On August 3, the short visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, sparked a bellicose response from Beijing and a cycle of sustained Chinese military activity near the island’s shores, establishing what many analysts call it the “new normal”.
From August 4, Beijing carried out large-scale air and sea exercises including the firing of ballistic missiles – a show of force that reminded observers of the 1995-1996 scenario, during the first major crisis in the strait. The Chinese maneuvers then aimed to protest against the visit to the United States of Lee Teng Hui, at the time president of the island, then a few months later to prevent his re-election. The episode prompted the dispatch of two American aircraft carriers by the Clinton administration. This time, Joe Biden will have dispatched only one aircraft carrier, and Taiwan has organized defense training – moreover scheduled for a long time, according to its officials.
[Près de 70 000 lecteurs font confiance à la newsletter de The Conversation pour mieux comprendre les grands enjeux du monde. Abonnez-vous aujourd’hui]
The overmediatization and the duration of the Chinese exercises have since the beginning of August maintained an atmosphere of dramatization and uncertainty which, beyond the region, holds international attention because of the Sino-American tension it generates. In addition to military threats, China has set a high diplomatico-economic cost for Nancy Pelosi’s trip, in order to prevent similar initiatives: trade sanctions, ban on visits to China by Taiwanese and other personalities, suspension of numerous cooperation with the United States. United.
At this point, several questions arise. Has the precarious status quo prevailing around the strait been broken? Is there a noticeable and lasting shift on the part of Beijing? What prospects are emerging for Taiwan, particularly in the context of the American Indo-Pacific strategy, whose anti-Chinese tone is accentuated?
Why the Taiwan issue is vital for Xi Jinping
Started on August 4 for three days, the maneuvers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) therefore continued, including after August 15. This desire to maintain tension – while exhausting the Taiwanese defense since each of these exercises puts the forces of Taipei on alert – illustrates the Chinese determination to assert its rights on the island.
China maintains that its attitude is “firm, strong and appropriate”, and aims to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of “Taiwanese separatists” and what it considers to be “American provocation”. These positions reflect domestic political issues and a particular intransigence on the part of Xi Jinping which make any peaceful resolution of the “Taiwanese question” impossible. Xi Jinping must take care of his stature as a strong man before the 20th CPC Congress in the fall and a plenary session of the National People’s Congress in 2023 where he should run for a third five-year presidential term (remember that he was elected in 2013 and re-elected in 2018).
Read also: Chinese Communist Party: a new era?
Joseph Wu, the head of Taiwan’s diplomacy, denounced the Chinese choice of a hybrid approach aimed at preparing an invasion of the island and mixing military exercises, cyberattacks, intense disinformation campaign and economic coercion.
Taiwan is all the more to be reduced as it constitutes for Xi Jinping a political counter-example whose economic success, technological innovation capacities and democratic functioning cast a shadow on the Chinese model. The denunciation of Taiwan’s desire for independence and the repeated threats against President Tsai since she came to power in 2016 would even amount to an admission of weakness in the eyes of an ultra-nationalist public opinion. The latter can only note the resilience of Taiwan, including in the face of Covid-19, unlike China, and does not understand that the island is not at the mercy of the PLA.
Internationalization and Taiwan’s quest for support
However, the situation is more complex than it seems due to the change in international perception and a new reading of the status of Taiwan, which has skillfully highlighted its democratic nature.
Nancy Pelosi, whose hostility towards the Chinese communist regime is well known, clearly perceived this development which her visit aimed, among other things, to highlight. At the time of the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, the island’s resolve to defend its politico-economic system and its freedom against an adversary with vastly superior means resonates differently.
Read also: The worrying lessons of the war in Ukraine for the future of Taiwan
Without crossing the red line of independence, Taiwan has managed, over the years, to create a relative diplomatic space, while the feeling of national identity has grown. The number of high-level visits to Taipei has multiplied: American authorities, European parliamentarians, French senators are not afraid to go to the island and meet its president there.
