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.

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