Assessing the Implications of the Taiwanese President’s Trip to the U.S.
Assessing the Implications of the Taiwanese President’s Trip to the U.S.
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen meets the U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, in Simi Valley, California. 5 April 2023. Source: David Swanson / Reuters
Q&A / Asia 18 minutes

Assessing the Implications of the Taiwanese President’s Trip to the U.S.

A visit by Taiwan’s leader to the U.S. brought swift condemnation from China, which stepped up its military activities in the strait separating the mainland from the island. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Amanda Hsiao looks at what these events might portend.

What happened?

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen visited the United States in late March and early April, culminating in a highly publicised meeting with Kevin McCarthy, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, in California. The visit was condemned by the Chinese government, which considers Taiwan part of its own territory and has made unification with the island a top priority. To underscore its pique, just days after Tsai’s trip, Beijing launched three days of military exercises and declared its troops’ readiness to “resolutely smash any form of ‘Taiwan independence’ and foreign interference attempt”.

Although this escalatory series of events could hardly be cast as good news from the perspective of Asian Pacific peace and security, it could have been worse. Indeed, Tsai’s team engineered the California meet-up with McCarthy in large part to head off a repeat of what happened in August 2022, when the speaker’s predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, paid a visit to Taiwan that was seen as deeply provocative in Beijing. The Chinese military exercises that followed Pelosi’s trip were the largest in scale and intensity to date, and they altered military dynamics in the Taiwan Strait to Taipei’s detriment. The exercises that followed Tsai’s U.S. travel were limited in comparison, or at least not as brazenly provocative. Viewed through this lens, the way in which all three parties handled the Tsai visit reflects incremental progress – suggesting a capacity in Taipei, Washington and Beijing to manage tensions that has not always been evident.

Still, the region emerges from these events less stable and secure, and the dynamics at play in the Taiwan Strait remain deeply concerning. As it did after the Pelosi visit, Beijing used the opportunity to rehearse attacks on Taiwan and showcase additional ways in which it could wear down the island’s defences. More broadly, so long as some or all of the parties continue to engage in activities that seek to alter the fragile status quo in their favour, they are likely to remain in an escalatory spiral – with all the costs and dangers that entails.

What did Tsai do on her trip?

President Tsai’s meeting with Speaker McCarthy came at the end of a trip in which she also sought to shore up relations with Central American partners. She made two stops in the U.S.

During the U.S. leg of her trip (she was in New York from 29-31 March and in California from 4-6 April), Tsai kept a packed schedule. She met with local officials and permanent representatives to the UN; attended an off-the-record, unpublicised event at the Hudson Institute, a national security think-tank; and sat down with Laura Rosenberger, chair of the American Institute in Taiwan (the U.S. representative office that functions as a de facto embassy) and a former senior National Security Council staffer in the Biden and Obama administrations. But by far the most consequential event on Tsai’s itinerary was her meeting with McCarthy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, just north of Los Angeles.

This last discussion marked the highest-level meeting granted to a Taiwanese president on U.S. soil since the practice of transits began in 1994. (Because the U.S. and Taiwan have only unofficial ties, trips by Taiwanese leaders to the U.S. have been conducted as unofficial stopovers en route to other destinations rather than as trips expressly to visit the U.S.) In addition to presiding over the lower house of the U.S. Congress, McCarthy is the senior-most Republican official in the U.S. government and second in the line of succession to the U.S. presidency. But unlike Speaker Pelosi, who is a Democrat like President Joe Biden, McCarthy belongs to the opposition; he came to power after Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives in the November 2022 elections.

In joint public remarks with McCarthy, Tsai emphasised that Taiwan was “committed to defending the peaceful status quo”, and that to “preserve peace, we must be strong”, including by working with the U.S. For his part, McCarthy underscored that U.S. Congressional support for Taiwan is bipartisan. Several prominent House Democrats joined the Congressional delegation that also met with Tsai in Simi Valley, underscoring the speaker’s message.

Predictably, Beijing rhetorically blasted the Tsai-McCarthy meeting, warning Taipei not to head down a “dark path” (ie, to seek independence), and launched the sequence of military exercises described below. By contrast, the narrative coming out of Taipei and Washington both before and after the visit was that Tsai’s transit was routine and therefore that Beijing should not “overreact”.

