China normalising military measures in the Taiwan Strait

Mainland China is exerting increasing pressure on Taiwan following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, with the military countermeasures showing the possibility of the normalisation of military measures. Academic Qi Dongtao believes that in managing the Taiwan issue, mainland China will repeat its strategic determination and patience seen in handling the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and the South China Sea.
A man stands in front of a screen showing a CCTV news broadcast, featuring a map of locations around Taiwan where Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) will conduct military exercises and training activities including live-fire drills, at a shopping center in Beijing, China, 3 August 2022. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
A man stands in front of a screen showing a CCTV news broadcast, featuring a map of locations around Taiwan where Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) will conduct military exercises and training activities including live-fire drills, at a shopping center in Beijing, China, 3 August 2022. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit is arguably the inevitable outcome of growing China-US rivalry. That is to say, even if Pelosi did not visit Taiwan, worsening China-US tensions would still result in an event of a similar scale on the Taiwan issue. 

Based on China’s current countermeasures and their impact, the mainland, the US and Taiwan are relatively cautious and restrained after Pelosi’s visit. All three parties have maintained a tacit agreement not to allow the situation to spin out of control. This is perhaps related to the phone call between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden before Pelosi visited Taiwan.  

Taiwan is unusually calm in the face of direct military pressure and other countermeasures from mainland China.

Calm in the face of pressure

Under the premise that the situation is under control, there are no clear winners or losers among the parties involved. The situation remains manageable even though Pelosi’s Taiwan visit has intensified the China-US competition over Taiwan.

However, Taiwan is set to face its biggest challenge yet — whether its benefits and support from the US can still counteract the growing pressure from the mainland amid intensifying China-US competition.  

A helicopter and boat under the Eastern Theater Command of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) take part in a maritime rescue drill, as part of military exercises in the waters around Taiwan, at an undisclosed location, 9 August 2022 in this handout image released on 10 August 2022. (Eastern Theatre Command/Handout via Reuters)
A helicopter and boat under the Eastern Theater Command of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) take part in a maritime rescue drill, as part of military exercises in the waters around Taiwan, at an undisclosed location, on 9 August 2022, in this handout image released on 10 August 2022. (Eastern Theater Command/Handout via Reuters)

Notwithstanding, Taiwan is unusually calm in the face of direct military pressure and other countermeasures from mainland China. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and her administration have continued to be non-confrontational, while Taiwan society is unperturbed, taking the mainland’s growing military pressure on the island as it comes. 

In fact, mainland China’s economic and trade restrictions on Taiwan have little impact as the trade curbs only affect a small number of vendors in traditional industries such as agricultural, fishery and food products. Meanwhile, natural sand from mainland China is not a raw material for chip manufacturing in Taiwan; hence, the suspension of natural sand exports to Taiwan will not affect its chip industry. Even Taiwan’s construction industry has little reliance on the mainland’s natural sand. 

I participated in a study that found that after the mainland imposed travel restrictions on Chinese travellers to Taiwan in 2019, the affected tourism, catering and transportation industries increased their support for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which successfully directed the grievances of affected industries to the mainland through propaganda and providing subsidies.

These traditional industries often have a strong sense of Taiwan identity and are mostly supporters of the pan-Green coalition. Hence, they are more receptive to the DPP’s anti-mainland China propaganda, especially when the DPP government substantially subsidises and supports them. 

In fact, the indifference of Taiwan society in the face of the mainland’s countermeasures would benefit mainland China as the DDP will not be able to use the anger of the Taiwan people to gain more supporters during the November local elections.

... this could have a negative impact on Taiwan’s democracy and freedom because the mood for active battle mobilisation emphasises the “us versus them” mentality, internal conformity, the purging of opponents and a reductionist mindset.      

Three French-made Mirage 2000 fighter jets taxi on a runway in front of a hangar at the Hsinchu Air Base in Hsinchu, Taiwan, on 5 August 2022. (Sam Yeh/AFP)
Three French-made Mirage 2000 fighter jets taxi on a runway in front of a hangar at the Hsinchu Air Base in Hsinchu, Taiwan, on 5 August 2022. (Sam Yeh/AFP)

While all levels of Taiwan society have maintained a tepid response to the mainland’s countermeasures, the unprecedented military exercises around and missile launches over the island have made the Taiwanese more aware of the importance of improving combat readiness. Thus, there is all the more reason for the Taiwan government to purchase more advanced weapons from the US and call for more substantive support from the international society. 

