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The Taiwan Strait, Post-Pelosi

-Amala George

China has been weaving a perilous web for Taiwan with its military ‘joint defence,’ which is apparently just an unprecedented military drill that has built a blockade around Taiwan from six different directions. The exercise, which was orchestrated and put up immediately after U.S House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit, can only be interpreted as retaliation, as Pelosi told Taiwan that the U.S would not desert Taiwan in the event of a Chinese assault and would stay by it. However, is it fair to say that the status quo was upended post-Pelosi? It should be emphasised that this was not China's first foray into the Taiwan Strait. It has happened in the past too.

The First Taiwan Strait Crisis can be traced back to August 1954, when the Nationalists stationed hundreds of troops on the small islands of Kinmen and Matsu, which were governed by Taiwan and were only a few miles from the mainland. Communist China responded by shelling the islands with artillery and effectively conquering the Yijiangshan Islands, around 400 kilometres north of Taipei. Although the problem was eventually resolved, it nearly led to a direct conflict between China and the United States. Fighting erupted once more in 1958 when Mao's forces launched a fierce bombardment on Kinmen and Matsu in an effort to drive out Nationalist soldiers there. In 1995, tensions flared up again when China started conducting missile tests in the vicinity of Taiwan in response to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui's visit to his alma mater university in the United States.

Speaker of the U.S. House Of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), left, poses for photographs with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, right, at the president's office on August 03, 2022, in Taipei, Taiwan. Photo by Handout/Getty Images

In all these cases the U.S played a not-so-little role, and now that Ms. Pelosi is the first Speaker and highest-level visitor since 1997, China views this as an attempt by the US to alter the status quo with regard to its ‘One China Policy.’ According to reports, US President Joe Biden disapproved of Pelosi's visit. It might be said that this was a unique instance where the House Speaker attempted to dramatically alter US foreign policy on her own.

With China’s military drills and the scenario of repeatedly rehearsing the assault on Taiwan, China’s so-called obsession with Taiwan and desperation is visible. Beijing argues that Taiwan is bound by the 1992 Consensus, which was agreed between representatives of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT), which ruled Taiwan at the time. However, the two sides do not agree on the basis of this alleged consensus, and it was never aimed to resolve Taiwan's legal position. By upholding this narrative from the past, Beijing promises to "unify" Taiwan with the mainland in the future. But is it fair for Taiwan’s future to be a victim of it’s past?

Taiwan's 23 million residents have long faced the fear of invasion, but that threat has grown more severe under President Xi Jinping, China's most forceful leader in a generation. China has rapidly developed and modernised its air, space, and naval forces in order to demonstrate its power globally and reduce the gap with the American military. For many years, Taiwan remained relatively safe from invasion. The People's Republic of China was unable to cross the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait because it lacked the means to fund the Navy and sealift troops for an invasion. Even if China crossed the Taiwan Strait, an invading force would be destroyed by Taiwan's technologically advanced air and naval forces. Seasonal environmental variations too have a considerable influence on the strait's navigability as the strait is well-known for its heavy winds, large wave surges, and fog (156.3 days per year have a Beaufort Scale rating of 6 or above), but these effects are exacerbated during the winter.

The most dramatic scenario would be an all-out attack with amphibious landings. In the 1990s, it was mocked as the "million-man swim" since it wasn't believed that China possessed the required naval capabilities to pull it out. But compared to twenty years ago, the Chinese Navy, formally known as the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), is unrecognisable today. It currently possesses two aircraft carriers, and more are being developed, which is the most significant shift from the past years. Beijing's military prowess currently lags Washington's, but the Pentagon predicts that by 2027 it will be ready to crush any resistance to Taiwan's restoration. According to some Western commentators, if China invades Taiwan, it will be freer to project power over the western Pacific, endangering US military installations as far away as Guam and Hawaii. China, meanwhile, maintains that it only has good motives.

Many questions arise, as the world is left cooling their heels for the past few days. What happens next solely rests on the decisions of the leaders in China and the West, while the clock is ticking and every minute matters. China has stated that it would no longer engage with the US on critical subjects such as defence and climate change. As relations between the two giants deteriorate over Taiwan, Washington has called the conduct "fundamentally irresponsible," while Beijing has stated that it will personally punish Pelosi, who is third in line for the US presidency, for her "vicious" and "provocative" behaviour.

There is a democratic nation on one side of the strait and an authoritarian, communist nation on the other, things are bound to get tense in the next few days or weeks to come. Because the majority of Taiwanese residents want to maintain the status quo, the current state of heightened tensions between China and Taiwan is likely to remain until a resolution is reached. Although one thing is clear, there will be an extended period of tense relations in store both between China and the US and across the Taiwan Strait.

About the author: Amala is pursuing her MA in International Relations at the University of Madras. She is a Research Intern at Ytharth India. Her academic interests lie in the geopolitics of East Asia and South Asia, Gender Rights and Inclusivity in an international setting and, Human Rights and Refugee Crisis. Views expressed are personal.

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