Beijing believes that the U.S. has begun to hollow out its one China policy.

Why did Tsai’s visit garner so much attention – hasn’t she visited the U.S. before?

Although the U.S. and Taiwan argue that the Tsai visit was no great departure from what she and other Taiwanese leaders have done in the past, it was clear that Beijing would view the event as an attempt to normalise U.S.-Taiwan exchanges that are more public and official-looking – even if they remain unofficial in name.

True, Tsai herself has travelled to the U.S. six other times since the start of her two-term presidency in 2016, and several of her predecessors have made similar visits. Both Ma Ying-jeou, a former president from the more China-friendly Kuomintang party (KMT), and Chen Shui-bian, another from Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), transited the U.S. during their tenures without eliciting a strong military response from Beijing. A visit by President Lee Teng-hui in 1996 sparked a crisis, touching off strong shows of military force in the Taiwan Strait by China and the U.S. But at the time Lee’s trip was framed as a “private visit” specifically for engagements in the U.S., rather than a stopover.

This episode was different in key respects. Because of Speaker McCarthy’s seniority, Tsai’s meeting with him set a precedent as the highest-level reception for a Taiwanese president in the U.S. in the era of transit stopovers. At least as important, the visit occurred in increasingly fraught geopolitical circumstances, in which delicate formulations and unspoken protocols that have helped the U.S. and China keep the peace with respect to Taiwan have begun to fall by the wayside.

For decades, Beijing and Washington have relied on overlapping, though not convergent, understandings of Taiwan’s status to steer clear of confrontation. Under its “one China principle”, Beijing’s position is that there is only one China, of which Taiwan is a part. Its objective is unification with Taiwan, which it says it hopes to achieve peacefully – though it holds out the possibility of resorting to military force if necessary.

For its part, under its “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 the U.S. also adheres to the position that Taiwan’s status remains unresolved and must be settled peacefully. It maintains unofficial relations with Taipei, governed by the terms of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. While it has neither committed to nor foresworn providing military support in the event of Chinese action against the island (a posture known as “strategic ambiguity”), Washington supplies Taipei with weapons to give it the means of defending itself.

Under the strain of rising U.S.-China competition, these carefully wrought and sometimes ambiguous positions have begun to unravel. Although the Biden administration assesses that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is not imminent, U.S. leaders worry that Beijing’s military buildup and stepped-up military activities around Taiwan, together with efforts to strip away the island’s few remaining diplomatic allies and influence Taiwanese public opinion, are aimed at forcing Taipei to submit to unification. Against this backdrop, one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement in Washington is that the U.S. capacity to deter Chinese military coercion has deteriorated and needs to be restored.

Beijing believes that the U.S. has begun to hollow out its one China policy, abiding by the position only in name. China sees closer cooperation between Washington and Taipei as designed to make its aim of peaceful unification with Taiwan more challenging.

How has China reacted?

China’s reaction to the Tsai-McCarthy meeting was not as overtly provocative as what took place after then-Speaker Pelosi’s stop in Taiwan in August 2022. Nevertheless, the response was significant, showcasing the abundance of tools Beijing could use to harass Taiwan and change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.

Following the Pelosi visit, Beijing launched unprecedentedly large military exercises surrounding Taiwan, fired eleven ballistic missiles over the island, imposed import bans on Taiwanese goods, conducted cyber-attacks on the island, and severed a number of exchanges with the U.S. Beijing also used the opportunity to normalise breaching the median line, an unofficial maritime boundary the U.S. first drew in 1954 to prevent conflict between Taiwan and China and that both continued to tacitly respect until Beijing rejected its existence in 2020. The exercises forced commercial airlines and marine shippers to reroute, causing delays.

Assessments from a number of Taiwanese military experts suggest that, this time, China’s military response was on the whole more limited in scale and intensity. The response consisted of live-fire drills in small areas off the coast of Fujian province, combat readiness patrols and Joint Sword exercises between 8-10 April, as well as a surge in the number of military aircraft around Taiwan. Beijing said it simulated missile strikes along with an air and sea blockade of Taiwan.

