Avoiding the Next Taiwan Strait Crisis
Avoiding the Next Taiwan Strait Crisis
US President Joe Biden meets with China's President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, November 15, 2021. MANDEL NGAN / AFP
Q&A / Asia 17 minutes

Avoiding the Next Taiwan Strait Crisis

Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is planning a visit to Taiwan in early August. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Amanda Hsiao identifies steps the U.S. and China can take to keep frictions minimal should her trip proceed.

The risk of a crisis erupting between the U.S. and China because of a visit to Taiwan by the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, is high enough to warrant postponing – if not outright cancelling – the trip. Given the perceived costs of backing down in the face of Beijing’s threats, however, the odds of the trip going through are also high. Despite the short lead time ahead of the trip, policymakers on both sides can take small steps to reduce the chances that the trip will result in a Taiwan Strait crisis or even a military clash that neither side desires.

On 28 July, Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping had a telephone call that was a positive first step toward preventing a crisis. Following the call, both sides issued statements signalling that they are taking a broader view of the bilateral relationship, thereby diminishing the significance of Pelosi’s potential visit. But Washington and Beijing can do more to minimise the chances for negative consequences, including having the two militaries communicate prior to the stopover – if they have not done so already – and carefully managing related optics.

What’s happening with Speaker Pelosi and Taiwan?

On 19 July, news of Pelosi’s potential trip to Taiwan, which, if it occurs, will take place in early August, was leaked to media. As speaker of the House, Pelosi is the senior-most official in the lower chamber of the U.S. Congress and second in the line of presidential succession. The visit, which remains unconfirmed, is meant to signal her support for Taiwan in the face of mounting concerns about Beijing’s more assertive stance toward the island. While visits by members of Congress and retired high-ranking officials are not new and have taken place at an increased tempo in recent years, Pelosi’s visit carries more significance because of her seniority. She would be the most senior U.S. official to visit Taiwan since Newt Gingrich, then the speaker, went in 1997.

Congressional visits to Taiwan have traditionally served as a way to signal a member’s toughness on China. For Pelosi, this trip could be seen as capping off a long record as a China hawk and human rights advocate while she is still speaker – a position she may have to relinquish following November’s midterm legislative elections, in which the Democratic Party (to which she belongs) is expected to lose seats. Because the Washington-Taipei relationship is unofficial – the U.S. does not recognise Taiwanese statehood – the State Department issues restrictions on executive branch interactions with Taiwan. But this guidance does not apply to Congress, a branch of the U.S. government co-equal to the executive with its own powers to shape U.S. foreign policy.

U.S. military does not think the trip is “a good idea” ... because of the attendant risks.

While the Biden administration therefore does not have the authority to tell Pelosi whether or not to go forward with the trip, it can attempt to influence the speaker in her decision-making, as it already appears to have done. President Biden stated that the U.S. military does not think the trip is “a good idea,” and other senior officials have expressed opposition to the visit, both publicly and privately, because of the attendant risks. Nevertheless, a chorus of support from congressional members in both parties has grown louder by the day, increasing the political costs of shifting course at this late stage.

Beijing emphatically opposes the trip. In statements from its foreign and defense ministries, it has threatened strong and resolute measures; on 28 July, China’s defence ministry said, “Action is the most powerful language”. China has also reportedly issued clearer private warnings to the White House of a military response.

Pelosi embarks on her journey to the region on 29 July, with stops scheduled for Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia. As of 29 July, it remains unclear whether she will also stop in Taiwan.

What would be the significance of a potential trip?

Pelosi’s trip, if it happens, would take place against the backdrop of intensifying strategic competition between the U.S. and China in which Taiwan has become the most contentious issue.

