and depleted GDP growth. China is also facing the most prolonged slump in property since the creation of the private property market in the late 1990s. Amidst the scenes of the property crisis, mortgage boycott protests are erupting in China. In such circumstances of domestic unrest, Pelosi’s visit provides Xi with the opportunity to divert the national attention. Moreover, the 20th National Congress, in which Xi is expected to be named a leader for the unprecedented third term or maybe even for life. Hushed-up talks are doing rounds that there is an oncoming potential challenge to the leadership and a coup to oust Xi. In such a critical stage of domestic political turmoil, an unchallenged visit of a high-ranking American diplomat will project Xi as a weak leader.[ix]
Is there a possibility of a full-fledged war? In all probability, no. With the current state of power distribution across the globe, no country can be insane enough to wish for war. No country, not even China or the US, can be mentally ready for a clash of such magnitude. Even if they are using rhetoric for successful pitches, no one is ready for the outcome that a world-level war can bring. However, to significantly diminish the probability of a full-fledged war, factors like misunderstandings, human errors, et al., also need to be discounted. Nonetheless, this crisis can lead to something that can have an impact on the security dynamics of the world in general and of the Asian region in particular. Although the Taiwan Strait crisis is nothing new, nonetheless, each one of the preceding ones created a dent in the regional security chassis. The first Taiwan Strait Crisis led to the capture of specific small islands by the PLA and lasted eight months. The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis lasted three months and created the famous Soviet-Sino split. The Third Taiwan Strait crisis again lasted for eight months and skyrocketed China’s defence budget. Twomey, an Associate Professor at Naval Postgraduate School, is of the opinion that the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis won’t be any different in its impact or tenure.[x] The whole theatrics has presented China with an intricate but excellent opportunity to break the First Island Chain.
Some experts are of the opinion that Pelosi’s visit to other nations like Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore, apart from Taiwan, followed by Markey’s visit, provides the Indo-Pacific nation with an assurance of Washington’s commitment to the region. However, no amount of rhetorical support can compensate for the factor that no country in the Asian region wants the dragon to be awakened in their backyard and further deteriorate the economic and security stability in the area. When most of the nations in the region and the US government are trying to gradually shift the focal point of the world economy from China, such a callous move by a top official from the US can jeopardise the progress attained so far and bring all the efforts to square one. The need of the hour is to placate the new arisen tension so as to nullify the security imbalance of the region while finding new and better ways to avoid such arms twisting in the future.
[i] Brad Lendon, “‘New normal’ across the Taiwan Strait as China threat looms ever closer”, CNN, 19 August 2022. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2022/08/19/china/china-taiwan-strait-new-normal-mic-intl-hnk-ml/index.html, accessed on 25 August 2022.
[ii] Kelvin Chen, “Chinese ambassador to US claims Washington changing Taiwan Strait status quo”, Taiwan News, 17 August 2022. Available at: https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/4629183, accessed on 25 August 2022.
[iii] Rahul Mishra, “Decoding Pelosi’s Indo-Pacific Visit: Important for Both China And US to Try to Defuse Tensions”, News 18, 09 August 2022. Available at: https://www.news18.com/news/opinion/decoding-pelosis-indo-pacific-visit-important-for-both-china-and-us-to-try-to-defuse-tensions-5721493.html, accessed on 25 August 2022.
[iv] Kelvin Chen, “Chinese ambassador to US claims Washington changing Taiwan Strait status quo”, Taiwan News, 17 August 2022. Available at: https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/4629183, accessed on 25 August 2022.
[v] Kunal Anand, “Pelosi’s Taiwan Move With No Strategic Benefits”, USI Strategic Perspectives, 07 August 2022. Available at: https://usiofindia.org/publication/cs3-strategic-perspectives/polesis-taiwan-move-with-no-strategic-benefits/, accessed on 20 August 2022.
[vi] Masahiro Okoshi, “Pelosi’s Taiwan visit is a move without a strategy”, Nikkei Asia, 3 August 2022. Available at: https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Comment/Pelosi-s-Taiwan-visit-is-a-move-without-a-strategy, accessed on 05 August 2022.
[vii] Kunal Anand, “Pelosi’s Taiwan Move With No Strategic Benefits”, USI Strategic Perspectives, 07 August 2022. Available at: https://usiofindia.org/publication/cs3-strategic-perspectives/polesis-taiwan-move-with-no-strategic-benefits/, accessed on 20 August 2022.
[viii] “17 Chinese military aircraft, 5 ships cross Taiwan Strait median line”, ANI, 17 Aug 2022. Available at: https://www.aninews.in/news/world/asia/17-chinese-military-aircraft-5-ships-cross-taiwan-strait-median-line20220817113038/, accessed on 25 August 2022.
[ix] Jordyn Beazley, “China-Taiwan tensions: how worried should we be about military conflict?”, The Guardian, 4 Aug 2022. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/aug/04/china-taiwan-tensions-how-worried-should-we-be-about-military-conflict, accessed 05 August 2022.
[x] Christopher P.Twomey, “The Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis Is Just Starting”, War on the Rocks, 22 Aug 2022, Available at: https://warontherocks.com/2022/08/the-fourth-taiwan-strait-crisis-is-just-starting/, accessed on 25 August 2022.