Unlike in 2022, however, China did not engage in the provocative testing of long-range Dongfeng ballistic missiles over Taiwan. These tests had raised concerns throughout the Asia Pacific, not least because some fell in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Without such a prominent display of firepower, the level of intimidation was lower this time around, said Lee Hsi-ming, former chief of general staff of the Taiwanese armed forces.

There were other differences as well. Exercises ran for a shorter period of time – three days – as compared with six days in August 2022. China also did not issue a map depicting specific exercise areas encircling Taiwan, including areas that overlapped with Taiwan’s territorial seas, as it had done then. The 2022 exercises simulated the seizure and control of specific tactical positions, to show that China could block passageways used by Taiwan’s navy and air force, according to Chieh Chung, an expert at the National Policy Foundation. This time around, he said, the exercises appeared to be simpler, with the Chinese military conducting close patrols in unspecified areas.

Still, while Beijing dialled down aspects of the exercises, some of the capabilities it rehearsed were concerning from a peace and security perspective, pointing to the variety of tools it has for engaging in either all-out war or a war of attrition. Perhaps most important, China signalled that it could further constrain Taiwan’s operational space with each high-profile U.S.-Taiwan meeting that occurs.

As part of the exercises, a Chinese carrier strike group simulated attacks from the east of Taiwan. Aircraft and helicopters took off from the carrier 120 times between 7 and 9 April, according to Japan. For the first time, J-15 fighter jets launched from the carrier entered the eastern side of Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ). ADIZs are government-designated airspaces within which aircraft are expected to comply with identification and reporting procedures. This new aspect of the response raised questions about the role that Chinese carriers might play beyond the “first island chain” – a string of islands stretching from the Japanese to the Indonesian archipelagos – in the event of a conflict over Taiwan. Beijing has long taken the view that the U.S. and allies use their control of the first island chain to contain China to its near seas. To project its power into the western Pacific, China routinely sends its military assets through passageways along the chain.

Ou Si-fu, an expert with the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei, says China’s objective in deploying its aircraft carrier was largely to intimidate: by sending the carrier east of Taiwan and the first island chain, Beijing likely meant to show it had additional means of enforcing a blockade; the capability to interfere with U.S. support to Taiwan; and the ability to threaten Taiwan’s military installations in the east during a conflict. Ou says the actual value of such a deployment east of Taiwan during a conflict remains limited, however, as the carrier would be vulnerable to attack from all sides (from the U.S., Japan and Taiwan) and would face much more capable U.S. carriers.

Beijing’s activities also showcased ways in which it can continue to exhaust Taiwan, by forcing Taipei to divert precious resources from bolstering defences meant to deter a full Chinese military attack to measures pushing back against peacetime Chinese military and law enforcement activities. These activities are becoming more frequent, intense and proximate to Taiwan. In particular:

  • Following Pelosi’s visit, Beijing normalised sending its military ships and planes across the median line. This time, it showed it could increase the frequency of military patrols close to the contiguous zone that extends 24 nautical miles off Taiwan’s shores. Reports indicate that Taiwan repelled Chinese naval vessels that came close to its contiguous zone at various points around the island. In a radio exchange between the two navies, the Chinese side said Taiwan’s contiguous zone does not exist, adding that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.
  • Beijing also dispatched record numbers of military planes into Taiwan’s ADIZ and across the median line during the three exercise days. Taiwan’s defence ministry detected a total of 232 aircraft and 32 vessels in the island’s vicinity. The record for the largest number of sorties in a day was broken on 10 April, when 91 aircraft were detected.
  • Beijing announced special law enforcement operations to inspect commercial ships in the Taiwan Strait. It was not the first time that Beijing has conducted law enforcement patrols in the waterway. The announcement of these patrols after the Tsai-McCarthy meeting was likely meant to remind Taiwanese authorities of the non-military tools that Beijing can wield to create headaches for Taipei. In response, Taiwan asked its commercial ships not to comply; it also dispatched its own law enforcement and naval vessels. It appears that Chinese law enforcement vessels did not actually conduct inspections of Taiwanese ships.

Finally, Beijing has taken a number of largely symbolic steps to protest the meeting. It imposed further sanctions on Taiwan’s already sanctioned representative to the U.S., Bi-khim Hsiao. It also sanctioned the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, as well as the Hudson Institute, and issued a slew of condemnatory statements. A commentary in the Peoples’ Daily on 6 April called on the U.S. to stop “using Taiwan to control China”, said Washington had broken its promises to Beijing by increasing official exchanges with Taipei, and accused Tsai and the DPP of seeking independence.

