Pushing Back Against China’s New Normal in the Taiwan Strait

It would be a mistake — perhaps a deadly one — for Washington to dismiss Beijing’s reaction to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan as just another temper tantrum.

China’s military response might have failed to drive a wedge between the United States and Taiwan, but it carries real risks. It could normalize aggressive Chinese military operations closer to Taiwan, create greater expectations within China for a stronger response in the future, provide experience for the People’s Liberation Army, and make understanding China’s intentions more difficult. All of these consequences could undermine Taiwan’s security.

 

 

Washington and Taipei have responded cautiously, avoiding a reaction that would have allowed China to escalate and portray itself as a victim. But caution and concern are not enough. The key question moving forward is how to prevent China from making a more aggressive posture against Taiwan the new normal. More frequent Chinese exercises and incursions close to Taiwan should be monitored and, if necessary, thwarted, countered, or disrupted. If Chinese exercises involve military aircraft venturing into Taiwan’s airspace, for example, Taipei and Washington should consider measures to warn or intercept the Chinese planes. In response to the threat of a quarantine or blockade, Taipei needs to invest in appropriate capabilities and increase stockpiles of critical resources. Finally, larger, more frequent Chinese exercises around Taiwan would make determining China’s intentions more difficult. The United States and Taiwan should refine their approach to strategic warning, identifying indicators that can differentiate between a Chinese military exercise and preparations for an actual attack.

Beijing’s Difficult Juggling Act

As Pelosi visited Taiwan, China aimed to send a stronger signal of opposition to U.S.-Taiwanese cooperation than it had in the past while also avoiding the level of escalation that would provoke substantial consequences. There were several ominous “firsts” in China’s military pressure campaign against Taiwan: Joint firepower exercises took place in seven areas surrounding Taiwan and inside its territorial seas, there was an unprecedented overflight of Taiwan by several Chinese short-range ballistic missiles, and the largest number of Chinese aircraft to date — peaking at 30 on Aug. 5 — crossed the centerline of the strait before returning to their bases on the mainland. The Chinese military also used newer capabilities, including flying drones above the Taiwan-occupied Kinmen and Matsu islands off the Chinese coast and spreading tremendous social media disinformation — such as broadcasting fake images of a Chinese warship near Taiwan.

Despite the scope and scale of their operations, the People’s Liberation Army did not cross the threshold into lethal violence and avoided actions that would have triggered a broader conflict. They exercised the most restraint against the United States. Despite calls by some Chinese netizens, China did not intercept or shoot down Pelosi’s plane or her accompanying military escorts as she entered and departed from Taipei. Beijing timed its unprecedented military exercise to occur after Pelosi left Taiwan. China also provided advance exercise notification, giving the United States and international community time to reroute commercial airlines and vessels without the risk of being shot down.

While China was more provocative toward Taiwan, it still maintained some limits. Instead of beginning major military exercises early in the morning or late at night, China delayed the start of the Aug. 4 exercises until noon, allowing Chinese military assets to be more easily tracked and identified. Chinese troops did not attempt to seize any of Taiwan’s offshore islands. While the People’s Liberation Army fired rockets and missiles into exercise zones near Taiwan, none of the projectiles hit Taiwanese land.  Similarly, no Chinese ships entered the main island’s 12-nm territorial sea and Chinese aircraft — manned or unmanned — did not fly over the main island of Taiwan (which former Global Times editor Hu Xijin had called for on Twitter). There was no attempt to enforce a blockade of Taiwan’s ports or interfere with commercial shipping beyond the declared exercise zones. Five ballistic missiles launched to the northeast of Taiwan, however, fell into waters inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone — another “first” for the People’s Liberation Army — and China likely intended these missiles to warn Japan.

By keeping military actions confined to carefully orchestrated exercises, Beijing likely sought to minimize the potential for escalation. But that outcome was far from guaranteed since U.S. relations with Taiwan are arguably closer now than during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis from 1995-1996. And during the 1995-1996 crisis, the United States deployed two aircraft carrier groups near Taiwan in the largest show of naval force in the region since the Vietnam War.

In 2022, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense was prepared and elevated its combat readiness. Two Chinese theater commands — the Eastern Theater Command and Southern Theater Command — were placed on high alert to respond if things spiraled out of control. Fortunately for Beijing, neither the United States nor Taiwan challenged the Chinese exercises militarily. As a result, China not only avoided a direct military clash with Taiwan and the United States but also greatly reduced the possibility of international sanctions, with the G7’s joint statement denouncing the military exercise amounting to a rhetorical slap on the wrist.

