Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts America Should Walk the Walk in the Taiwan Strait
America Should Walk the Walk in the Taiwan Strait

America Should Walk the Walk in the Taiwan Strait

As soon as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plane took off from Taipei on August 3, the Chinese military initiated a days-long military response to punish Taiwan for crossing a perceived “red line.” The People’s Liberation Army Eastern Theater Command carried out exercises that included launching missiles over Taipei and into Japan’s exclusive economic zone, flying drones over the offshore island of Kinmen, simulating a blockage of Taiwan, and surging an unprecedented number of aircraft and naval vessels closer to Taiwan than ever before, with one exercise area about ten miles from Taiwanese territory.  

The Chinese military response to Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan marks the beginning of a new phase of Beijing’s coercion of Taiwan in an attempt to force a “peaceful reunification.” While China gradually eroded the status quo in the Taiwan Strait in the past several years by cutting off official communication with the Tsai administration in 2016, using its de facto veto to prevent Taiwan from participating as a guest or observer in United Nations-affiliated organizations after allowing it to participate under the Ma administration, sending military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone nearly every day since September 2020, poaching Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies, and punishing countries economically for enhancing their unofficial ties to Taiwan, among other things, its reaction to the Speaker’s visit quickly shattered long-held norms that maintained a semblance of stability.

Without a strong and coordinated international response in support of Taiwan in the face of these military threats from Beijing, this type of aggression will only continue. The United States should move beyond rhetorically condemning Chinese actions and coordinate a multilateral transit of the Taiwan Strait. This would demonstrate that America has powerful allies that are willing to put skin in the game. In addition to a multilateral response, Washington should increase its transits from its usual one-ship-per-month routine to having more ships transit the Strait more frequently. Beyond the military dimension, the Biden administration needs to prioritize free trade agreement negotiations, beyond the recently announced U.S.-Taiwan Initiative on 21st Century Trade, to reduce Beijing’s leverage over Taiwan’s economy.

Not carrying out a full-fledged response to the Chinese exercises will create a dangerous precedent in which China can dictate the terms of America’s engagement with Taiwan. In the aftermath of the Pelosi visit, as the United States began to decide on its response, Chinese diplomats, such as Chinese Ambassador to the United States Qin Gang, warned that further improvement in  US-Taiwan relations would result in a similar Chinese response with additional exercises and economic actions focused on Taiwan. In response to additional visits by other U.S. government officials later in August, Beijing continued to send military aircraft across the Taiwan Strait median line.

Washington needs to back up its rhetoric by sending the message that escalation is purely a Chinese decision and that the United States and its allies are willing to demonstrate its support for Taiwan by conducting drills in disputed areas in the South and East China Seas. General Secretary Xi Jinping himself reportedly made the decision to launch the missiles over Taiwan into Japan’s exclusive economic zone, despite the fact that Japanese officials had nothing to do with the Pelosi visit. Beijing has already escalated—Washington should not let Chinese actions go unanswered or undeterred. If China is allowed to shut off access to parts of the Taiwan Strait on an ad hoc basis, then the United States will have a more difficult time assuring the Taiwanese people and government that it is not in this fight alone. Allowing China’s new normal to coalesce without response is a much more dangerous road to take.

Statements Are Good, Actions Are Better

Since President Joseph Biden took office, he has worked with foreign leaders to emphasize the “peace and security in the Taiwan Strait” in summit joint statements. Leaders from South Korea, Japan, and the G-7 all have signed on to a similar version of the same statement regarding the situation in the Taiwan Strait in 2021. On August 5, after the Chinese exercises commenced, Washington, Canberra, and Tokyo released a joint statement condemning them, stating,

The Secretary and the Foreign Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. … [and] expressed their concern about the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) recent actions that gravely affect international peace and stability, including the use of large-scale military exercises … [and the] launch of ballistic missiles, five of which the Japanese government reported landed in its exclusive economic zones, raising tension and destabilizing the region.

