Is China’s Military Response to Pelosi's Visit Over?

Position Assessment | This paper addresses the potential possibilities of China's military response to the visit of U.S. House of Representatives Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan. This assessment also assesses the seriousness of Washington and Beijing's statements toward the Taiwan, it also examines the role of economic relations in reducing tensions.

by STRATEGIECS Team
  • Publisher – STRATEGIECS
  • Release Date – Aug 28, 2022

Taiwan Island has long been one of the problematic files between the United States and China, due to the specialty of the relationship between Taiwan and the mainland of China, as the two sides competed over sovereignty and international recognition, in a conflict that ensued World War II.

In this conflict, Washington supported Taiwan in a delicate level, represented in signing a bilateral mutual defense agreement in 1955, which lasted until 1980 with the withdrawal of the United States, in line with its recognition of Beijing's sovereignty, as well as the establishing diplomatic relations in 1979.

That same year, another decree included that Beijing's diplomatic recognition was based on its expectations, that the future of the Taiwanese issue should be peacefully resolved, while the United States pledging to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself.

Out of these decrees, what has come to be known as Taiwan's policy of ambiguity, based on "one country with two different administrative systems" emerged, keeping options open to U.S. decision-makers in dealing with this issue.

One of these options is to continue pressing on China through Taiwan, by what may create a challenge to China in the depth of what it considers as its sovereignty, distracting China's foreign priorities. The visits of U.S. delegations to Taiwan come in contexts related to this orientation, the latest of which was the visit of the Governor of the U.S. state of Indiana, Eric Holcombe, in August 2022. Before it was the US congressional delegation visit on August 14, following the most prominent visit, represented by the visit of the U.S. Speaker of House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan on August 2, 2022.

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Pelosi's visit is not the first of its kind, it was preceded by the visit of former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker, Newt Gingrich, in 1997. However, Polisi's visit comes at a time when there is a multidimensional US-China debate on economic, international, technical, and intellectual issues, some of which are related to the rules governing the international order.

After achieving an economic boom, based on a policy of "peaceful ascension," China became inclining to demonstrate a solid Assertiveness Policy, in what can be described as a shift in Beijing's pattern of engagement with its foreign policy.

Strategiecs report "The Necessary Balance: The Rise of China and U.S. Control" demonstrated some of such shift's features.

The comments by the Chinese Defense Ministry's regarding Pelosi's visit confirms this shift, clearly stating that this visit will be followed by a "military" response, warning of "plunging Taiwan into a deep catastrophe, and inflicting serious damage on the island's population".

One such response was the unprecedented maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait, where various branches of the Chinese army participated. More than 100 warplanes flew in the area of the military exercises, and more than 10 destroyers and frigates sailed.

According to the Communist Party's newspaper, Global Times, Chinese missiles flew over the island "for the first time", while Japan's Kyodo news agency quoted Defense Minister, Nobu Kishi, as saying that Chinese ballistic missiles landed in Japanese economic waters.

The live-fire exercises, according to China's new news agency CGTN, aimed to simulating sieging Taiwan, and controlling its airspace.

In an era of hybrid wars and shadow intelligence wars, it may seem insignificant to assume that the military response, threatened by China's Ministry of Defense, had come to an end with the end of the exercises.

Potential Steps by China

1. Establishing a breakthrough in military updating plans

The most strategic military response may be to instil determination to move forward with military modernization plans, that fall under the supreme strategy of the state, which aim to harness all available and potential resources to serve the vital interests.

The Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party, held in October 2017, laid out a roadmap for a military vision, that aspires to modernize the full military capabilities "Fully Modernized Power" by 2035. As for the the long run; the Chinese military will reach the top-tier level by 2050, according to the Party’s meetings minutes, without explicitly addressing the goal of occupying the world’s top, as the vocabularies used in such minutes was loose.

China's military modernization plans is an interest for the defense research monitoring and evaluation departments in Washington, such as the RAND Corporation, which permanently allocates space to the Chinese file. In one of its 2020 books, "Greater China's Strategy: Trends, Trajectories, and Long-Term Competition" the Corporation foresaw four scenarios for China's national power in 2050: victory (global leadership), rise (strengthening its current capabilities), recession, and internal collapse.

The book saw the extreme scenarios of victory and collapse, and suggested their oscillation between ascent and recession. However, what is striking in the book is its warning regarding the seriousness of China's military modernization, and that -in the third decade- the Chinese military will have integrated military capabilities that are able to compete with all aspects of war in vast territories. Rand, therefore, recommends that the U.S. military and its allies should prepare for immediate deployment in response to any crises.