The recent drills have some characteristics of ineffectual military theater. Beijing calibrated its military activities to preserve stability amidst economic distress and the run-up to the 20th Party Congress in the fall. As a result, the exercises largely failed to shock Taiwanese public opinion. Residents on Kinmen and other offshore islands shrugged off the exercises, and older locals saw these activities as less threatening than the actual Chinese shelling of the islands in the 1950s. Some in Taiwan refused to label the situation a crisis, saying that such language plays into Beijing’s desire to frighten and intimidate them. Despite live-fire exercises occurring in areas close to Taiwan’s majors ports, shipping to the island largely continued as normal.

Although there was wide-ranging U.S. speculation on how aggressive China would be, the story began to fade from the U.S. public view after a few days, and members of Congress proceeded with ambitious plans to increase defensive aid to and political cooperation with Taiwan. On Aug. 8, President Biden stated that he is not worried that China would “do anything more,” but remains concerned with Chinese military activities around Taiwan. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl, asked whether China would try to take Taiwan by force in the next two years, said simply, “no.”

More Than a Temper Tantrum

Washington is worried that the People’s Liberation Army is trying to impose a “new normal” involving regular large-scale exercises and operations near Taiwan. These will likely increase in the coming months and years as the impasse in the Taiwan Strait deepens: Support for eventual unification among Taiwanese residents is virtually nonexistent and Beijing has been tightening the terms of a so-called “one country, two systems” model, making the already slim chances for peaceful unification increasingly remote. Beijing could also feel compelled to respond to what it perceives as growing U.S. support for keeping Taiwan permanently separated from China, such as high-level U.S. political visits or military “boots on the ground.” Even in the absence of “provocations” such as Pelosi’s visit, we should expect the intensity of People’s Liberation Army training to increase as China’s military works towards its 2027 modernization goal of being more combat-capable.

It is tempting to discount China’s actions as purely performative, but the exercises could have several long-term political and military repercussions that weaken Taiwan’s security. The first consequence is that China’s recent military activities eroded Taiwan’s sovereignty and control over its airspace and territorial waters. Beijing will no longer exercise restraint in keeping its own operations mainly west of the Taiwan Strait centerline and will likely engage in operations closer to Taiwan. Chinese military actions against Taiwan went substantially above typical gray zone intimidation. Yet China did not receive much international punishment and the People’s Liberation Army did not encounter forceful and direct pushback.

The risk is that the lack of a stronger U.S. and Taiwanese response has now redefined the space in which China can operate without retaliation. Sovereign entities typically do not tolerate an external and hostile military declaring exercise zones that encircle their territory, much less firing nearly half a dozen missiles near or over their territory (including their capital). Taipei’s restraint prevented the situation from escalating, but key questions remain as to whether Taipei will continue this approach in the future. If it does take steps to avoid direct military clashes with China, it could come at the cost of further erosion of Taiwan’s control over affairs near or above its territory.

It is too early to tell what lessons Beijing is taking away from its military exercises. Chinese leaders might conclude that Taipei was unwilling to escalate and the United States was similarly hesitant. Chinese leaders could assume that when push comes to shove, their growing military power will cause Washington to carefully calibrate its response to avoid a war. Indeed, retired Chinese Senior Colonel Zhou Bo noted that Biden “cautiously” kept a U.S. aircraft carrier away from the strait, in contrast to the 1995-1996 crisis. If that is their lesson learned, it is quite possible that Beijing may engage in similar challenges against Taiwan moving forward. Since Pelosi’s visit was more symbolic than substantive, Beijing may feel compelled to respond more forcefully to future U.S. or Taiwanese activities.

Indeed, the second consequence of these exercises is greater sensitivity by Chinese leaders to the domestic costs of inaction. Despite several military “firsts” designed to pressure the island this time around, many Chinese social media users were disappointed in what they saw as a weak response. This prompted China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson to issue a rare plea for those who expected more to have “additional patience and confidence.” If Beijing has been surprised by the intensity of those arguments, it could be tempted to authorize even riskier forms of coercion, such as military flights closer to or over Taiwan, to strengthen its nationalist bona fides.

A third consequence is the improvement of China’s military proficiency. Recent exercises do not approximate the requirements of an actual blockade, which could require crews to board and search foreign vessels, let alone a full-scale invasion of the island, which would entail a massive logistics undertaking and national mobilization. However, the exercises do provide real experience for Chinese crews operating near Taiwan, beyond what they have gained from the steady increase in offshore air and naval operations. Major General Meng Xiangqing, a professor at China’s National Defense University, concluded that the drills required Chinese forces to operate near Taiwan’s major ports at Kaohsiung and Keelung, on Taiwan’s east coast, and into the Bashi Channel (which provides a lifeline to the South China Sea), all of which would have to be secured in a future blockade. The exercises also gave China insight into Taiwan’s capacity to respond to large-scale incursions and defend its territorial seas and airspace.