For decades, Beijing and Washington have relied on overlapping, though not convergent, understandings of Taiwan’s status. Beijing’s position is that there is only one China of which Taiwan is a part. Its objective is unification with Taiwan – an outcome it sees as critical to national rejuvenation and the Communist Party of China’s legitimacy – and it holds out the possibility of using military force to achieve this end. Under Washington’s one-China policy, the U.S. recognises the People’s Republic of China as the sole, legitimate government of China, and acknowledges Beijing’s view that Taiwan is a part of China, but it adheres to the position that Taiwan’s status remains unresolved and must be settled peacefully, not unilaterally. Washington maintains unofficial relations with Taipei, governed by the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act, which states that U.S. policy includes providing Taiwan with defensive arms and maintaining the capacity of the U.S. itself to resist any resort to force or other form of coercion that would jeopardise the security, or the social or economic system, of the Taiwanese people.

These two positions have allowed the U.S. and China to arrive at the modus vivendi under which they normalised relations in 1979 and that has helped manage tensions since. But these understandings and arrangements have begun to unravel under the stress of an ideologically imbued competition, and the perception on each side that the other is changing the status quo in the Taiwan Strait in threatening ways.

China’s rapid military modernisation and more assertive military posture in the region have heightened concerns in the U.S. about the threat that China poses to Taiwan.

From Washington’s perspective, the big worries are a military balance of power that has shifted in China’s favour and Beijing’s effectiveness in diplomatically and economically isolating Taiwan. China’s rapid military modernisation and more assertive military posture in the region have heightened concerns in the U.S. about the threat that China poses to Taiwan, raising questions over whether a Chinese military invasion of Taiwan will occur in the near term and anxiety over its own ability to repel an invasion if it were to intervene. The Biden administration has, in what it sees as catching up to events, deepened Washington’s unofficial ties with Taipei, reframed the Taiwan problem as an international issue with regional security implications, worked to reduce Taiwan’s international isolation and begun to play a more proactive role in preparing Taiwan’s defence to deter more aggressive behaviour from Beijing.

On the other hand, Beijing sees Washington as cynically employing the Taiwan issue as a pressure point in the larger bilateral competition. It believes that Washington’s deepening engagement with Taipei dangerously alters the status quo by strengthening Taiwan’s claims to de facto sovereignty and forestalling China’s plans for unification. It has responded with more acts of military and economic muscle flexing that further confirm Washington’s suspicions, including flying military planes on a near-daily basis into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) and arbitrarily banning Taiwanese imports. Though the U.S. has made clear its policy is not to support Taiwan’s independence, its posture has led China to accuse the U.S. of hollowing out its one-China policy commitment and to be increasingly concerned over how far the Biden administration will go to elevate Taiwan’s political status.

What do political leaders in Beijing, Washington and Taipei think of the visit?

Both Beijing and Washington increasingly appear to see Pelosi’s possible visit as a test of their resolve when it comes to Taiwan, and of how much friction they can stomach in the bilateral relationship. That the trip would take place in the lead-up to important domestic political events in both countries both adds to the perceived stakes and limits the room for compromise.

In China, the 20th Party Congress, likely scheduled for November, is expected to see the re-anointment of President Xi in a break with the customary two-term limit. By most accounts, Xi’s grip on power appears solid, but he is likely to be concerned that failing to respond robustly may invite criticism from opposing factions on the eve of a key political transition.

China also sees Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan as setting a dangerous precedent. Beijing fears it would open the door to visits by even more senior U.S. officials, and would help normalise exchanges between Taiwan and other countries. Moreover, the visit is yet more evidence for Beijing of what it sees as Washington’s backsliding on its commitments to China on Taiwan. It is true that Speaker Gingrich travelled to Taiwan two decades ago, but he was a Republican and thus not a member of the party in the White House, the Democrats of President Bill Clinton. Because Pelosi is a Democrat, Beijing appears to think that if the trip proceeds it signals some degree of support from the Democratic Biden administration, which China believes should be able to bring her in line with the White House’s policies.