The risks of encounters or accidental collisions between the Chinese and Taiwanese militaries have increased.

If China’s reaction was predictable, then why have the meeting?

Amid intensifying U.S.-China competition around the world, Taipei and Washington have deepened ties under the Biden administration. The Biden administration has said it does not believe an attack is imminent, but officials also assess that China hopes to acquire the capabilities for a successful military attack on Taiwan by 2027. Both Washington and Taipei view strengthening unofficial bilateral cooperation in trade and defence, normalising bilateral exchanges, and encouraging other countries to increase cooperation with Taiwan as necessary to deter China from launching a military attack.

But politics were no doubt a factor as well: the newly elected Republican majority in the House of Representatives, which has set up a new Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the U.S. and the Chinese Communist Party, was eager for an opportunity to show that it is as tough as Pelosi – a member of the opposing Democratic party – in standing up to China. McCarthy began entertaining plans for a visit to Taiwan himself months before he became speaker, and since taking office, he and his staff have emphasised that China cannot dictate where the U.S. speaker of the House can go. As with Pelosi’s trip, the White House is likely not keen on a visit by McCarthy, but it has no official authority over where members of Congress go and little if any political influence over the body’s Republican members.

Domestic politics also played a role on the Taiwanese side: for Tsai, one objective of the trip was to boost her party’s chances of holding onto the presidency in elections planned for January 2024, in which the current vice president, William Lai, will be the DPP’s candidate (Tsai has reached her term limit). Through her trip, she sought to remind voters at home of how Taiwan’s international isolation has diminished – and its relationship with Washington grown stronger – on her party’s watch. She also likely used the opportunity to signal to Washington that a Lai presidency will continue her administration’s cross-strait policy. Lai’s base is associated with a faction that favours more active assertions of Taiwan’s sovereignty than are manifest in Tsai’s approach, which has raised questions in Washington about whether a Lai presidency would result in more cross-strait volatility.

But unlike in August 2022, a distinct wariness of the downsides informed key decisions about the meeting, including where it would take place. Since Speaker Pelosi’s visit, leaders in both Washington and Taipei have become more sensitive to the ways in which China can punitively ratchet up pressures on Taiwan in response to high-profile meetings. Accordingly, this time around, the key players proactively worked to identify a compromise that was intended to manage, if not completely eliminate, tensions expected in the aftermath of the Tsai-McCarthy meeting. According to the Financial Times, Taiwanese officials convinced McCarthy to postpone his planned visit to Taiwan and to meet with Tsai in the U.S. instead. Part of Taiwan’s argument reportedly concerned the heightened security risks that the island would face following a visit. Washington and Taipei also reportedly worked together to manage the tone and level of publicity around Tsai’s visit. Unlike her last stopover in 2019, Tsai did not give a public speech this time, making only eight-minute remarks with McCarthy after their meeting. 

What are the factors motivating China’s response?

China’s response reflected an effort to juggle multiple considerations. On one hand, Beijing believes that resolute shows of force are necessary to deter more substantive U.S.-Taiwan cooperation and high-level exchanges. Many Chinese analysts share the assessment that if China had not been credibly showing its willingness to employ military force against Taiwan, the island would have declared independence long ago. In order to make sure this signal kept coming through loud and clear, the scale and intensity of Beijing’s military drills in response to the McCarthy-Tsai meeting had to exceed its already high tempo of daily military activities around Taiwan. Given the level of public attention to the meeting, Beijing is also under pressure to demonstrate to a domestic audience that it is standing up to what is viewed at home as increasing U.S.-Taiwan provocation, and to show it continues to be on track to achieving unification with Taiwan, an outcome that is tied to the Communist Party’s legitimacy.

On the other hand, there were reasons for China to cast its response this time around as calibrated and proportionate to U.S.-Taiwan actions. First, Beijing may well have seen an interest in positively reinforcing Taipei and Washington’s efforts to manage tensions by shifting the meeting venue from Taiwan to the U.S. If it had responded as aggressively to the Simi Valley meeting as it did to the Pelosi visit, policymakers in Taipei and Washington might have concluded that there is no benefit to shows of restraint going forward, since Beijing is unlikely to reciprocate.