Moreover, the exercises offered the People’s Liberation Army a chance to improve its “jointness.” Specifically, Chinese military sources indicate that recent training has included participation of disparate units that do not usually train together in peacetime but must cooperate in wartime, including conventional rocket force units and the strategic support force, responsible for psychological and space operations. The exercises will also become a “battle lab” of sorts for joint commanders and staff officers who must keep military activities in sync, as will be essential in any blockade or amphibious landing. Notably, the Eastern Theater Command Joint Operations Command Center — a new entity created as part of Xi’s military reforms — was responsible for tasking People’s Liberation Army units during the recent drills. Future exercises that build on these achievements will result in a Chinese military that is able to act more cohesively and ultimately move from military theater to real combat.

A fourth consequence will be reduced warning for Taipei and Washington of an impending Chinese use of force. If a “new normal” for the People’s Liberation Army involves larger training that begins to mimic the actual requirements of a massive firepower strike against key Taiwan targets or a blockade, then foreign analysts will find it increasingly difficult to distinguish exercises from actual preparations to conduct those campaigns. Future exercises could also involve more widespread participation from China’s amphibious and airborne units, as well as broader participation from the transportation and logistics units that would be needed to deliver those forces in an invasion. This would give Beijing more ways to conceal its intentions until the last minute, potentially depriving the defense opportunities to make difficult political decisions, such as mobilizing U.S. forces.

Implications

So far, there is no evidence that China’s military exercise achieved its goal of undermining American or international support for Taiwan. Instead, it has fueled concerns of growing Chinese aggression and ambitions and generated more support for Taiwan among key countries. German parliamentary members, for instance, intend to visit the island in October to demonstrate support for Taiwan despite the threats of punishment. As China launched drills against Taiwan, Australia announced a review of its military capabilities for the next decade and now seeks a military force that is “as potent as possible.” China’s firing of missiles into Japan’s exclusive economic zone likely reinforced the thinking in Tokyo that former deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso voiced last year: An attack on Taiwan could be a “survival-threatening situation” for Japan.

But this is not enough. The recent dynamics in the Taiwan Strait should also prompt new thinking on how best to strengthen Taiwan’s defenses. What the People’s Liberation Army operations show is that the United States and Taiwan should not focus solely on countering a potential Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan. Washington and Taipei should ensure Taiwan can not only protect itself from more frequent incursions but also potentially withstand a blockade for a long period of time. Taiwan should be prepared if China uses a large-scale exercise as cover for preparations to use force, and not expect that Beijing’s plans will be as easily detected as Russia’s failed deception at the start of the Ukraine conflict. This in turn will require more refined ways to gauge China’s intentions.

By allowing the international community to clearly see China as the one escalating military force and issuing disproportionate threats against Taiwan, the United States and Taiwan are playing the long game of first garnering more international support for the island before pushing back against Chinese encroachment. This also buys Taiwan some time to ready its capabilities, allowing Washington and Taipei to respond to China at a time and place of their choosing. The success of that approach, however, will depend squarely on responding firmly to China at some not-too-distant future.

To respond firmly, Taiwan and the United States should be prepared to engage in military operations to challenge Beijing’s “new normal.” Taiwan could launch large-scale military exercises of its own, including in or near the exercise zones that the People’s Liberation Army operated from. These exercises could demonstrate Taiwan’s ability to defend itself and demonstrate that China cannot operate in areas closer to Taiwan without risk. Taiwan may also have to engage in more persistent, near daily, operations to monitor or operate close to Chinese air and maritime vessels. The United States could also increase military operations or hold a drill close to Taiwan.

Taipei and Washington should be prepared for the possibility that Beijing may not be willing to back down and cede its newly gained ground. Challenging China could cause Beijing to escalate again, but that is a risk that cannot be avoided if the United States and Taiwan want to return to the status quo before Beijing’s August 2022 exercise. Indeed, dynamics in the Taiwan Strait could become more dangerous and unstable in the next weeks and months as all three parties recalibrate their activities and test the resolve of the opposing side.

 

 

Bonny Lin is director of the China Power Project and senior fellow for Asian security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Previously, she worked at the RAND Corporation and also served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2015 to 2018, where she was director for Taiwan, country director for China, and senior adviser for China.

Joel Wuthnow is a senior research fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University and an adjunct professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. He is the lead editor of Crossing the Strait: China’s Military Prepares for War with Taiwan (NDU Press, 2022). 

This essay reflects only the views of the authors and not their respective institutions, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: China Military Online