China's response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan was anything but subtle — dispatching warships and military aircraft to all sides of the self-governing island democracy, and firing ballistic missiles into the waters nearby.
The dust has still not settled, with Taiwan this week conducting drills of its own and Beijing announcing it has more maneuvers planned, but experts say a lot can already be gleaned from what China has done, and has not done, so far. China will also be drawing lessons on its own military capabilities from the exercises, which more closely resembled what an actual strike on the island claimed by Beijing as its own territory would look like, and from the American and Taiwanese response.
During the nearly weeklong maneuvers that followed Pelosi's early August visit, China sailed ships and flew aircraft regularly across the median line in the Taiwan Strait, claiming the de facto boundary did not exist, fired missiles over Taiwan itself, and challenged established norms by firing missiles into Japan's exclusive economic zone.
“I think we are in for a risky period of testing boundaries and finding out who can achieve escalatory dominance across the diplomatic, military and economic domains,” said David Chen, an analyst with CENTRA Technology, a U.S.-based consulting firm.
Pelosi was the highest-level member of the U.S. government to visit Taiwan in 25 years, and her visit came at a particularly sensitive time, as Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares to seek a third five-year term as leader of the ruling Communist Party later this year.
Under Xi, China has been increasingly forceful in declaring that Taiwan must be brought under its control — by force if necessary — and U.S. military officials have said that Beijing may seek a military solution within the next few years.
Tensions were already high, with China conducting regular military flights near Taiwan and the U.S. routinely sailing warships through the Taiwan Strait to emphasize they are international waters.
China accuses the U.S. of encouraging the island’s independence through the sale of weapons and engagement between U.S. politicians and the island’s government.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying called Pelosi’s visit a “serious provocation” and accused Washington of breaking the status quo and “interfering in China’s internal affairs.”
“China is not the old China of 120 years ago, and we are not Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan — we will not allow any foreign force to bully, suppress or enslave us,” she told reporters in Beijing. “Whoever wants to do so will be on a collision course with the Great Wall of steel forged by the 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
The U.S. continues to insist it has not deviated from its “one-China” policy, recognizing the government in Beijing while allowing for informal relations and defense ties with Taipei.
China held off on its maneuvers until Pelosi had left Taiwan, and turned back its forces before they approached Taiwan's coast or territorial airspace, which showed a “modicum of restraint,” Chen said. But, he noted, another congressional visit following Pelosi's triggered the announcement of more exercises.
“We are likely entering a period of regular military demonstrations in and around China’s maritime domain," he said.
“The Chinese Communist Party is also quite capable in creating cross-domain responses, as has been seen in the cyber realm. Beyond that, we could see escalatory moves in space, in the South China Sea, Africa, the Indian Ocean, or the South Pacific.”
Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said the scale and coordination of the exercises suggested China was looking past Taiwan toward establishing dominance in the western Pacific. That would include controlling the East and South China Seas via the Taiwan Strait, and having the capability to impose a blockade to prevent the U.S. and its allies from coming to the aid of Taiwan in the event of an attack.
Short of an armed conflict, a blockade of the Taiwan Strait — a significant thoroughfare for global trade — could have major implications for international supply chains at a time when the world is already facing disruptions.
In particular, Taiwan is a crucial provider of computer chips for the global economy.
Though ostensibly a reaction to Pelosi's visit, it is clear China's exercises had been long planned, said Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow in the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund think tank.
“I do think they were looking for an opportunity to escalate,” she said. “This is not something you prep after the announcement (of the visit) and then pull off that quickly and that easily.”
The U.S. held back throughout the maneuvers, keeping an aircraft carrier group and two amphibious assault ships at sail in the region, but not close to the island. Taiwan avoided any active countermeasures.
Kurt Campbell, the Biden administration's coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, said this week that the U.S. was taking a “calm and resolute” long-view approach that would include continued transits of the Taiwan Strait, supporting Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities, and otherwise deepening ties with the island.
To that end, the U.S. announced Thursday that it was opening talks with Taiwan on a wide-ranging trade agreement.
Campbell said Washington sees China’s actions as “part of an intensified pressure campaign against Taiwan, which has not ended.”
“We expect it to continue to unfold in the coming weeks and months,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Defense has acknowledged China’s increasingly capable military, saying it has become a true rival and has already surpassed the American military in some areas, including shipbuilding, and now has the world’s largest navy.
The reserved American response to the recent exercises seemed calculated to avoid any accidental confrontation that could have escalated the situation, but could also feed China’s confidence, Ohlberg said.
“The base of China’s thinking is that the U.S. is in decline and that China is on the rise, and I guess the response would have been seen in Beijing as confirming that thinking,” she said.
The U.S. and China came perhaps the closest to blows in 1996, when China, irked by what it saw as increasing American support for Taiwan, fired missiles into the waters some 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Taiwan’s coast ahead of Taiwan’s first popular presidential election.
The U.S. responded with its own show of force, sending two aircraft carrier groups to the region. At the time, China had no aircraft carriers and little means to threaten the American ships, and it backed down.
China subsequently embarked on a massive modernization of its military and the recent exercises demonstrate a “quantum leap” of improvement from 1996, showing a joint command and control coordination not seen before, Chen said.
Before being confident enough to launch an actual invasion of Taiwan, however, the Chinese military still needs to do more to assure the country’s political leadership it would be successful, he said.
“These latest exercises are probably part of proving that capability, but more needs to be hammered out before they could be confident in conducting a full-scale Taiwan amphibious invasion,” he said. “They’ve only demonstrated the maritime blockade and air control parts of that campaign, without opposition.”
Following the visit, China released an updated “white paper” on Taiwan outlining how it envisioned an eventual annexation of the island would look.
It said it would follow the “one country, two systems” format applied in Hong Kong, which critics say has been undermined by a sweeping national security law that asserts Beijing’s control over speech and political participation. The concept has been thoroughly rejected in Taiwanese public opinion polls in which respondents have overwhelmingly favored their current de facto independence.
Tellingly, the new white paper discarded a pledge in its previous iteration not to send troops or government officials to an annexed Taiwan.
China has refused all contact with Taiwan’s government since shortly after the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. Tsai was overwhelmingly reelected in 2020.
China's bellicose response to Pelosi's visit may have the unintended effect of strengthening the DPP in midterm elections later this year, said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the College of International Affairs at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University.
Ideally, it would be in Taiwan's best interest if both sides backed off and found “reasoned ways” to settle differences, he said.
“There’s an old saying that when two big elephants fight, the ant and the grass suffer,” he said.