Secondly, a more muscular and less calibrated response could undermine Beijing’s own objectives vis-à-vis Taiwan’s forthcoming presidential election. Given its clear preference for a KMT victory over the DPP, Beijing has been seeking to reinforce the KMT’s claim that it can deliver more stable cross-strait relations through a more conciliatory approach to the mainland. As part of this effort, Beijing has tried to put a friendlier face on its outreach to Taiwan, increasing cross-strait exchanges with the KMT and conveying to a Taiwanese audience the benefits. For its part, the KMT has been pushing the narrative that a vote for the DPP, with which Beijing has refused to engage in dialogue since the Tsai presidency began in 2016, will result in conflict with the mainland, and that a vote for the KMT would instead avert war. As if to underscore these messages, Beijing welcomed former President Ma of the KMT to the mainland at precisely the time Tsai transited the U.S. It marked the first time a sitting or former Taiwanese president had visited China since 1949.

Against this backdrop, if China responded to the Tsai-McCarthy meeting in a way that Taiwanese people saw as especially threatening, it would risk setting back these efforts. Such a response might suggest to voters that the KMT’s recent overtures have failed to prevent Chinese belligerence and that more cross-strait exchange will not necessarily forestall a Chinese attack. Tellingly, Beijing attempted to give Ma political cover by waiting until after he completed his visit to announce the exercises.

What are the actual risks of the current situation, and are the parties’ efforts to manage them sufficient?

Given the large numbers of Chinese military planes flying across the median line, the risks of encounters or accidental collisions between the Chinese and Taiwanese militaries have increased. At the Taiwan Strait’s narrowest points, Chinese military planes can reach the island’s coast in a matter of minutes, placing Taiwan’s military under considerable stress and increasing the odds of human error even in normal times. Media reports also suggest that a standoff occurred between naval vessels from the two sides around the median line, as had happened during Pelosi’s visit.

If an accident did take place, Taiwan and China lack the communication channels to convey intentions and de-escalate in a timely manner. Given the overall political atmosphere, the chances of escalation following an accident are uncomfortably high. In that regard, the current situation is a particularly vivid illustration of why it is so urgent for China and Taiwan to establish efficient communication channels for managing such incidents.

In terms of risk management, all three actors deserve at least some credit for their efforts to calibrate the level of provocation in their actions this time around. At a moment in U.S. domestic politics when hawkishness on China is seen as a nearly unalloyed plus in Washington, McCarthy’s decision to meet Tsai in the U.S rather than in Taiwan was particularly welcome. But that does not alter the fact that, like Pelosi’s in 2022, the meeting was ill advised: the reality is that such high-level meetings and visits provide little concrete benefits for Taiwan while inviting the imposition of ever greater costs by Beijing upon Taipei.

As for the longer term, the risk of a slow spiral toward conflict continues to dominate the three-way dynamic among the U.S., China and Taiwan. Even in this episode, all three continued to claim that their actions were unremarkable when, in fact, their behaviour represents incremental steps toward changing the status quo to their liking. Arresting this trend will be difficult – particularly against the backdrop of domestic political pressures on all three sides. At the very least, maintaining steady consultations between U.S. leaders in both Congress and the executive branch and Taiwanese officials to ensure that future forms of support from the U.S. will bring more benefit than risk to Taiwan would be an important step.

It is also critical to resume senior and working-level dialogue between Washington and Beijing, to reduce misunderstanding and improve both sides’ capacities to identify those actions that are more likely to provoke than deter. After the U.S. identified and shot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon flying over sensitive U.S. military installations in February, Beijing has reportedly been cool to Washington’s attempts to arrange a call between the two countries’ leaders. In retrospect, the balloon incident appears to have been a missed opportunity. Ideally, the planned visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to China would have gone forward at a moment when Beijing was likely embarrassed and perhaps more open to conciliatory gestures. The two sides could then have begun to discuss practical ways to prevent incidents that should be manageable (like “balloon-gate”) from escalating into a larger political or military confrontation. But domestic politics appeared to make that unthinkable. With the Tsai-McCarthy meeting over, Washington and Beijing should restart talks, particularly about the shared goal of preventing an unintended slide into conflict.

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