As for the U.S., the midterm elections loom large in political leaders’ calculations. There is a wide range of opinions in Washington as to whether the trip should go forward; some, including senior members of the Biden administration, argue that the risks of a trip outweigh the benefits. But raising such objections is politically fraught for members of Congress concerned about angering Pelosi and endangering their own policy priorities in the process. With polls predicting losses for the Democrats, and anti-China sentiment soaring in both parties, the perception that backing out of the trip would incur political costs is likely to play an outsized role in Pelosi’s ultimate decision. The same considerations will also likely deter the Biden administration from aggressively seeking to dissuade Pelosi from making the visit despite their clear opposition and concerns about the risks involved.

From Taiwan’s perspective, the symbolic, political value of the trip is much higher than any concrete benefits.

Finally, from Taiwan’s perspective, the symbolic, political value of the trip is much higher than any concrete benefits. Pelosi’s trip will not result in any economic or technical cooperation agreement; at most, the visit will help members of the U.S. Congress understand Taiwan’s views more clearly, which could influence discussions of bills related to Taiwanese defence capabilities. Nevertheless, Taipei is likely to see the importance of implementing Pelosi’s plans as defined less by the gains created by a single visit, and more by the accumulated benefits that arise from gradually normalising Taipei’s exchanges with countries with whom it does not have official ties. (Taiwan has formal relations with only thirteen countries and the Holy See.) Over the last year, an increasing number of officials from the U.S. and Europe have visited – a major political win for Taipei.

Taiwan is also likely focused on the precedential implications of the decision that Pelosi faces. It opposes, on principle, taking decisions on the basis of China’s objections, and likely worries that cancelling the visit because of Beijing’s threats could have a chilling effect on the momentum gained in recent years. Moreover, while cognisant of the risks of the trip, Taiwan’s population has also become somewhat inured to the military threat that Beijing poses. Because of the frequency of Chinese military demonstrations and acts of coercion such risks have become background noise in the daily lives of average Taiwanese.

At the official level, Taipei has been studiously quiet on the issue, highlighting the uncomfortable position that it finds itself in – wanting to pursue its own interests by welcoming Pelosi’s visit while remaining conscious of the hand wringing and rise in tensions the trip is causing.

What are the specific ways in which a crisis could develop?

The risks of escalation into a crisis are along two potential pathways that are not mutually exclusive.

First, the trip will likely see the U.S. and Chinese militaries move into proximity to each other, as both governments have increasingly resorted to shows of military presence to demonstrate resolve. On 27 July, a U.S. aircraft carrier and its strike group entered the South China Sea and was steaming toward the Strait. Satellite images from 28 July showed Chinese warships following close behind. If Pelosi’s trip happens, the Chinese response will likely involve additional large-scale military activities in the Taiwan Strait. All these manouevres in close quarters could lead to dangerous encounters or, worse, an accidental collision, which could in turn spark further brinksmanship and escalation.

Secondly, either of the two governments could radically misread the other’s actions as signalling malicious intent and respond disproportionately as a result. For instance, in late 2020, Beijing misinterpreted a series of U.S. actions as indicating a possible U.S. plan to attack Chinese outposts in the South China Sea. In response, U.S. officials used the Defense Telephone Link (discussed further below) to inform Beijing that there was no attack under way. The risk of dangerous misinterpretation is particularly high now because of growing levels of distrust in the bilateral relationship and the low frequency of dialogue below the leader level.

What considerations will shape China’s response?

How high tensions rise and whether the trip catalyses a crisis in large part hinges on how China responds. Beijing’s calculus will be shaped by a number of objectives that pull in different directions.

Two of China’s objectives will lead it to favour a response that represents a clear escalation over the actions it has previously taken. First, Beijing wants to send a sharp message that can deter further incremental departures from what it sees as the status quo – or what it refers to as provocative “salami slicing” – by Washington and Taipei. Secondly, Xi will want to appear strong before a domestic audience at a time when the country faces the forthcoming 20th Party Congress. With slowing economic growth, continuing COVID-19 woes and flashes of popular discontent, the leadership can ill afford to look weak in the face of what is viewed by nationalists as U.S. bullying. In 2012, the strength of China’s response to Japan’s purchase of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands – which surprised Tokyo and significantly escalated bilateral tensions – can be partly attributed to the timing of the purchase right before the 18th Party Congress. At the time, many in Beijing were concerned that an overly weak response to Tokyo would show other governments they could take advantage of China ahead of future party congresses, when Beijing is most distracted. Public official messaging promising a muscular response also means that Beijing will have to follow through in some visible way.

