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China seizes on Pelosi visit to set ‘new normal’ for Taiwan

A Taiwanese F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jet is seen before landing at Hualien Air Force Base on Saturday in Hualien, Taiwan.  (Annabelle Chih/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Rebecca Choong Wilkins, Iain Marlow and Cindy Wang Bloomberg News

From the South China Sea to the Himalayas, Beijing has shown a willingness to seize on perceived missteps by its rivals to tighten its grip over disputed territory. That’s now playing out around Taiwan.

In recent days, the People’s Liberation Army has sought to establish a new status quo on Taiwan with a series of exercises in the wake of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit. The moves, including frequent trips across the U.S.-defined median line in the Taiwan Strait and likely firing missiles over Taipei, have shrunk a vaguely defined buffer zone that has kept the peace for decades.

While the most provocative exercise areas closest to Taiwan had expired by Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping has laid out a template for operating ever closer to the democratically governed island. The Taiwanese Defense Ministry again reported spotting Chinese warships and warplanes nearby Monday, after more than 120 aircraft crossed the median line from Wednesday to Sunday.

“We will probably see different elements of what China has been doing this week become a much more regular occurrence,” said M. Taylor Fravel, professor and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program. “There is a new normal, or a new status quo, in terms of the kind of military presence that China will have around Taiwan.”

The strategy places greater pressure on the U.S. to craft a response that encourages China to pull back without escalating tensions further, like when then-President Bill Clinton sent two aircraft carrier groups into the area during the last Taiwan Strait crisis. These days, President Joe Biden faces a China that commands the world’s largest navy and a vast arsenal of anti-ship missiles, increasing the risk to American vessels operating close to its coasts.

Beijing’s message is that Washington needs to stop boosting ties with Taiwan, and restore the diplomatic understanding that discouraged any House speaker from visiting for the past 25 years. If not, China could start to restrict Taiwan’s freedom to operate off its shores in the same way that it has restricted the island’s ability to participate in global organizations since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s election in 2016.

In recent years, China has repeatedly exploited its rivals’ reluctance to risk open war to assert clearer control over contested territory. In 2012, after Washington declined to intervene when it effectively occupied the Scarborough Shoal, China remained on the reef and began to construct a vast network of military facilities on reclaimed land in the South China Sea. More recently, in 2020, China gained control over disputed territory in border clashes with India.

China’s drills last week were larger and closer to Taiwan than a similar show of force in the mid-1990s. The six areas appeared carefully chosen by the PLA to test out its operations during a blockade or invasion scenario, Bonny Lin and other analysts with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a report published Friday.

For the area farthest east from the mainland, the PLA could “launch attacks on Taiwan’s eastern shores and bases and help deny the United States and other countries from flowing forces into Taiwan from the east,” the report said. Zones in the north and southwest could be launching points for future blockades of key ports, it added.

“China’s attempt to deny the strait as an international waterway by sending warships into the area and crossing the median line represents another attempt to change the status quo,” said Kuo Yu-jen, director of Taiwan’s Institute for National Policy Research. “It will have a grave impact that the international community will find hard to tolerate.”

Official Chinese statements on the drills illustrate Beijing’s desire to portray them as a strategic victory by demonstrating its ability to curb the movement of its rivals. The missile tests confirmed the PLA’s “precision strike and area-denial capabilities,” Eastern Theater Command spokesman Senior Colonel Shi Yi said in a statement, echoing language used by the U.S. and its allies to describe China’s strategy to deny an adversary’s freedom of movement in contested regions.

China “deterred Taiwan independence forces and completely shattered the so-called strait median line,” Meng Xiangqing, a professor at the PLA’s National Defense University in Beijing, told state broadcaster China Central Television. “The drills created conditions for realizing national reunification at an earlier date.”

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said the drills had given the military the chance to do “practical training against combat scenes.” It added that no Chinese warships or military planes entered Taiwan’s air space or territorial sea since Pelosi’s visit, even though China’s exclusion zones partly crossed into those areas.

How the Biden administration will respond remains unclear. John Kirby, spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, said last week that the U.S. would keep the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its strike group “on station in the general area to monitor the situation,” and “we will also undertake standard air and maritime transits through the Taiwan Strait in the next few weeks.”

China’s exercises also demonstrated the risk that any conflict over Taiwan could quickly escalate and shake global supply chains. Besides disrupting air traffic and shipping, the drills also covered waters claimed as exclusive economic zones by the Philippines and Japan, with missiles landing in an area claimed by Tokyo.

“If the U.S. doesn’t ‘learn its lesson’ and does more to challenge China’s sovereignty, then I think we’ll see more of these operations,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “They may seek to enforce here a new status quo in the Taiwan Strait.”