US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last week rattled US-China relations like nothing we have seen since the collision of a US EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter in April 2001.
On balance, the Biden administration would have preferred that she had not made the trip, given the high level of tensions in US-China relations, Beijing’s particular dislike of Pelosi and the sensitivity of the upcoming Communist Party congress to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. But once Joe Biden inadvertently confirmed Pelosi’s plans to travel and revealed internal divisions in his own administration to the press, the White House had little choice but to circle the wagons and support her trip lest they look weak to Beijing – and to voters in the November midterm elections.
In the end, Pelosi’s trip did more to illuminate Beijing’s intentions than to change China’s overall strategy. Beijing’s decision to respond to the Pelosi trip by holding extensive military exercises simulating an attack on Taiwan and by implication Japan (People’s Liberation Army missiles hit near islands within Japan’s exclusive economic zone) was over the top and long planned. If Pelosi were guilty of any miscalculation, it was handing the PLA the pretext to conduct training exercises it had wanted in the first place. If there was virtue in Pelosi’s trip – and there was – it was demonstrating the strong bipartisan resolve in congress to deter Chinese aggression in the western Pacific.
Pelosi’s visit did not represent a change in US policy on Taiwan; she was not the first Speaker to visit Taiwan (her predecessor Newt Gingrich did in the 1990s) and her visit followed a series of administration-sanctioned delegations of members of congress and former senior officials to reassure Taipei of US support in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Beijing’s more belligerent stance towards Taiwan.
I was a member of one of those delegations in March and, like Pelosi, we emphasised that we saw no change in the US one-China policy or a shift to “strategic clarity” that would give Taiwan the same guarantees Australia or Japan enjoy under our respective mutual security treaties. But we also emphasised that there was stronger support than ever in the US for the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which provides for arms sales to Taiwan and states that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes” would be viewed as “a threat to the peace and security of the western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States”.
Pelosi’s visit reflected just such concern and Beijing’s response confirmed there were reasons to be worried. Even before Pelosi’s trip, Xi reportedly ordered the PLA to be ready to unify Taiwan by 2027. During the past few years PLA bomber and fighter squadrons regularly have been crossing the line in the Taiwan Strait that both sides used to respect.
Xi’s aggression against India in the Himalayas; his crackdown on Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang; and China’s growing military presence in the Natuna Sea and nearly in Solomon Islands are all further indications that this Chinese leader has a much higher tolerance for risk than his predecessors going back to Mao Zedong.
A Chinese assault on Taiwan today would be an even graver threat to the peace and security of the western Pacific than the sponsors of the TRA envisioned in 1979. Chinese coercive absorption of Taiwan would sever the first island chain, flanking Japan and cutting off Australia and putting critical sea lanes under Beijing’s control. It also would put the most important semiconductor manufacturing base in the world under China’s thumb – handing Beijing a stranglehold on global supply chains and a boon in the race to master artificial intelligence (where China’s efforts are hampered by a comparatively weak semiconductor industry). Such an attack on a free people so close to Japan and other US democratic allies obviously would shake the entire US alliance system and potentially lead to great power war given the stakes for both sides.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s meeting with Pelosi after her stop in Taipei demonstrated that Tokyo understands what is at stake and appreciates US resolve. Australia, too, has much riding on developments in the Taiwan Strait, even if further from the direct action than Japan. Indeed, no two allies will have more influence on US decision-making on Taiwan in the coming weeks and months than Japan and Australia.
But if the Taiwan situation is more dangerous than it was before Pelosi’s visit – and likely to get more dangerous still (and would have regardless of her trip, in my view) – the US, Australia and Japan still have the means to reinforce deterrence, stability and the status quo, particularly if we work in concert.
First, this means investing in deterrence. The AUKUS agreement does that across the longer term by cementing the undersea warfare lead of the US alliance system, and in the near term with advanced capabilities development and force posture initiatives.
Japan’s new defence plan is expected to be similarly robust with greater emphasis on counterstrike capabilities and integration with US forces. Taipei, too, is finally beginning to move to a “porcupine” strategy after seeing the success of Ukraine’s outnumbered forces when they used asymmetric missile and drone technologies. But all these ambitious initiatives will require resources and implementation.
Second, the US, Australia and Japan can dissuade Beijing from using force by reinforcing alignment among a larger group of like-minded countries that could impose serious geopolitical and economic costs on China for aggression even if not directly involved in military deterrence. These partners include India, South Korea and NATO, where Russian and Chinese actions are inclining capitals to do more together to uphold stability and deter aggression.
Third, the US, Australia and Japan can continue reinforcing the status quo in Taipei. Our delegation in March found President Tsai Ing-wen to be moderate in her stance on cross-strait issues and cognisant from the Ukraine precedent that she has no interest in being the provocateur in any conflict. By supporting Taiwan’s democracy and economy and deepening our exchanges, we can collectively incentivise the prudent course Tsai has set for Taipei despite her own party’s private hope for independence and the Taiwan public’s understandable disillusion with Beijing’s proposal for “one country, two systems” after what happened to democracy in Hong Kong.
The worst thing we could do would be to assume that unification by war would be easy for Beijing and thus pre-emptively lose our will or our focus on deterrence and stability. Though the PLA has expanded its military power dramatically during the past decade, Beijing’s new assertiveness also has deepened counterbalancing by countries that had no security relationships before China prompted their mutual alignment. The Ukraine precedent demonstrates that Beijing would face a deeply uncertain outcome from the use of force in terms of operational success and geopolitical consequences.
While unification is part of the CCP’s raison d’etre, there is little incentive for Xi to gamble the party’s existence by forcing unification against a determined international community and a smart and stubborn Taiwanese defence – as long as Taipei is convinced not to change unilaterally the status quo itself.
But make no mistake – this will take more resolve, resources, steady diplomacy and solidarity than the US and Australia have required in the face of any security challenge since the end of the Cold War – or possibly ever.