The statement highlighted how Beijing chose to expand tensions in the region from a US-Taiwan-China dynamic.

By not responding beyond rhetorical condemnation, future statements will ring hollow. After the military exercises in August, the G-7 (which includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States) released a statement condemning China’s actions:

We are concerned by recent and announced threatening actions by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), particularly live-fire exercises and economic coercion, which risk unnecessary escalation. There is no justification to use a visit as pretext for aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait. It is normal and routine for legislators from our countries to travel internationally. China’s escalatory response risks increasing tensions and destabilizing the region.

Tokyo demanded that Beijing immediately cancel the drills because they “impact our national security and the safety of our citizens.” Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong characterized the exercises as “disproportionate and destabilising.” However, no comparable action has been taken to back up these statements yet. As a result, future condemnations will be diminished since Beijing will anticipate little-to-no action in response to its escalatory moves vis-à-vis Taiwan.

When announcing the success of the exercises, the Eastern Theater Command said that such exercises around Taiwan would continue, especially on Taiwan’s side of the Taiwan Strait. This new phase of Chinese coercion in the Taiwan Strait was preempted earlier in summer 2022 when Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin argued on June 13 that the Taiwan Strait was not “international waters.” Wang asserted, “China has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait.”

Considering how Beijing essentially shut down access to the Strait in certain areas near Taiwan for several days, it is clear that China believes it has the right to dictate when and where aircraft and naval vessels can operate in the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese views on the matter  are particularly troubling since the areas that were closed were almost all on Taiwan’s side of the Strait, and simulated a blockade of Taiwan. Starting on August 4, 2022, China acted on its belief that it has “sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait.”

The Centerline Will Not Hold

Until recently, both Beijing and Taipei generally adhered to keeping their military assets and operations on their side of the centerline of the Taiwan Strait. From September 2020 to August 2022, Chinese military aircraft would occasionally cross the centerline as a way to demonstrate its displeasure with US-Taiwan relations. Before the early August 2022 drills, Chinese military aircraft only crossed the centerline of the Taiwan Strait once in 2022 (in May), and before that crossing, none had occurred since September 2020, in response to a visit to Taipei by then-Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Keith Krach.

Aerial centerline crossings seemed to be reserved for high-level US official visits to Taipei. Krach had traveled to Taipei to discuss a new bilateral economic dialogue and to pay respects at former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s funeral. Before August 2022, centerline crossings rarely occurred. In response to Pelosi’s visit, the People’s Liberation Army shattered that precedent and expanded its toolkit to include not only aircraft crossings but also naval crossings for the multi-day joint aerial-naval exercises. Between August 3 and 12, over 200 Chinese military aircraft crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait.

Considering the recent history of Chinese government officials and military personnel denying the existence of the centerline of the Taiwan Strait, it is not particularly surprising that Beijing used the Pelosi visit as a pretense to elevate its military pressure on Taiwan. For the last two years, Beijing has been signaling that it would eventually take such actions and commence regular centerline aerial crossings. In September 2020, a Chinese pilot was recorded saying that there was no centerline in the Taiwan Strait. In response to the same crossing, Wang asserted a similar sentiment that the Taiwan Strait was not divided by a centerline, “The Taiwan region is an inalienable part of China’s territory. The so-called ‘median line’ is non-existent.”

In the lead-up to the August drills, Chinese government officials consistently denied the existence of a centerline in the Taiwan Strait. However, Beijing still seemingly respected the long-established norm—until breaking it served greater political goals. The gradual erosion of the tacit agreement ended in response to the Pelosi visit, with Chinese military aircraft and naval vessels crossing the centerline nearly every day.