Beijing will still prefer to avoid a significant crisis.

But there are also countervailing considerations. Beijing will still prefer to avoid a significant crisis, much less one that could spiral into a costly if not cataclysmic military conflict. While the 20th Party Congress will require a show of strength, the leadership’s priorities remain domestic politics and a relatively stable external environment. Beijing is also likely attuned to the reality that if it goes too far, it will strengthen hardline voices in Washington that want to take more drastic measures to demonstrate U.S. support for Taiwan and might rally more international support for Taiwan’s cause.

Against this backdrop, China is unlikely to respond in a way that directly targets U.S. military assets or increases the chances of a military confrontation. The dangerous intercept of a U.S. reconnaissance plane by a Chinese fighter jet in 2001 resulted in an unintended collision, the death of the Chinese pilot and months of heightened political tensions. A much more antagonistic relationship today means that the capacities of the two governments to prevent an accidental collision from escalating rapidly into a crisis are much lower. Therefore, despite calls from former Global Times editor Hu Xijin for the Chinese air force to escort Pelosi’s flight to Taiwan into the island’s air space, and warnings that Chinese fighter jets might prevent the speaker’s plane from landing, the Chinese authorities are unlikely to act in such an escalatory fashion.

Still, because China’s military presence around Taiwan has increased since late 2020 – when Taiwan began publishing figures of the number of Chinese military planes entering its ADIZ – Beijing will have to select a response that visibly rises above the already high baseline of activity.

Another reference point could be its response to the last crisis in the Taiwan Strait, which took place in 1995-1996, as a result of then Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the U.S. In response, China recalled its ambassador to the U.S. and staged a series of military exercises between July 1995 and March 1996, including short-range ballistic missile tests that landed 56km off of Taiwan’s two commercial ports, in Keelung and Kaohsiung, disrupting commercial shipping. The U.S in turn dispatched two carrier strike groups through the Taiwan Strait.

In recent years, Beijing has increasingly responded to visits by high-ranking U.S. officials by sending military planes across the Taiwan Strait median line. The line is an unofficial military boundary first drawn in 1954 by the U.S. to prevent conflict between Taiwan and China, and that continued to be tacitly respected by both until Beijing rejected its existence in September 2020. Unlike flights into Taiwan’s ADIZ, median line crossings are much rarer, and reserved for developments that China finds particularly objectionable. China initiated crossings in August 2020 during a visit by the Trump Administration’s secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar. When Under Secretary of State Keith Krach arrived in Taiwan one month later, in September, twelve Chinese aircraft crossed the median line 40 times over two days.

Given the above, one possible response is that China sends large numbers of military aircraft and vessels across the median line and maintains their presence on the Taiwanese side of the line for a period of time. Such a move would further other objectives for Beijing, including diminishing the significance of the median line and expanding its presence across the Taiwan Strait. China’s recent commission of a law enforcement vessel specifically for the Taiwan Strait and characterisation to U.S. officials that the Taiwan Strait is not international waters are possible indications that Beijing is looking to more proactively assert its claims of jurisdictional authority over the Strait.

China could also stage multiple, joint exercises that are larger in scale and longer in duration than their predecessors. Beijing could – as in the 1996 crisis – conduct missile tests nearby. For instance, according to Taiwanese military analyst Chieh Chung from the National Policy Foundation, a think-tank affiliated with Taiwan’s opposition party, the Kuomintang, the Chinese military could test its DF-17 hypersonic ballistic missile, YJ-21 hypersonic anti-ship missile or DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile in the vicinity of the Dongsha/Pratas islands. Since China has few other adversaries besides the U.S. against whom such sophisticated missiles would be useful in a conflict, the intended target of the signal would be clear.