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2. Compulsory Annexation of Taiwan

One such crisis is a sudden move by China's amphibious power, and the creation of a bridgehead on a patch of Taiwan's coast, in preparation for a large-scale invasion and subjugation of the island to Beijing's authority.

This move would terminate the agreements signed since 1979, that stipulate enhancing the principle of "one State with two administrative systems", the matter which could entail a U.S. response.

Some may argue that the lack of direct U.S. military involvement in the Ukraine crisis is encouraging China’s intentions to annex Taiwan. Nevertheless, it is misleading to compare the two cases, as the Chinese army, if may take such a step, would be unprecedented in its history. Unless this unprecedented step is faced with a firm U.S. response, Beijing will join the countries lenient in violating the fundamentals of the international order, the matter that threatens Washington's ability to control and undertaking international leadership functions, wherever its supreme interests call for.

However, it appears that there are some U.S. doubts about China's ability to annex Taiwan by force: In two reports published on August 5, 2022, the Warrior Maven Center, which tracks U.S. military deployment, in addition to being interested in future weapons and cyber warfare, saw that China's control over Taiwan, for purely operational reasons, is unlikely to happen.

Nonetheless, factors in favor of Chinese power, such as geographic proximity and amphibious capabilities, allow crossing the 100-miles that separate mainland China and the island of Taiwan. The speed of U.S. monitoring and response is crucial in thwarting a potential Chinese intervention while in its early stages.

The U.S. forces rely on clear air superiority, backed by fifth-generation F-35 aircraft, capable of operating in an interconnected organized network, unlike China, which has a limited number of J-20s.

Washington can overcome its geographic distance from the theater of operations, through its bases in Allied territory, and through aircraft carriers, five of which are stationed in Indo-Pacific Command.

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The United States also has battlefield proven-capabilities logistics, with having 625 air-to-air refueling aircraft, while China has only three of such aircraft. China plans to manufacture more on of such aircrafts in its modernization project, giving the U.S. military the advantage of continuous long-distance flights.

The most specific factor, in the calculations of the balance of power, lies with the responsibility of high-tech naval capabilities, able to go stealth, performing electronic warfare tasks, also capable of coordination integrated with other types of armies, like drones and aircraft carriers. The U.S. military thinking about Taiwan is dominated by the importance of ensuring air superiority, through Sea-Launched Air Superiority.

According to the Global FirePower Index, Taiwan is ranked 21st globally, ahead of Ukraine (22nd) and Canada (23rd), as it has surface-to-air defense systems capable of countering ballistic missiles, and locally develops a system to counter maneuvering fighters.

Although Washington terminated the Mutual Defense Agreement with Taiwan, it continued to support it militarily. This support is not subject to partisan discord, which is evident in the results of the vote of lawmakers on laws supporting Taiwan.

The latest of such laws is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's introduction of a massive package dubbed "Taiwan Policy 2022" consisting of 107 pages. The Taiwan Policy includes the provision of qualitative support, military training mechanisms, funding of a war reserve arsenal, and increased joint coordination between the two powers in the influential capabilities to achieve military victory.

What is stated in this clause may seem counter-logical and opposite of the rational foundations of deterrence. However, history indicates that international crises often erupted in a moment of relaxation, and recognition of the continuity of the status quo. This requires careful attention to the sources of potential crises, even if there is no evidence on them be probable.

In fact, the Chinese invasion of Taiwan is not impossible. The Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, testified before Congress about statements attributed to Chinese President Xi Jinping, in which Jinping stimulated the Chinese military to celebrate the end of the military modernization program in 2027 instead of 2035, in addition to develop capabilities to annex Taiwan. Milley considered this a part of the talk about the acquisition of capabilities, not necessarily the intention and determination to annex Taiwan.

That the Chinese government's annexation of Taiwan is not impossible to do is also evidenced by the Chinese government's Taiwan Affairs Bureau publication in August 2022 that it "will do our utmost to achieve peaceful reunification. But we will not abandon the use of force, and will retain the option to take all necessary measures," the publication in a "White Paper" is the first since 2000, according to Reuters.

3. Military Support to Russia

Politically speaking, Beijing's position, on the Ukraine crisis, ranges from neutrality to statements that understand the security imperatives of Russia's position, but militarily peaking, there are no features of any support by China Russia.

Thomas Friedman, a weekly columnist for The New York Times, warned that Pelosi's visit could undermine the "sensitive" negotiations, conducted by the White House, to prevent China from assisting Russia militarily in the Ukraine crisis.