With the precedent now gone, what does it mean for the future of peace and security in the Taiwan Strait? For starters, the exercises demonstrate that the so-called cross-Strait status quo can be changed at any moment, particularly during a crisis. The changing of the status quo points to Beijing’s desire to continue to squeeze Taiwan into submission. While China hopes to achieve that goal without launching an invasion, it is preparing to carry out that contingency, as Beijing’s recently released white paper on Taiwan explains:

We will work with the greatest sincerity and exert our utmost efforts to achieve peaceful reunification. But we will not renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all necessary measures. This is to guard against external interference and all separatist activities … Use of force would be the last resort taken under compelling circumstances. We will only be forced to take drastic measures to respond to the provocation of separatist elements or external forces should they ever cross our red lines.

Beijing increasingly pushes the boundaries of the cross-Strait status quo to achieve its goal of peaceful reunification. This has been the case for some time, particularly with the regularization of incursions into Taiwan’s southwestern air defense identification zone. Beijing had been pushing the envelope across a spectrum of areas, but the response to the Pelosi visit has clearly changed Beijing’s toolkit. The lack of a more forceful international response to these incursions allowed them to become a part of the status quo. The early August exercises and now near-daily naval and aerial Taiwan Strait centerline crossings will likely now become yet another feature in the status quo. And while the air defense identification zone violations and Taiwan Strait crossings are moves by Beijing to increase pressure on Taipei, the United States, Japan, Australia, and other likeminded countries must impose greater costs (and respond in-kind) on Beijing for conducting these joint military exercises around Taiwan. While the United States, G-7, and other countries have condemned, or expressed concern about, the exercises, none of have followed the rhetorical condemnation with solid action.

Without concrete actions conducted in direct response to the Chinese drills in the Taiwan Strait, Beijing will view this tepid response in the same way that it did when it began to regularize ADIZ incursions: the United States does not appear willing to expend military resources to back up its strident condemnations of China.

What the United States Should Do Now

In direct response to the Chinese exercises, the United States should conduct exercises with like-minded allies and partners in the areas around Taiwan but outside of the Strait, send more vessels through the Taiwan Strait more frequently, and commence free trade agreement negotiations with Taiwan. Washington just announced that negotiations for the US-Taiwan Initiative on 21st-Century Trade will commence in the fall, but unless the administration publicly announces that the goal for these talks is to negotiate a free trade agreement, these talks will likely become yet another bilateral trade discussion that stalls and has little results. Over the long term, the US military should increase its training with Taiwanese military forces (both in Taiwan and on American territory like the ongoing activities on Guam), push for greater cooperation between the Japanese and Taiwanese militaries, and have Congress pass legislation—standalone or part of another major defense bill—that treats Taiwan as if it were already at war when it comes to arms sales. It took an invasion by Russia for Ukraine to receive the needed arms and systems; Taiwan should not have to wait until a Chinese blockade or invasion to receive that sort of no-holds-bar support from Washington. Congress should push forward with grant-based foreign military financing to allow Taiwan to procure the arms it needs to defend itself beyond the normal foreign military sales.

The US Navy currently conducts monthly transits of the Taiwan Strait, and those will likely continue, but without a stronger and more coordinated reaction, the United States will repeat the same mistakes it made by not imposing costs on Beijing for increasing tensions in the Taiwan Strait and by not more fully supporting Taiwan and its partners. Large-scale Chinese exercises in the Taiwan Strait are a much more dangerous precedent to allow them to become a regular part of the regional status quo. The instability that these drills will cause—by shutting down access to nearly the entire Strait for days on end, firing missiles over Taiwan, etc.—should not be accepted lightly.  

The current plan appears to be more of the same. According to Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin H. Kahl: “What we’ll do instead, is to continue to fly, to sail and operate wherever international law allows us to do so, and that includes in the Taiwan Strait.” It is reported that the Biden administration viewed sending an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait as something that would likely increase tensions and make the situation worse. However, by not drawing a line in the sand, the administration may be allowing such actions to continue indefinitely; the United States is allowing Beijing to impose its vision of stability in the region. Sending a carrier through the Strait would not be purely symbolic; U.S. assets in the carrier group would be able to operate and train in a likely area of future conflict. It is not just Taiwan’s security at stake, but also Japan and the Philippines— two US treaty allies—since the Chinese drills overlapped their exclusive economic zones.