Taiwan’s representative offices, the last of which opened in Vilnius in 2021, are similar to embassies. If the island remains excluded from the UN, the World Bank, the WHO or the IMF, it was able to join the WTO. Joe Biden endorsed this normalization strategy by inviting representatives from the island to the Virtual Democracy Summit in December 2021.
It would be illusory to oppose the “soft power” of Taiwan to the “hard power” of China. However, the brutal dismantling of democracy in Hong Kong and the handling of the Uyghur question have damaged China’s image, and contributed to strengthening the moral status of Taiwan. Faced with Covid-19 and the effects of the war in Ukraine, Taiwan has demonstrated its efficiency and its leading role in international supply chains. It becomes difficult for supporters of a discourse denouncing autocracies and their use of force, such as the United States, the European Union or the G7, not to engage more actively in support – diplomatic, politico-economic or military – to the Taipei regime.
Taiwan, maritime bastion of the American Indo-Pacific
Asked several times about the possibility of military intervention to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, Joe Biden answered in the affirmative, partially dispelling the American policy of “strategic ambiguity”. This consists in helping Taiwan to build and strengthen its defenses, but without explicitly promising to act in the event of aggression. According to the Taiwan Relations Act, passed by Congress in 1979, Washington is required to sell arms to Taiwan so that it can defend itself against the powerful PLA. However, is this enough today?
The use of Russian force against Ukraine raises fears of a similar scenario in Asia, where China is intractable in claiming its maritime borders. The renewed instability in the Taiwan Strait has given proponents greater clarity on the nature of the US engagement, including Australia and Japan.
These countries, which have strained relations with Beijing, are concerned about the impact of the ongoing crisis on the Indo-Pacific strategy that the Biden administration is actively promoting in the region and which they support. They doubt that the United States is in a position to face a high-intensity conflict in Asia on its own given its investment in Ukraine against Russia.
Japan feels particularly vulnerable. The five Chinese missiles that fell into its waters on August 5 make him fear that Beijing is ultimately targeting its economic and military interests or the American bases in Okinawa. Tokyo, already confronted with frequent Chinese naval incursions around the Senkaku islets, a hundred kilometers from Taiwan, and grappling with Russia on the question of the northern territories (Kuril Islands for Moscow) feels that it is becoming a potential target of the PLA as part of its operations around Taiwan.
The Indo-Pacific strategy of the United States could find its limits in the face of the deterioration of the situation in the strait. This strategy aims to contain Chinese regional expansion, particularly in the maritime domain, to strengthen regional maritime security and to preserve the freedom of movement of the US Navy and its allies and partners. However, the freedom of navigation and the securing of the major international maritime routes, at the heart of this strategy, appear to be threatened by the Chinese thrust in the South and East China Sea and, ultimately, in the Taiwan Strait which opens access to the Peaceful. This one, headquarters in Hawaii of the American joint command for the Indo-Pacific, the USINDOPACOM, and zone of deployment of the VIIe fleet, is a theater where the United States has a strong strategic footprint.
The QUAD and the AUKUS facing China
China’s ambition to expand from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean by deploying its Silk Roads project (Belt and Road Initiative) explains the Biden administration’s investment in new cooperation mechanisms multidimensional strategy like the QUAD and the AUKUS.
Last May, the members of the QUAD (United States, Japan, Australia, India) decided to strengthen their politico-military cooperation and to invest massively in innovation and new technologies to respond to the Chinese challenge. There is no doubt that Taiwan, which dominates the semiconductor industry, has its place there. Similarly, the construction of nuclear attack submarines for Australia – the subject of the AUKUS partnership (United States, Australia, United Kingdom) – aims to strengthen the American deterrent against anti-access capabilities of the PLA.
These arrangements, which overlap with the traditional alliances that the United States maintains in the Indo-Pacific, are intended to rebalance the balance of power and the competition for capabilities between the United States and China. It remains to be seen whether they will quickly result in the constitution of a coalition capable of operating in the Taiwan Strait and more broadly of maintaining maritime security and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific.
The original version of this article was été published on The conversation, a news site à dédié to the sharing of ideas between academic experts and the general public.