The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan on Tuesday for what she called a show of American solidarity with the island, defying repeated warnings from Beijing and fueling a new round of US-China tensions. This visit took place at a time when US-China relations are the poorest in decades.
In a phone call with President Joe Biden last week, President Xi Jinping had warned the US against any unilateral moves that would change the island status. “Those who play with fire will perish by it. It is hoped that the US will be clear-eyed about this,” he had said.
China views Pelosi’s visit as a serious violation of the “One China” principle and the provisions of the three China-US joint communiqués. This, according to the Beijing, gravely undermines peace and stability in the region, and sends a wrong signal to the “separatist forces for Taiwan independence”.
It is important to distinguish between the One China Principle (yige zhongguo yuanze) and the One China Policy (yi zhong zhengce) to understand the cross-Taiwan Strait problems. The PRC follows the One China Principle, a core belief that sees Taiwan as an inalienable part of China, with its sole legitimate government in Beijing. The US acknowledges this position but not necessarily its validity.
The US instead follows the One China Policy — meaning that the PRC was and is the only China, with no recognition for the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) as a separate sovereign entity. At the same time, the US refuses to give in to the PRC’s demands to recognise Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan — it only acknowledges the Chinese position that Taiwan is a part of China.
“The word ‘acknowledge’ is determinative for the US,” Warren Christopher, who was US Deputy Secretary of State under President Jimmy Carter, told a Senate hearing when the Chinese attempted to change it to “recognise”. The US has stuck to this position ever since — and used the “strategic ambiguity” that it creates to maintain the status quo and preserve stability in the Taiwan Strait.
The ROC was founded in 1912 following the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the 1911 Revolution. Dr Sun Yat-sen who assumed the presidency of the ROC, was soon succeeded by Yuan Shikai. Taiwan was at the time under Japanese colonial rule, having been ceded by the Qing following the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki. After the defeat of Japan in World War II, the ROC government began exercising jurisdiction over Taiwan in 1945.
After the communists won the civil war on the mainland, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic with its capital in Beijing on October 1, 1949. That December, after the PLA advanced into Sichuan province, Chiang Kai-shek, one of Sun Yat-sen’s lieutenants, retreated to the island of Taiwan along with some 2 million nationalist soldiers.
The ROC has exercised effective jurisdiction over the main island and several outlying islands ever since, leaving Taiwan and China under the rule of different governments. The Taiwan Strait is only 130 km at its shortest distance, and the mainland city of Xiamen in Fujian is only 2 km from the Taiwanese-controlled island of Kinmen.
Until the 1970s, the US and most Western governments recognised the ROC as the government of all of China. The US and PRC established diplomatic relations on January 1, 1979, almost thirty years after the communists came to power. There have been three instances of disturbances in the Taiwan Strait in 1954, 1958, and 1995-96, but peace has largely been maintained due to American “strategic ambiguity”.
Suyash Desai is a research scholar specialising in Chinese security and foreign policies. He is currently studying Mandarin at National Sun Yat-sen University, Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
So what has changed now? How did we get here?
Domestic policy aspects of all three countries — Taiwan, China, and the US — have contributed to today’s situation.
CHINA: In 2015, China initiated path-breaking military reforms to convert the PLA into a world-class force by 2049. One of China’s stated national security objectives has been “reunification with Taiwan”. In his Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Centenary speech last year, President Xi said, “Resolving the Taiwan question and realising China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment of the Communist Party of China.”
Since September 2020, China has routinely sent aircraft into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ). Meanwhile, between 2018 and 2020, Xi dropped the word “peaceful” while referring to reunification with Taiwan, underlining his aggressive approach to territorial disputes everywhere.
TAIWAN: In 2016, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen was elected President. On December 2 that year, she initiated a telephonic conversation with then US President elect Donald Trump — the first time since 1979 that the two countries spoke at that level.
Under the Tsai administration, US-Taiwan relations warmed. In March 2018, Trump signed into law the Taiwan Travel Act, which allowed American officials to step up exchanges with Taiwan. Over the last six years, the US has approved multiple sales of arms to Taiwan — including 108 M1A2T Abrams tanks, Hercules armoured vehicles, heavy equipment transporters, rocket launchers, sensors, artillery and, most importantly, 66 F-16 Viper fighter jets.
China views all of this as US attempts to use Taiwan to contain the PRC’s “peaceful rise”, emboldening “Taiwan’s pro-independence separatist activities”, and “impacting cross-strait harmony.”
UNITED STATES: Taiwan is just one aspect of the worsening geopolitical checkerboard between the US and China. Antagonistic stances on security, economics, technology, and ideology have crystallised under the Biden Administration, with limited room for adjustment. The US has carried out a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, added more Chinese companies to its trade restriction list, and Congress has passed a bill to counter China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
The Trump Administration had opened a more confrontational era in relations with China, and Biden has concretised this approach by signing the AUKUS trilateral security pact with the UK and Australia, and increasing Quad coordination with Japan, India, and Australia to limit Beijing’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was concern in Western capitals over whether China could carry out similar action in Taiwan. Against this background, Speaker Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan has led some security scholars to predict a fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis.
What have been the reactions to Pelosi’s visit in China and Taiwan?
China has imposed restrictions on the import of Taiwanese food brands, and has announced military exercises in areas surrounding Taiwan between August 4 and 7. The PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command, which is responsible for contingencies against Taiwan, has said that these exercises will include joint maritime-aerial drills in the north, south west and south east of Taiwan, long-range firing in the Taiwan Strait, and conventional missile firing in waters east of Taiwan.
Before Pelosi’s arrival on Tuesday, major Taiwanese government websites, including the President’s official website, went dark due to an alleged distributed denial-of-service attack. Hours after Pelosi left on Wednesday, 27 Chinese warplanes entered Taiwan’s air defence zone, news agency AFP reported, quoting Taiwan officials.
Taiwanese lawmakers cutting across party lines, including the DPP and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), have welcomed Pelosi’s visit as a high point in US-Taiwan relations. However, some academics have criticised the visit as being reckless, and resulting in needless escalation of tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan should not be a chip on the table in the great game of the US-China conflict, they argue.
Where do we go from here?
This is a case of China trying to deter Taiwan by using punishment and Taiwan and the US pushing back against Chinese aggression using denial techniques. China is likely to make sure that it punishes Taiwan to the extent that visits such as Pelosi’s are deterred in the future. This might include economic measures, limited military measures for signalling, select diplomatic measures across bilateral and multilateral forums, and offensive cyber coercion.
In response, Taiwan and the US will likely continue to build denial defensive capabilities so that China’s aggression is not encouraged. The US will also continue signalling its increasing presence and resolve in the region by conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, but at the same time, keep lines of communication open with Beijing to avoid unintended escalations.