An assessment of the cohesion of Sino-Russian relations shows that they lack the durability of the defense dimension, ranging from trade exchange to close political coordination. The two countries are not bound by a mutual defense agreement or declared protocols for the exchange of dual-use high-tech civilian and military.

On the background of the common threat of the Ukraine crisis, Taiwan Island, and other files, China may overlook the disincentives of establishing defense ties with Russia, as part of the response to Pelosi's visit.

4. To militarily support U.S. adversaries

The impression the West perceived of North Korea's potential behavior is a distracting factor for U.S. priorities in dealing with China and Russia on the international stage.

Ostensibly, there is a sort of bet of Russia and China on employing North Korea in a "distraction strategy" that has made it China's "assets," according to a February 2022 article in Foreign Affairs magazine.

In South America, there are potential countries with which China will have close ties, especially those with a left-wing socialist political culture. This region is no less important than the Indo-Pacific region, in the calculations of US national security. From a regional perspective, it can even be assumed that South America is more influential in interests and threats, due to considerations related to geographical proximity.

Washington remains committed to the Monroe Doctrine, adopted in 1823, with constant modifications to its enforcement mechanisms to safeguard its regional security.

Throughout the world arena, and in various regions, there are hotspots that are hostile to American orientations, and defiant of its influence. These hotbeds are meeting today politically – and perhaps economically – with Beijing. It is possible that in the next stage the Chinese response to Pelosi's visit will include establishing hybrid military ties, in which the United States is as opposed, as the United States does in the Asian surroundings.

5. Creating a new reality around Taiwan Strait

Regardless of Beijing's gains from a compulsory unification, the costs could be semi-existential and overthrow its development and international legitimacy as a party that respects international law and opposes the use of military force for non-defensive purposes.

Consequently, in a later context, China may resort to create a "new ordinary situation" based on further militarization and maneuvers, that threaten the continuity of navigation flow through the overcrowded Taiwan Strait. According to a report published by Bloomberg in early August 2022, nearly half of the world's shipping fleets, and 88% of the larger ships, crossed the Strait since the beginning of this year.

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China's drills, coinciding with Pelosi's visit, have disrupted navigation, for they were conducted with live ammunition, one of the rare times such exercises were carried out around a sea strait, and almost the first time in the history of Chinese military exercises around Taiwan Strait.

The increase of conducting such drills is expected to increase as an expression of the solidity of the Chinese position and the seriousness of its threats, so that the Chinese Navy, crossing the midline in the Strait, would become a new norm added to the multiple violations of Taiwanese airspace, in 2021 Chinese aircraft violated the identification zone of Taiwanese airspace 969 times, more than double the times in 2020, according to "Defense News".

Given the importance of Taiwan Strait, the violation of global freedom of navigation is as difficult to ignore, just as the violations of Taiwanese airspace. However, the scenario of tightening navigation remains more realistic and less costly for China's economy, security and international security as a whole, than a scenario of military invasion.

A tightening scenario would also weaken Taiwan's economy, and thwart Taiwanese separatist intentions. Strict tightening, similar to a sea blockade, is unlikely given the economic overlap.

Economic Overlap and Tensions Reducing

Despite its geopolitical reality, Taiwan Island's GDP touched $675 billion in 2021, making Taiwan be 0.6 percent of the global economy. Given its population of 24 million, the economic figures reflect Taiwan's advanced position, particularly in the technological industries.

Taiwan plays a crucial role in the current technological boom, with its electronic chips, or semiconductors. According to the TrendForce Research Institute, which provides advanced consultancy in high-tech markets, the market share of Taiwanese chip manufacturers in 2021 was equivalent to 65% of the global total. TSMC alone accounted for 55% of the global share, its market capitalization, according to the stock exchange trading figures in August 11, 2022, is about $ 515 billion.

On her visit, Pelosi met with the company's president, Mark Lee, with the aim of attracting more of its activity towards U.S., and also to obstruct the company's supply to China. It is reported that the sanctions, imposed by the Trump administration on Huawei, aimed at severing its relationship with TSMC, which it relied on to produce the superconductors needed for the infrastructure work of fifth-generation networks of the Internet.

This is part of a US trend to maintain the global leadership gap in several sensitive areas, foremost among which is leadership, innovation, and infrastructure. The U.S Congress approved a trillion package for this purpose, of which $ 52 billion was allocated to the Chips and Science Act, through which the U.S. government supports the semiconductor industry domestically, in exchange for the pledge of companies, benefiting from this support, not to supply advanced chips to Chinese customers.

