Predictable Military Exercises Following Congressional Trip to Taiwan

Earlier this month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and congressional leadership landed in Taiwan to meet with President Tsai Ing-wen, becoming “the most-senior U.S. political leader to visit Taiwan since 1997.” China’s foreign ministry says the trip will have “a severe impact on the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and seriously infringes upon China’s sovereignty.” According to Jonathan Guyer of Vox, China has responded with military exercises close to the Taiwan straight, showing both its brute force and that it will not sit idly by. Congressional leadership led by Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey also traveled to Taiwan just two weeks after Pelosi. With China enranged, one may pose the question as to whether this will lead to the dismantling of relations between the United States and the PRC (People’s Republic of China), or rather the continuation of threats that fail to materialize. I argue that the latter is the case, as military tests and confrontations near Taiwan by the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) are a typical pattern that eventually dissipates. While these trips certainly do little to improve the relationship between the PRC and the United States, they won’t lead to the dismantling of relations between the two countries. The use of military force has been a threat by the PRC following the 2004 re-election of Chen Shui-bian and the election of Tsai Ing-wen in 2016. The relationship between the PRC and the United States on the topic of Taiwan was already deteriorating before these two trips.

U.S. Recognition of Taiwan

Before I argue why the trip will simply continue to deteriorate the relationship between Beijing and Washington rather than dismantle it, it’s important to engage in a crash course on why Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has angered the PRC. The PRC declares that it is the sole governing body of Taiwan. During the Chinese Civil War between communist forces (CCP) led by Mao Zedong and nationalist forces (KMT) led by Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan. The Truman administration recognized Chiang Kai-shek’s government in Taiwan, which ended relations between the PRC and the U.S. for decades. In 1979, following the opening of relations between the U.S. and PRC, congress approved the Taiwan Relations Act, which to this day maintains that Beijing is the sole government of China. However, while not taking a position on Taiwan, the U.S. will “not set a date for the termination of arms sales to Taiwan” and will not communicate with the PRC on said arms sales. Therefore, the U.S. position on Taiwan is unclear, but the U.S. would supply arms in the event of an invasion by the PRC. Pelosi’s trip, however, angered the PRC because the visit was portrayed as “part of a U.S. obligation to stand with democracies.” By standing with democracies such as Taiwan, the U.S. would be taking a position on Taiwan that is antithetical to the PRC’s.

Risks of Conflict Before Speaker Pelosi’s Trip

Diplomatically, tensions between the U.S. and PRC regarding Taiwan had been heating up following the elections of Chen Shui-bian in 2000 and 2004 and Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 and 2020. Following the re-election of Chen Shui-bian in 2004, in which he campaigned to reform the constitution, Beijing was worried that Taiwan would claim independence and therefore threatened military confrontation. In his article following the 2004 election, James Mulvenon pointed out that “Beijing [had] once again begun to emphasize military operations for resolving cross-Straight stalemate” when the U.S. advocated for Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organization. Additionally, “Chinese interlocutors [had] signaled over both private and public channels” that if constitutional revisions by Chen had led to “the codification of Taiwanese independence in the constitution” Beijing would have been compelled to engage in military force. Jian Zemin, Chairman of the Chinese Central Military Commission, also stated that “Chinese people long for peace and do not war” but that “Taiwanese independence will never be tolerated.” Military exercises proliferated years later when a candidate of the same party won in Taiwan. In 2016, according to Minnie Chan of the South China Morning Post, the PLA “carried out life-fire exercises and landing drills just days after the pro-independence opposition party won elections in Taiwan.” Similar to the recent exercises following Pelosi’s trip, “military experts said the drills were aimed at sending a ‘political warning’ to Taiwan’s president-elect.” 

The Long History of Confrontations

While it appears that military confrontations occur following the elections of pro-independence candidates in Taiwan, confrontations were already seen between China and the U.S. As far back as March 1996, when Lee Teng-hui visited New York, “China displayed a dramatic show of force consisting of military exercises and missile tests targeted near Taiwan.” Lee Teng-hui was Taiwan’s “most senior leader” to visit the U.S. Therefore, it appears that when senior leaders of Taiwan and the United States engage in diplomatic trips, the PRC engages in military force which subsequently dissipates. China has also conducted military exercises outside diplomatic trips between Taiwan and the U.S. In April of 2020, Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan of The Diplomat points out that “Taiwan’s Air Force had to scramble its own fighters to shadow” Chinese aircraft following the PLA’s decision to send “fighter jets and bombers around Taiwan.” Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan describes the confrontations as “increasingly evident since Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen came to power in 2016.”

U.S. Commitment to Taiwan

While the recent trip by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has led to the proliferation of military exercises by the PRC near Taiwan, it represents a trend that we have seen before. While Taiwan is witnessing military exercises by the PLA and finds the U.S. not taking a position on its independence, it continues to receive military support. Reinforcing the U.S. commitment to Taiwan, President Biden has stated that “the U.S. would intervene militarily if China were to invade Taiwan.” Therefore, while outside the scope of this article, China could be deterred from military exercises that would be strong enough to lead to a war or invasion. Based on predictable threats following diplomatic engagement by the U.S. and Taiwan, it’s unlikely that the visit by Pelosi will result in any major change in the relationship between China and the U.S. 

[Photo by 航空自衛隊, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Cameron M. Whiteside is an incoming MA Student in Political Science at San Francisco State University (2024). The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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