China why won’t back down on Taiwan?
The military signaling by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in August 2022, following the visit to Taiwan by U.S. speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, set a benchmark by which to assess the latest Taiwan Strait crisis touched off by the meeting between Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen and new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Some observers interpreted Beijing’s reaction to the Tsai-McCarthy meeting as “dialed down” or “nothing compared with the belligerent reaction to Pelosi’s visit.”
This might support a hopeful conclusion that the deterioration of U.S.-China relations is bottoming out. Washington and Taipei reportedly coordinated to lower the profile of the Tsai-McCarthy meeting. McCarthy altered his original plan to travel to Taiwan as Pelosi had done. Instead, he and Tsai had an “unofficial” meeting in California, far from Washington, DC, as part of what has become a routine transit, one of twenty-nine by Republic of China (ROC) presidents (seven by Tsai).
A strongly negative reaction from Beijing was inevitable. Nevertheless, if it was clear that Xi Jinping’s government intentionally limited its response as a signal that it was reciprocating efforts by the U.S.-Taiwan side to be less provocative, this might be the beginning of a virtuous cycle that could gradually reduce cross-strait tensions.
Alas, this interpretation of China’s behavior in the aftermath of the Tsai-McCarthy meeting is probably unjustified.
Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on Aug. 2, 2022, was one of a series of U.S. gestures of support for the Taipei government that began during the Trump administration and continued into Joe Biden’s presidency. Even before Pelosi’s visit, official PRC commentators were criticizing what they called a U.S. “salami slicing” campaign to gradually move Taiwan toward permanent independence from China. Although Pelosi’s visit was not unprecedented, since a different speaker of the U.S. House had traveled to Taiwan twenty-five years earlier, the PRC government had characterized Pelosi’s planned visit as an unusually egregious political offense—a “gross violation of the one-China principle” that would “deal a severe blow to Sino-US ties.” Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that “China will surely make a firm response.” The Chinese Communist Party-owned tabloid Global Times warned that PRC military forces might intercept Pelosi’s aircraft en route to Taiwan.
Pelosi didn’t get shot down, but Beijing’s reaction was unprecedented in two ways. First, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) carried out its largest military exercises ever near Taiwan. Live-fire drills took place in six areas that surrounded Taiwan and that were particularly close to major shipping and air-travel routes. The exercises included an aircraft carrier and a nuclear-powered submarine.
Second, while the PRC had employed practice missile launches in attempts to intimidate Taiwan during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-1996, the post-Pelosi retaliation of August 2022 was the first time that Chinese missiles overflew the island of Taiwan and landed in the waters of Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
China’s behavior in the April 2023 Taiwan Strait Crisis might have been slightly less bellicose, but even that proposition is debatable. The most positive possible spin is to emphasize the lack of PLA missile launches, which were the most spectacular feature of the August 2022 demonstration.
But like the post-Pelosi retaliation, the post-McCarthy retaliation involved partial rehearsals of specific aspects of the likely PLA cross-strait war plan, even if this time there was less of a role for missile tests.
A PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said the exercises were “a stern warning to the provocative activities of ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist forces and their collusion with external forces.” The latter phrase was an obvious reference to the United States and Japan. The positioning of some of the exercises suggested Beijing wanted to demonstrate its ability to block an intervention from the north or east.
Chinese forces carried out multiple live-fire exercises in the Taiwan Strait. The PRC aircraft carrier Shandong sailed through the Bashi Channel (between Taiwan and the Philippines) into the seas to the east of Taiwan and, for the first time, launched J-15 fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone,.
Near-record numbers of PLA aircraft crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, long understood by both sides as a provocation. The aircraft menacing Taiwan included H-6K bombers “with live ammunition” supported by fighter, early warning, and electronic jamming aircraft.
For the first time, PRC media described the military exercises as practice strikes against important targets on Taiwan’s territory. Commentators mentioned that the drills were training for specific wartime missions, including “electronic suppression of the radar and anti-missile bases on the island.”
While the August 2022 exercises implied a threat to impose a wartime blockade, the April 2023 version made the threat explicit. The Chinese government announced that the Fujian Maritime Safety Administration would carry out “inspections” of commercial vessels in the Taiwan Strait for three days. Although there were no reports of PRC vessels attempting to forcibly board Taiwanese vessels, Beijing seemingly moved closer to implementing an actual blockade.
Of course, China’s reaction to the McCarthy-Tsai meeting could have been stronger and more violent. But even if something did indeed moderate the PRC’s behavior, the most likely cause of that moderation was not anything the United States did.
On the same day that Tsai met with McCarthy, French president Emmanuel Macron, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, and former ROC president Ma Ying-jeou were in China. Beijing is courting Western European elites, trying to weaken their strategic partnership with Washington and deepen their economic engagement with China. An excessively belligerent PRC demonstration toward Taiwan so soon after the departure of von der Leyen and Macron would have played poorly in Europe. The meeting with Macron went especially well for Xi. Macron distanced France from Taiwan’s predicament and from the United States. It was not in Xi’s interest to squander his gains by making Macron look even more like a stooge.
Similarly, Ma’s visit helped promote the Chinese Communist Party’s agenda. “People on both sides of the Strait belong to the same Chinese nation,” he proclaimed. Taiwan’s next presidential election is in January 2024. Beijing desperately hopes for a victory by Ma’s Kuomintang party, which shares the PRC view that Taiwan is part of China. The PRC wants to use the prospect of war to frighten Taiwan’s voters away from supporting Tsai’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, but not so overdo it as to repulse potential Kuomintang voters.
The United States moderated, but China did not reciprocate. The PRC government does not see the Tsai-McCarthy meeting in California as an act of goodwill toward China, but rather as another American provocation requiring another Chinese demonstration of determination to fight to prevent Taiwan’s independence. McCarthy’s meeting with Tsai, and similar pro-Taipei gestures by Washington, are not cowing China into backing down. As occurred in August 2022, China has permanently increased its level of military activity near Taiwan this month even after the conclusion of the main show of force, an unwelcome adjustment of the status quo. U.S.-China relations have deteriorated further, and Taiwan is less secure.
U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken complained that “Beijing should not use the transits [by Tsai] as an excuse to take any actions, to ratchet up tensions, to further push at changing the status quo.” If Beijing needed an “excuse” to gain valuable warfighting practice, better to have not provided it.