In this geopolitical climate and technological competition, the Taiwanese company is working on the construction of a huge plant, to produce 5nm chips in Arizona, at a total cost of $ 12 billion, stipulated that the company would pump 20,000 chips per month by the start of actual work in 2024.

In practice, it is very difficult to isolate China from all imports of electronic chips, as its production requires raw materials of rare earth metals (REE). China has the world's largest reserves estimated at 44 million metric tons, while the United States comes in eighth place globally with 1.8 million metric tons. The following figure shows that most of the declared reserves are concentrated in China and Russia.

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Thus, there is a kind of technological interdependence, added to the economic and commercial dependence imposed by the involvement in a globalized international order.

This dependence, with its gains for all, as well as its corresponding consequences of armed conflicts and economic rupture, leads to considering the idea of resorting to war be unlikely, as a means of resolving the existing conflict. In this regard, we should question how serious the Chinese Ministry of Defense are concerning the "military response" to Pelosi's visit, as well as whether Washington is supporting the establishment of an independent Taiwanese state.

It can be said that both the US administration and the Chinese leadership are dealing with pressing domestic crises, that push towards exporting such crises to the external sphere. The Chinese president is interested in exporting the image of power in front of his party grassroots, in anticipation of the elections of the General Secretariat of the Party, in the fall of 2022. He is also interested in this image in front of the popular grassroots, which are tired of repeating preventive closures to contain the hotbeds of the Corona outbreak. This is in addition to the real estate crisis that hit the group "Evergrande" amid fears of exacerbating it from one sectoral crisis to another economic.

As for the US administration, it is almost certain that the White House, the security and political assessments, did not support Pelosi's move, but Biden cannot influence the progressive current in his party, represented by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, so as not to appear as abandoned the "values" pillar in his foreign policy, especially since there are progressive criticisms of his visit to the Middle East, in July 2022, did not favor the preference of interests over values in US foreign policy.

Similar to the Communist Party, midterm elections will be held this fall in the United States, amid a wave of inflation, and energy that is ravaging the purchasing power of the American electorate. These facts are pushing Democrats to look for external balance, in order to offer a compensation for the decline in domestic balance.

As for Pelosi's personality, in addition to her self-esteem as a free progressive woman, she wants to conclude her political career with a remarkable stance on foreign policy. Most estimates suggest that the 82-year-old Pelosi may not run in the next election.

Reinforcing the idea, that there is no serious change to the Taiwanese file, is the phone call between Biden and Jinping, which, despite its intensity, did not include a withdrawing from the peaceful application of the principle of "one China with two systems". The Ukrainian crisis forces Washington and Beijing, each according to its own perspective, to act responsibly, as Washington is interested in practicing some of Nixon's "policy" to prevent the cohesion of Sino-Russian relations. On the other hand, Beijing is concerned with not harming its vital scope in Central Asia, adjacent to Russian territory.

The Biden administration's possible ease to some of the Trump administration's sanctions on China could provide a way out of the current crisis. This decline also serves the Democratic Party, because of its role in reducing inflation through low-priced Chinese imports.

To conclude, Pelosi's visit may not be a turning point in the course of Sino-U.S. relations. However, the acute circumstances, accompanying the visit, may be a catalyst for a Chinese military response to create a new normalcy around Taiwan, in which there is an exchange of rough messages, instead of exchanging of visions and ideas.

What may drive the continuation of the intense atmosphere is the succession of American delegations to Taiwan, and the Chinese Ministry of Defense announcement of new live-fire exercises near the midline. With the policies of the major powers normalized with this emerging situation, the escalation exacerbation will be a matter of time, unless this sustainable tension is managed through a practical and complete strategic dialogue between the two parties.

In the opposite direction to this dialogue, Beijing suspended military contacts with Washington as well as the work meetings of the defense ministries. It also froze bilateral cooperation in curbing climate change, illegal migration, and drug trafficking.

This means that such political crisis undermines understandings of an international nature on addressing threats to human security, such as climate security, along with the associated food and water security, besides combating organized transnational crime and terrorism.

All of this demonstrates that negative peace -i.e. neither war nor cooperation- is growing into a future pattern of U.S.-China relations, casting a shadow over international security, and the positive flow of international interactions.

As for the question in the title of this assessment, it is more accurate to follow the "hybrid" response, and monitor Chinese activities in the coming months, since the rationality of the Chinese decision prevents the main response from being military in nature, pending the accumulation of the Chinese military's capabilities, and the realization of its military modernization plans.

STRATEGIECS Team

Policy Analysis Team