Taiwanese flag draped over globe showing China and Taiwan. Taiwan is marked with a needle covered in red yarn.

On August 2, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in a show of solidarity for the self-governing island. Speaker Pelosi is known for being hawkish on China, and she has continued this legacy by continuing to support Taiwan and advocate for its democracy, disregarding White House discouragement and Chinese and international warnings.

Nancy Pelosi’s visit, while criticized by many in the international community for either unnecessarily inflaming cross-Strait tensions or granting Taiwan underserved legitimacy, was also supported by key global partners, including Australia, the United Kingdom, and Japan, the last of which she also visited on the same trip.

The prospect for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, though still a small possibility, has become a more immediate consideration due, to varying degrees, to continued Chinese pressure, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Speaker Pelosi’s visit.

Taiwan has ramped up defensive spending and training, preparing for a potential Chinese onslaught that would seek to quickly disable what China sees as a rebellious province. However, the path that Chinese leader Xi Jinping would likely take is much more gradual and much less spectacular: China will chip away at Taiwan’s democracy, one law, election, and referendum at a time, until it can claim that through a pseudo-democratic process, Taiwan chose to reunite with China.

Xi Jinping, after removing the presidential two-term limit in 2018, is preparing to secure his third term as both President of the People’s Republic of China and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. In order to achieve this, he will focus on Chinese interests abroad, most notably in provinces that are not directly under Beijing’s control.

Hong Kong and Taiwan are the two states that stand in the way of Mr. Xi’s desire to control what he views as the one real China. With a new national security law, Mr. Xi hopes to prevent a resurgence of the forces that led the 2019 and 2020 protests in Hong Kong.

Taiwan cannot be dealt with in the same way. Taiwan has a president, Tsai Ing-wen, while Hong Kong has a chief executive, John Lee Ka-chiu. (Mr. Lee led the crackdowns on the aforementioned protests.) Taiwan is regarded as a full democracy; Hong Kong, despite having some democratic freedoms, is not a complete democracy. While both Taiwan and Hong Kong seek greater autonomy from Beijing, Taiwan poses the greatest threat to Mr. