China is conducting live-fire military exercises around Taiwan and has cut off trade and diplomatic relationships with the island and the U.S., in a forceful response to U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei this week. For decades, Taiwan has been a major source of tension between Beijing and Washington, and Pelosi’s trip was the first by a House speaker in 25 years. Pelosi met with Taiwan’s president and business leaders during her one-day visit, but she didn’t close any substantial trade or defense deals or express any change in U.S. policy. With Chinese-U.S. relations already frayed, many officials in President Joe Biden’s administration had spoken out publicly against the trip, and the president’s national-security team advised her not to go. After Pelosi’s brief stay, Beijing started naval drills within 10 miles of Taiwan, closer than any previous exercises and an apparent simulation of an invasion. Taiwanese government websites were hacked, and China suspended imports of fruit and fish from the island while banning exports of sand, a key building material. Beijing also fired five missiles into waters claimed by Japan and severed military and cultural cooperation with the United States. Given the clear lack of support from the U.S. administration for Pelosi’s short and uneventful visit, why is China reacting so strongly to it?

James Lee is an assistant research fellow at Academia Sinica in Taiwan and the author of a forthcoming book about the history of U.S. strategy in East Asia. According to Lee, the Chinese leadership was unusually angered by the visit because they see Pelosi as a high-ranking representative of the U.S. government and its positions—they view American politics through the lens of a one-party state, so they don’t see any difference between her words or actions and the president’s. Lee says that Beijing also wants to express its antipathy toward Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen, whose party rejects the Chinese position that the island belongs to the People’s Republic. China’s President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, faces acute domestic political challenges with the economy and ongoing Covid lockdowns, giving him reason to take an especially hard line on Taiwan as a show of strength. Tensions over Taiwan have been rising—and visits by senior U.S. officials more frequent—in recent years, but to Lee, it’s unclear whether the likelihood of a Chinese invasion is increasing with them. Xi’s intensive military build-up might be a sign of an eventual attack, or he might just be using tensions around the island to justify a rapid military expansion.

Michael Bluhm: Why would Pelosi go to Taiwan?

James Lee: Since the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act in early 2018, there’s been a steady uptick in visits by U.S. officials to Taiwan, to show support for the island. One view of the strategic logic is that these gestures demonstrate the United States’ commitment to Taiwan at a time when there are doubts as to whether the U.S. would intervene to defend the island. Others say it’s just symbolism or political theater and doesn’t accomplish much—but rather risks leading the U.S. and Taiwan into a crisis with China. Those are the two schools of thought on these visits.

Bluhm: China is responding to this one with live-fire military exercises off Taiwan’s coast. How serious a situation is this, given the range of steps that Beijing has taken?

Lee: A minimal response would have been stepping up what they’d already been doing—meaning military exercises near the island and military flights into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone (ADIZ), an area that extends beyond Taiwan’s international airspace and more than 100 miles into the Chinese mainland. Almost daily, China has been sending fighter planes into Taiwan’s ADIZ.

Large-scale military exercises near Taiwan are what China typically has done when senior U.S. officials visit the island. When former Health Secretary Alex Azar and former Under Secretary of State Keith Krach visited in August and September 2020, we saw military exercises. Within that category of response, live-fire exercises represent a step up in intensity.

But a level above that would be China sending warplanes into Taiwan’s territorial airspace, which it’s never done. A level above that still would be China sending planes over Taiwan and actively challenging the Taiwanese Air Force. About the strongest possible response would be Beijing trying to take control of some of the islands that Taiwan currently controls in the South China Sea or in the Taiwan Strait—though any annexation of territory from Taiwan is very unlikely.

Bluhm: Biden and Xi spoke for more than two hours on July 28, and both leaders said they’d discussed Taiwan. What difference do you think that it made?

Lee: I don’t think it made much of a difference. It’s interesting that China didn’t seem to escalate its rhetoric about Taiwan. But there is a general problem in trying to read China’s rhetoric: Whenever the U.S. does anything in relation to Taiwan that the Chinese don’t like, they tend to use very strong language like, America is playing with fire. During the Biden-Xi phone call, China just repeated that phrase—but they always do.

The problem is that if you try to parse China’s rhetoric on Taiwan, you don’t know when the U.S. is actually getting close to Beijing’s red lines. Every time the U.S. does something, China says, Red line—playing with fire. We don’t have a good way of reading China’s signals here.

Taiwan is the aspect of the U.S.-China relationship that’s most likely to lead to direct military confrontation.

On the U.S. side, it’s interesting that the White House summary of Biden’s statements was split into two parts. One part expressed opposition to unilateral changes to the status quo, while the other part opposed the use of force against Taiwan. The fact that they split it into two parts hints that the United States doesn’t support a unilateral declaration of independence by Taiwan.

Part of the U.S. concern about moving toward a closer political or defense relationship with Taiwan is that it could give Taiwan cover to unilaterally declare independence. Maybe Biden was signaling to Xi that he wasn’t trying to do that, but there weren’t many concrete words.

Bluhm: This crisis comes with U.S.-China relations already shaky. The Biden administration has done little to reduce the animosity of the Trump era. How much of a difference will this latest controversy make in the relationship?

Lee: Taiwan is the aspect of the U.S.-China relationship that’s most likely to lead to direct military confrontation. If it weren’t for Taiwan, we might expect to see a long-term strategic competition in which Washington and Beijing actively compete and see the relationship in zero-sum terms—though they’re not necessarily that concerned about a direct military collision. You wouldn’t expect direct, kinetic conflict in the seas off China—but it could turn kinetic over Taiwan.

Once conflict over Taiwan starts, it would be very difficult for China to de-escalate, given the significance of Taiwan in Chinese politics. There’s no off-ramp for Xi in the way that there arguably could be one for Putin in Ukraine.

Taiwan is and always has been the most volatile issue between China and the U.S. It’s now kind of a cliche for the Chinese to say Taiwan is the most important aspect of U.S.-China relations—they always say that. But even when the issue has been relatively dormant, it’s been number-one for the Chinese, and they feel very strongly about never letting Taiwan become independent.

Bluhm: China has been increasingly antagonistic toward Taiwan for more than a year now, with increasing military overflights and sharper rhetoric. What’s behind this more aggressive position?

Lee: It goes back to 2016 and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen’s rejection of what’s called the 1992 consensus. That’s the controversial claim that Taiwan and China reached a mutual understanding in 1992 that there is only one China and that Taiwan and the mainland are both parts of it.

The Kuomintang, which ruled Taiwan from 1949 until 2000, endorsed this view in an abstract way. President Tsai’s party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), does not. When Tsai was elected president in 2016, she declined to accept the view—but made a number of efforts to reassure Beijing that she wasn’t going to change the status quo or rock the boat as the previous DPP president did in the 2000s.

China has moved from a strategy of diplomacy into a long-term, brute-force campaign of wearing down Taiwan psychologically.

That wasn’t good enough for Beijing. The Chinese issued a lot of harshly worded statements about how Tsai was trying to move Taiwan toward independence. They said that unless Tsai accepts the 1992 consensus, Beijing will cease bilateral dialogue, put economic pressure on Taiwan by reducing the number of Chinese tourists to the island, and put diplomatic pressure on Taiwan’s allies—just try to make life very difficult for Taiwan.

At first, this seemed like strategic diplomacy: If you do what we want, we’ll stop; if you don’t, we’ll keep threatening you. But then in 2018 and 2019, it seemed like Beijing gave up on trying to use carrots and sticks, and they just resorted to a pressure campaign. That’s when you start seeing incursions by the Chinese army into Taiwan’s ADIZ on a regular basis.

Bonnie Glaser and others argue that this is a campaign of psychological warfare. It’s not pointing toward a future kinetic conflict. China has moved from a strategy of diplomacy into a long-term, brute-force campaign of wearing down Taiwan psychologically.

Bluhm: Russia’s relationship with Ukraine seems comparable in some ways to China’s with Taiwan. The invasion of Ukraine has gone very badly for Russia. How do you see that affecting the Chinese leadership’s thinking about Taiwan?

Lee: The Russian invasion of Ukraine has pushed back whatever plans Xi may have had for an invasion of Taiwan.

There’s a series of cautionary lessons for Xi Jinping. One is that something theoretically easy—a quick Russian invasion across the border to capture Kyiv—failed terribly. To invade Taiwan, Xi is looking at a much more complex operation across the Taiwan Strait. It would be something never seen since the Allied landing in Normandy during World War II, and the scale and scope of this operation might dwarf that one.

It would likely be very difficult—and perhaps unsuccessful—if China tried to invade and occupy Taiwan, because not only does China have to get troops onto the island; once there, its troops then have to be resupplied by sea. Invading isn’t just getting across the Taiwan Strait once; it’s about maintaining effective control over the strait continuously while having to deal with potential interference by the United States, Australia, and Japan, along with Taiwan’s own defenses.

That’s a daunting prospect in any case, but seeing how Putin has struggled to achieve his military objectives—that was a cautionary tale for Beijing. On account of all these factors, I think Ukraine would delay whatever contingency plans there might be in Beijing for unifying with Taiwan.

Bluhm: What are the lessons of the war for Taiwan and the U.S.?

Lee: The main one among them is that Ukraine was able to maintain such a strong resistance to Russia partly because Ukraine had several years of NATO training and access to NATO advisors. In Taiwan, there’s a small U.S. Special Operations advisory force. The U.S. would need to do a lot more joint training and other defense preparation to get Taiwan ready like Ukraine was.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has pushed back whatever plans Xi may have had for an invasion of Taiwan.

