The showdown looks set to usher in a perilous new era of hostility
In January 1950, three months after the Communist victory in China’s civil war, President Harry Truman issued a statement. America, he declared, would not intervene militarily to help China’s defeated Nationalists, who had fled to the island of Taiwan. Mao Zedong was already preparing an invasion and probably would have succeeded had the Korean war not erupted in June that year.
The conflict prompted Truman to change tack, backing South Korea and ordering the Seventh Fleet to defend Taiwan in a bid to halt the spread of communism in Asia. Four years later, when Chinese forces attacked some of Taiwan’s outlying islands, American officials threatened nuclear strikes on China, forcing Mao to back down again.
With hindsight, that was the first in a succession of military showdowns over Taiwan that have defined Sino-American relations and had consequences for the world beyond.
Seven decades later the fourth such crisis is unfolding, this time triggered by a visit to Taiwan from the speaker of America’s House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, on August 2nd and 3rd. Ms Pelosi was the most senior American politician to visit the island, which China still claims, since one of her predecessors, Newt Gingrich, went in 1997. Although the crisis is far from over, it already looks set to usher in a dangerous new era of hostility between China and America.
Ms Pelosi’s visit was a “manic, irresponsible and highly irrational” act, declared China. Its diplomats accused America of violating commitments it made when it first recognised the People’s Republic of China (prc) in 1979. Since Ms Pelosi left Taiwan, China has fired ballistic missiles over the island for the first time, sent military ships and aircraft across the median line of the Taiwan Strait in record numbers, and conducted live-fire drills encircling the island in a rehearsal for a blockade.
China has also imposed economic sanctions on Taiwan and cut military and other co-operation with America. So far China’s response appears calibrated to advertise its profound displeasure and newfound capabilities, while stopping well short of war. Yet these are probably just the opening salvoes.
Xi Jinping, China’s leader, appears keen to avoid a direct military confrontation with America. At the same time, he cannot appear timid, having styled himself as a strongman and promised progress towards reunification. On Chinese social media, rabble-rousers are already outraged that China did not shoot down Ms Pelosi’s plane.
The stakes for Mr Xi are especially high in the run-up to a Communist Party congress later this year, when he is expected to secure a third five-year term as party leader, violating recent norms.
China’s countermeasures are thus likely to play out on many fronts, over weeks, months or years. They will probably include more economic sanctions targeting Taiwan’s governing Democratic Progressive Party. There will surely be efforts to deter other foreign politicians from visiting the island, and to woo the last dozen or so countries that have diplomatic ties to Taiwan.
Most importantly, though, China is likely to try to establish a “new normal” of military activities around Taiwan, including regular forays into waters and airspace that the island claims and, possibly, further missile tests over the island. China’s Eastern Theatre Command, which conducted the latest drills, said on August 10th that it had completed “various tasks” in the exercises but would continue to monitor the Taiwan Strait closely and conduct regular combat-readiness patrols there.
Where things go from here will partly depend on what America and its allies do to help Taiwan. America has shown restraint so far but has pledged to resume regular military operations in the area, including transits through the Taiwan Strait. It will probably provide more training and weapons to Taiwan.
Some foresee a cycle of action and reaction, with increased risks of accidents and miscalculations. “Historians may very well look back at the summer of 2022 as the moment when us-China relations shifted from competition for relative advantage to overt confrontation, with a much greater risk of crises and escalation,” says Taylor Fravel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Pelosi plays with fire
The fourth Taiwan Strait crisis began in April, with reports that Ms Pelosi would visit the island. A critic of China’s human-rights record, she no doubt had her legacy in mind: at 82, she is probably in her last term as speaker. A bout of covid-19 delayed her visit. When asked about the trip in July, President Joe Biden said military officials thought it was “not a good idea right now”. A few days later Mr Xi warned him: “Those who play with fire will perish by it.” But to cancel would be to yield to Chinese bullying. And Mr Biden did not want to challenge the prerogatives of Congress.
In the end, Ms Pelosi’s flight into Taiwan went unchallenged. Welcomed by cheering well-wishers, she met Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, as well as Chinese dissidents. Dismissing China’s threats, she echoed American officials in arguing that her trip did not disrupt the status quo, citing Mr Gingrich’s trip and regular visits by congressional delegations.
In fact, the status quo has been unravelling for years. Since taking power in 2012, Mr Xi has stoked a fiery form of nationalism and placed stronger emphasis than any leader since Mao on winning back Taiwan. Without setting a clear timetable, he has said unification cannot be postponed indefinitely. He has linked it to his goal of “national rejuvenation” by 2049, the prc’s centenary. The armed forces have been equipped and drilled to prepare for an assault: Chinese jets and bombers often buzz near Taiwan’s airspace. Some American generals think Mr Xi, now 69, could attempt an invasion in the 2030s—or even this decade—hoping to achieve unification in his lifetime.
Chinese officials, meanwhile, have become convinced in recent years that America is steadily hollowing out its “one-China” policy. Under that convoluted formula, America recognises the prc as China’s sole legal government and “acknowledges” its position that Taiwan is part of a single China. But America does not recognise the prc’s sovereignty over Taiwan and maintains unofficial links to the island. It is also obliged by domestic law to provide Taiwan with defensive arms and to maintain its own capacity to protect the island. Yet America has long observed “strategic ambiguity”, not specifying whether or how it would intervene in a war over the island.
China’s concerns intensified after 2016 as the Trump administration expanded high-level official visits and arms sales to the island—including offensive weapons. To China’s frustration, Mr Biden has broadly continued that approach. He has also publicly suggested three times that America would directly defend Taiwan. Last year, he said that Taiwan was independent. His aides walked back all those comments. Chinese officials seethed nonetheless.
Taiwan, as a self-governing democracy of 24m mostly Han Chinese people, represents a challenge to the giant autocracy next door; especially since its free citizens are richer than their voteless kin across the strait. The island has also drifted further from the mainland politically in recent years, notably since Mr Xi snuffed out civil liberties in Hong Kong, rendering deeply unattractive the “one country, two systems” formula that has governed the former British territory, and which Mr Xi has offered as a template for a peaceful union of China and Taiwan.
Although polls show that most people in Taiwan favour maintaining the status quo over declaring independence immediately (which would surely provoke an invasion), only a small minority favour unification, and nearly all reject “one country, two systems”.
The timing of Ms Pelosi’s visit was especially sensitive. Mr Xi has already faced unexpected difficulties this year, in finessing his support for Russia over Ukraine and sustaining his zero-covid strategy despite an economic slowdown. This month, if tradition holds, party bigwigs will meet in the resort town of Beidaihe, where in the past they have had informal discussions about policies and personnel. How much of that still goes on under Mr Xi is uncertain. But he and other leaders must soon make some important decisions, on who will surround him at the top and what priorities to pursue in the years ahead—including with respect to Taiwan.
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This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline "Danger ahead"