Home / Articles / Tsai’s Visit, China’s Response, and the Troubled State of U.S.-China Relations
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to the United States and meeting with Speaker McCarthy was less provocative than Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, but China reacted strongly to both.
Tensions over Tsai’s visit reflect the troubled context of China’s growing coercion of Taiwan, rising U.S. support for Taiwan, and the impact of the Ukraine conflict.
Taiwan’s January 2024 elections, U.S. domestic politics, and China’s policies pose additional risks
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s trip to the United States occurred at a troubled and volatile time in U.S.-China relations, which are routinely described as the worst they have been in fifty years. Tsai’s visit and Beijing’s reaction threaten another negative turn in the world’s most important bilateral relationship.
Tsai’s brief and formally unofficial “transit visit” was the focus of so much attention because it is linked to so much else that ails relations between the U.S. and China. China’s response has confirmed, and may deepen, such concerns.
Pelosi’s trip took place at a more politically sensitive time for China. The Speaker went to Taiwan on the eve of the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress that anointed Xi Jinping for a norm-breaking third term as Party leader and paved the way for his March 2023 confirmation to a previously unconstitutional third term as China’s president. Tsai’s U.S. sojourn came after both of those milestones. McCarthy is also, for Beijing, a less vexing figure than his predecessor. Pelosi had been a prominent critic of China’s human rights record since the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Incident, which occurred early in her congressional career. And she used the platform of her Taiwan visit to draw a pointed and public contrast between Taiwan and the PRC on matters of human rights and democracy.
A round of military exercises on a scale similar to those that followed Pelosi’s trip can add little to key dimensions of what China had accomplished in August 2022: gaining practical operational experience for a possible blockade or invasion of Taiwan, and moving toward a “new normal” of a higher baseline of “gray zone” coercion of Taiwan. And Beijing’s April 2023 exercises bring risks of external political costs because Beijing’s moves are more easily depicted as an overreaction to the much more modest provocation of Tsai’s U.S. visit.
Even a relatively uneventful visit by Tsai and a more muted response by Beijing would not have portended a lasting lack of drama or an amelioration of underlying problems in U.S.-China or cross-Strait relations.
Tsai’s visit also came in the context of Taiwan’s place in a long-worsening and increasingly adversarial U.S.-China relationship. Although the near-term likelihood of war between the U.S. and China over Taiwan remains low, Taiwan is the most likely trigger. Xi is believed to have directed his military to “be ready by 2027 to conduct a successful invasion,” and senior U.S. military officials have said that China might move against Taiwan within five years or possibly sooner. Scenarios of crisis or conflict across the Taiwan Strait that escalates into a regional war between the United States and China have become a growing focus for U.S. defense planners and Washington think tanks.
Tsai’s trip to the United States also happened in the shadow of serious tensions between Washington and Beijing over Russia’s war in Ukraine. For the United States and China, the issue of Taiwan has been entangled with the conflict on Europe’s eastern frontier. The war in Ukraine has spawned much discussion and debate about what Putin’s invasion, Russia’s military frustrations, and the U.S.-led international response portend for the possible scenario of Chinese military action against Taiwan. The Biden and Xi administrations agree that Taiwan and Ukraine are very different, but therein lies a deeper disagreement. For China, Taiwan is indisputably part of China’s territory, so Chinese military action against Taiwan, unlike Russia’s against Ukraine, could never violate the international legal prohibition on the international use of force against a sovereign state. According to Biden, Taiwan is unlike Ukraine in that U.S. forces would be directly involved if China were to attack.
More broadly, Russia’s war in Ukraine and growing perceptions of China’s intentions toward Taiwan have combined to sharpen a rift between the United States and its allies and partners in Europe and Asia, on one side, and Russia and China, on the other. China’s neighbors had been drawing closer to the United States because of growing concerns about China’s power and assertiveness in the region. The response to Russia’s invasion built upon this trend as key East Asian powers, most notably Japan, joined the U.S.-led drive to impose sanctions on Russia and provide assistance to Ukraine. The already-narrowing gap between U.S. and European views on China and Taiwan shrank amid U.S.-Europe cooperation to support Ukraine and in reaction to China’s backing of Russia. With Putin and Xi declaring a “no limits” partnership on the eve of Russia’s invasion and with the Russian ruler welcoming his Chinese counterpart to Moscow in the wake of the International Criminal Court issuing an arrest warrant for Putin, China could no longer expectEurope to remain focused on the more positive—if increasingly troubled—economic aspects of Europe-China relations.
Here, too, Taiwan was already part of the story. When China imposed trade restrictions on Lithuania, and de facto secondary sanctions against firms elsewhere in Europe, for Vilnius’s upgrading ties with Taiwan in early 2022, it was a striking example of China’s use of economic leverage to political ends. China’s moves resonated all too strongly with Putin’s tactics toward Europe in the context of the Ukraine conflict. As underscored by von der Leyen’s speech on the eve of her trip to Beijing (which coincided with Tsai’s U.S. visit), Europe was determined to reduce its vulnerability to such coercive measures by China.
And additional sources of risk lie ahead. Taiwan will elect a new president in January 2024 to succeed the term-limited Tsai. Whoever wins will be less experienced and likely less adept than Tsai—or her opposing-party predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou—in navigating Taiwan’s difficult external relations. Tsai’s successor also will not have her, or Ma’s, standing in Washington as a known and at least relatively trusted partner. And the campaign may well involve volatile exchanges over cross-Strait policy. The most likely nominee of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party, Lai Ching-te carries the baggage of his former self-description a “political worker for Taiwan independence” and the DPP will face claims that it cannot deal effectively with Beijing and thus will bring a dangerously high risk of conflict. Especially in the wake of Ma’s high-profile, friendly visit to the Mainland (which coincided with Tsai’s U.S. trip), the nominee of the Kuomintang may be quite vulnerable to DPP charges that the party is too close to—and naïve about—China and thus will put Taiwan’s de facto independence at risk.
The U.S., too, will enter its protracted presidential election season. While there is bipartisan support for a tougher-than-in-the-past posture for China, there is no deep and specific consensus on China policy. The Democratic nominee, presumptively Biden, would have little incentive in domestic politics to adopt policies for China that could be pilloried by Republicans as too soft on the U.S.’s principal geostrategic rival. China, of course, has its own domestic politics concerning cross-Strait and U.S.-China issues. Such politics are relatively opaque to the outside world, and there are no evident harbingers of near-term volatility. But, as China’s varied reactions to seemingly similar events in U.S.-Taiwan relations—such as arms sales and visits by officials and politicians—and its strong reactions to Tsai’s meetings with U.S. House Speakers remind us, Beijing, too, can and may do much to upset, or at least complicate, relations between the world’s two greatest powers concerning one of the world’s more dangerous places.
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.
Image: Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing–wen meets the U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, U.S. April 5, 2023. REUTERS/David Swanson