Taiwanese society will also more readily support a bigger military budget and deeper military reforms, while Taiwanese civil society organisations promoting national defence will gain extra attention and support. However, this could have a negative impact on Taiwan’s democracy and freedom because the mood for active battle mobilisation emphasises the “us versus them” mentality, internal conformity, the purging of opponents and a reductionist mindset.      

Normalising military measures 

Mainland China’s bombastic warnings before Pelosi’s visit became a huge letdown for its public. In a mobile phone survey of nine cities in mainland China that I conducted in 2019, nationalistic respondents — such as those for armed reunification — are more likely to be dissatisfied with the mainland Chinese government’s policies towards Taiwan. 

So, when it comes to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the double-edged quality of nationalism is evident in mainland China. With the swelling of mutual distaste on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, the mainland Chinese government faces a new challenge: a firm hand on Taiwan would satisfy the mainland Chinese, but risk angering the Taiwan voters and pushing them towards the DPP; however, a light hand would gain the Taiwanese people’s favour, but cause discontent among its own mainland Chinese people.

... mainland China will normalise military measures to declare sovereignty over Taiwan and take the initiative on the Taiwan issue...

plane
An Air Force aircraft under the Eastern Theater Command of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) takes part in military exercises in the waters around Taiwan, in this 4 August 2022 handout released on 5 August 2022. (Eastern Theater Command/Handout via Reuters)

As with the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and the South China Sea islands, Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan gave mainland China the opportunity to declare its sovereignty by normalising military measures. The mainland Chinese government’s military measures around the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and the South China Sea have drawn protests from Japan, the US and countries around the South China Sea. These countries perceive a real threat from the Chinese measures, which are showing effectual signs of control, but could do nothing to counter mainland China.

It seems that the pattern is repeating with Taiwan: mainland China will normalise military measures to declare sovereignty over Taiwan and take the initiative on the Taiwan issue, including breaking US efforts to internationalise the Taiwan issue. It will have the upper hand if it takes military action in the future.

Also, mainland China has shown its strategic resolve on the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and the South China Sea while maintaining its strategic firmness and patience, and it will probably do the same for Taiwan. In fact, this strategic firmness and patience means that while mainland China’s resolve will drive it to more frequently declare its sovereignty over Taiwan through military measures, it will not attack Taiwan. Even if something goes wrong, mainland China, the US and Taiwan will still try to prevent the situation from escalating into a war.

Uphill task improving relations

While it seems that the US has all to gain and nothing to lose, its over-provocation of mainland China has resulted in it losing several important channels of cooperation. Its original balanced strategy tripod of “cooperation, competition and opposition” with China is only left with “competition and opposition” — an extreme strategy that has come before its time.

pelosi
US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi walks as she leaves the parliament in Taipei, Taiwan, 3 August 2022. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has fanned the flames of anti-US sentiment in mainland China, making it easier for the mainland Chinese government to unite its people and strengthen its legitimacy. Mainland China has always avoided letting conflicts over Taiwan spill over into other areas, but now this reserve has been broken and it has ended climate change cooperation, which the Biden administration has always valued. 

If the US wants to seek China’s cooperation, it will have to show greater goodwill through its actions. This will prove difficult for the US, especially since it continues to ramp up support for Taiwan, while also pushing more countries to join the ranks of those supporting Taiwan. 

In this context, even if the US shows good intentions to China in other areas, China may also delay cooperation with the US over the Taiwan issue.

Related: The lasting impact of Pelosi's Taiwan visit on Southeast Asia | Five big questions about Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit | Taiwan: A runway for great powers to flex their muscles? | If China strikes Taiwan, can it bear the punishment from the US and its allies? | Biden's 'gaffe' on Taiwan reflects changing status quo in the Taiwan Strait