An operation across the strait would be very challenging for China, but supplying Taiwan is also very challenging for the United States. China would be contesting the eastern coast of Taiwan, and there are only a few landing sites where the Americans could deliver weapons and materiel. So another lesson is that the U.S. would need to stockpile as much weaponry and materiel on the island as possible before a war started.

Bluhm: Pelosi’s trip is dominating media coverage, but Xi has a lot of domestic worries. He—and competing factions within the Chinese Communist Party—are preparing for the party Congress this fall, where Xi will expect to win an unprecedented third term as president. How do Chinese domestic politics relate to the crisis around Pelosi’s visit?

Lee: The situation in China puts Xi in a relatively weak position, even though I don’t think there’s a realistic prospect that he’d be denied a third term.

He may be cornered now politically, in which case he may feel the need to act tough on Taiwan, because Xi’s approach ever since he came into office has heavily focused on security, security, security. He’s shown that he’s willing to sacrifice economic growth—and accept economic pain—to achieve national-security objectives. For example, the Covid lockdowns are a security measure against the virus.

Xi’s top political goal is regime security, and Taiwan is a close second—but failure on Taiwan would be closely tied to regime security, anyway: Preventing Taiwan from becoming independent is the top national-security objective.

In China’s economy, there are signs that the country isn’t going to achieve its growth target, its real-estate sector may need bailing out, and it’s incurred terrible economic costs from the Covid lockdowns. The economy is in a very weak state.

And Xi is looking pretty weak in his ability to manage the relationship with the U.S. and the tensions around Taiwan that have been flaring up since 2016. There isn’t clear evidence that China has got the United States to de-escalate, and there’s no indication that visits to Taiwan by U.S. leaders are declining; it seems like they’re increasing. Xi looks like he can’t stop this trend, so the composite of those factors makes it likely that Xi will continue to take a strong position after Pelosi’s visit.

Bluhm: You mention that China didn’t hit its growth target; second-quarter GDP growth came in just barely above zero. Covid lockdowns continue, and people are protesting them. There’ve also been protests recently by people refusing to pay mortgages on homes that aren’t being built. How serious are China’s economic problems?

Lee: There’s going to be a decline in the country’s economic growth rate, though it may avoid a recession. As China’s economy develops, it can no longer sustain the high levels of growth that it had over the last few decades. I don’t see China as facing an economic crisis like the one Japan faced in the 1990s, though.

Ukraine had several years of NATO training and access to NATO advisors. In Taiwan, there’s a small U.S. Special Operations advisory force. The U.S. would need to do a lot more joint training and other defense preparation to get Taiwan ready like Ukraine was.

This does touch on an ideological and strategic question, because China is sensitive about the possibility that its economic growth rate may be lower than that of the United States. There was a recent quarter when American GDP growth surpassed China’s, and then the Chinese government started talking about how it needs to develop a strategy to surpass the United States.

Even if we don’t look at the material impact on the Chinese economy, the ideological aspect of whether China’s model delivers better economic results is a very sensitive point for the Chinese leadership.

Bluhm: Some analysts have suggested that Xi is using Taiwan as a political tool to get the Chinese public and media to focus on an external threat rather than on internal problems. How accurate does that seem to you?

Lee: There is truth to it. Taiwan serves as a rallying point for Xi to achieve other goals. There’s a consensus in China on Taiwan as a national-security concern, so Xi is able to demand domestic sacrifices to achieve the objective of preventing Taiwan from becoming independent.

Even though Xi is probably not preparing for a conflict over Taiwan, he does have a larger objective of turning China into a world-class military power—and Taiwan is the concrete, immediate national-security priority that can serve as a justification for mobilizing China.

The flip side is that some people analyze China’s military modernization and conclude that Xi is preparing for a war over Taiwan in the next few years. That may be confusing what causes what. It may be that Xi’s real goal is turning China into a world-class military power, so Taiwan is a way of furthering that concern, rather than pursuing military modernization to achieve any concrete objective in Taiwan.

Bluhm: Why is China reacting so angrily to Pelosi’s visit?

Lee: The main factor is how high Pelosi is in the order of succession to Biden in the U.S. government. She is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Taiwan since 1997. The more highly ranked an American government official visiting Taiwan is, the more touchy China becomes. When Alex Azar visited, that really upset China because he was a cabinet-level official. The more highly ranked an official is, the more it suggests that the United States and Taiwan are moving toward an official relationship.

Another factor, though, is that Pelosi and Biden are in the same party, and she’s second in the order of succession there. The Chinese ask, Wouldn’t Pelosi’s visit be a signal of what the Biden administration is doing? They’re thinking in terms of their Leninist party system, where there’s one-party control of the entire system. They don’t really understand how American democracy works—that Biden can’t just tell Pelosi what to do or not to do. So they’re misinterpreting Pelosi’s visit as reflecting the intentions of the Biden administration.

And they tend generally to be very cynical about anything that the United States does. When Biden says, This isn’t really what we’re trying to do, then China might say, That may give you a certain cover, but you’re using Pelosi to advance your objectives.