China’s reaction to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was anything but subtle, with warships and military aircraft dispatched to all sides of the self-governing island democracy, and ballistic missiles fired into nearby waters.
The dust has yet to settle, with Taiwan conducting its own drills this week and Beijing announcing more maneuvers, but experts say a lot can already be gleaned from what China has done, and has not done, so far. China will also learn about its own military capabilities from the exercises, which more closely resembled an actual strike on the island Beijing claims as its own territory, as well as the American and Taiwanese responses.
During the nearly week-long maneuvers that followed Pelosi’s early August visit, China sailed ships and flew aircraft across the Taiwan Strait on a regular basis, claiming the de facto boundary did not exist, fired missiles over Taiwan, and challenged established norms by firing missiles into Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
Pelosi was the highest-ranking official from the United States to visit Taiwan in 25 years, and her visit came at a particularly sensitive time, as Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares to run for a third five-year term as leader of the ruling Communist Party later this year. Under Xi, China has become more forceful in declaring that Taiwan must be brought under its control — by force if necessary — and US military officials have stated that Beijing may seek a military solution in the coming years.
Tensions were already high, with China flying regular military sorties near Taiwan and the US regularly sailing warships through the Taiwan Strait to emphasize that they are international waters.
China accuses the United States of encouraging the island’s independence through weapon sales and engagement between US politicians and the island’s government.
The United States maintains its “one-China” policy, recognizing Beijing’s government while allowing for informal relations and defense ties with Taipei. China delayed its maneuvers until Pelosi had left Taiwan, and turned back its forces before they approached Taiwan’s coast or territorial airspace, demonstrating “modest restraint,” according to Chen. However, he noted that another congressional visit following Pelosi’s prompted the announcement of additional exercises.
According to Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, the scale and coordination of the exercises indicate that China is looking beyond Taiwan to establish dominance in the western Pacific. This would entail control of the East and South China Seas via the Taiwan Strait, as well as the ability to impose a blockade to prevent the United States and its allies from coming to Taiwan’s aid in the event of an attack.
Though ostensibly in response to Pelosi’s visit, China’s exercises were clearly planned in advance, according to Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow in the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund think tank.
Throughout the maneuvers, the US kept an aircraft carrier group and two amphibious assault ships in the area but not close to the island. Taiwan avoided any active retaliation.
Kurt Campbell, the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific affairs coordinator, stated this week that the US was taking a “calm and resolute” long-term approach that would include continued transits of the Taiwan Strait, support for Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities, and other measures to strengthen ties with the island.
The United States Department of Defense has acknowledged China’s growing military capabilities, 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.
According to Ohlberg, the reserved American response to the recent exercises appeared calculated to avoid any accidental confrontation that could have escalated the situation, but it could also feed China’s confidence.
The United States and China came closest to war in 1996, when China, irritated by what it saw as increasing American support for Taiwan, fired missiles into waters 30 kilometers (20 miles) off Taiwan’s coast, just before 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.