There are also non-military options that Beijing could use to register its displeasure, namely, sanctioning Speaker Pelosi (a tool increasingly used by China to express its objection to individual actors and entities). Because relations are already so bad, Beijing may be loath to recall Ambassador Qin Gang from Washington.

How do the parties avoid a crisis?

The risks presented by Speaker Pelosi’s potential visit are uncomfortably high, but a crisis is not inevitable. There are steps both sides can take to head one off. The strongest de-escalatory move would be for Pelosi to call off the visit or to postpone it until after the 20th Party Congress, when domestic pressures will likely be lower for the Chinese leadership. But political dynamics in Washington make a climbdown of any kind unlikely.

Washington and Beijing will have to use the time they have to clearly and consistently signal their intentions.

Instead, Washington and Beijing will have to use the time they have to clearly and consistently signal their intentions, through both public messaging and private communications. Leaks from U.S. officials to the media about the U.S. military’s concerns and the risks of Pelosi’s possible visit were likely intended to dilute the significance of the trip for Beijing’s sake. Beijing’s consistent message thus far – that it will respond “with force” – also conveys its intentions, therefore allowing Washington to consider counter-responses that are not overly escalatory.

The July 28 Xi-Biden call appears to have been a good step toward defusing tensions around a potential visit. The statements issued by Washington and Beijing show both sides shifting attention away from Pelosi’s visit toward the overall relationship, including the need to maintain communications, cooperate on key global challenges and manage differences – indicating that neither side desires a rupture in ties. It is also clear that both leaders restated their existing positions on Taiwan, which is important for signalling that neither side wants to radically depart from the status quo on Taiwan. Ideally, Biden would also have used the call to state again that the U.S. executive branch has limited authority over Congress; it would have also been ideal for Xi to clarify the challenges Beijing faces in responding to Pelosi’s visit.

But both sides can and should do more to send signals below the leadership level, in other parts of the two bureaucracies, that neither side wants a conflict. The two sides can use the Defence Telephone Link, which can connect senior defence and military officials, to communicate intentions in advance of and during the visit. As noted above, in 2020 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley used the telephone link to inform Beijing that the U.S. was not planning on attacking Chinese outposts in the Spratlys. Both governments should also direct their militaries to act with utmost restraint during encounters at sea and in the air.

There are also small steps that Washington can encourage Pelosi to take to emphasise that the trip represents an exchange that falls within the bounds of U.S. commitments to both the one-China policy and the Taiwan Relations Act. For one thing, Pelosi should travel by commercial jet or in a government plane with no military marking. (A June 2021 U.S. Senate delegation travelled to Taiwan in a C-17 military transport plane with “U.S. Air Force” emblazoned on its side, leading to cries of outrage from Chinese nationalists and a sharp official response.) In the same vein, Beijing would find it provocative if the speaker’s plane were to be escorted by U.S. military aircraft. The meetings that Pelosi takes in Taiwan, the publicity surrounding them and what she says to the press are also important details that can be managed to help lower the temperature. Pelosi could, for instance, reiterate the U.S. commitment to the one-China policy and the position that the U.S. does not support Taiwan’s independence.

Beyond immediate risks, these mitigation steps are also important for managing the longer-term and difficult-to-predict consequences of the visit. One of the most lasting consequences of the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis and the major show of U.S. military power that it involved, for instance, is that it helped catalyse Beijing’s decisions to take military modernisation more seriously and to invest more heavily in its defence capabilities. As decision-makers on the two sides consider how to approach and respond to this visit, it is therefore important that they not only consider the short-term costs and benefits, but the way in which perceptions over what takes place will shape attitudes and policies that may have an enduring effect on peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. If managed poorly, this event could lock in place a more confrontational approach to the Taiwan issue on both sides, making future dynamics yet more dangerous.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.