By not sending a stronger message of support—via concrete action—for Taiwan and the region, the United States risks allowing China to determine when the Taiwan Strait is open and closed to other aircraft and vessels. It may be too late to send an aircraft carrier strike group through the Strait since China’s exercises have already ceased, but increasing the number and frequency of Taiwan Strait transits should be an option on the table, as well as joint multilateral exercises with Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, and other willing allies in the South or East China Seas as well as to Taiwan’s east. An aircraft carrier transiting the Taiwan Strait is not unprecedented for the United States (e.g., in response to the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis), and deference to Beijing’s concerns about that message should not overrule the move. Beijing has improved its military capabilities since the 1990s, so making such a decision now may result in higher costs than before. Firing missiles over Taipei is not comparable to a Taiwan Strait transit. International law permits the US Navy to transit the Taiwan Strait, even despite protests from Beijing, while firing a missile over a country’s capital is a type of escalation that rarely, if ever, occurs in peacetime. Kurt Campbell, deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for the Indo-Pacific at the White House, promised in a press call that the United States would respond with its actions in the coming weeks. But by waiting so long, Washington demonstrates a lack of preparedness or resolve.

Diplomatically, Washington should encourage other governments to send high-level delegations to Taipei. These delegations would allow additional countries to learn firsthand about Taiwan’s struggles with China, and has the long-term possibility of changing those countries’ policies regarding support for Taiwan bilaterally and in international institutions. These visits move Taiwan from an abstract concept to a place with real people and real problems.

The Biden administration should also break the logjam of free trade negotiations with Taiwan. Both Democrats and Republicans have given their public support for such an agreement, but administration after administration has refused to move forward with a free trade agreement, likely out of deference to Beijing and its concerns. In October 2020, fifty senators signed a letter calling for US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to initiate free trade agreement talks with Taiwan. If Washington wants to more fully support Taipei in the face of Chinese economic pressure, then it should begin in earnest free trade agreement negotiations. Beijing’s pressure on Taiwan is not limited to military and political activities but also includes consistent economic pressure. Reducing Taiwan’s reliance on the Chinese economy (e.g., 42 percent of Taiwanese exports went to China and Hong Kong in 2021) and giving Taiwan the “gold standard” of free trade agreements may push other countries or blocs to follow suit. Granted, there is only so much Washington can do to assist Taiwan in reducing its economic dependence on China, but working with Taipei to reduce that overreliance should be a goal for the Biden administration.

Demonstrating a unified and multilateral response to the Chinese exercises will send a clear message: Beijing’s actions are not acceptable and will be responded to in kind. Such a multilateral response will not be an easy task, given that countries in the region are still wary of making too strong of statements/actions against Beijing due to its important regional and global economic role. These actions would directly challenge Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang’s recent remarks warning the United States not to send vessels through the Taiwan Strait or send additional delegations to Taipei. Beijing will seek any opportunity to escalate the situation as a way to push the United States away from sending its own messages. The risks of allowing Beijing to dictate the terms of engagement with Taiwan and in the Taiwan Strait is more dangerous than these threats of escalation.

During the phone call between Biden and Xi, the Chinese general secretary reportedly emphasized that he was not seeking to escalate China’s response into a full-blown crisis with the United States. Launching a missile across Taiwan and into Japan’s exclusive economic zone—which Xi himself reportedly approved to serve as a warning for Tokyo not to get involved in any cross-Strait conflict—expanded Beijing’s response beyond a reaction to Pelosi’s visit. Even though Xi did not seek to escalate with Washington, he decided to create an unprecedented response. By playing it safe, the United States is making the region less safe. The future of peace and security in the Taiwan Strait depends on Washington and its allies and partners taking a stand against Beijing’s precedent-setting actions.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or the Naval Postgraduate School.

Image: Xinhua (Photo by Lin Jian)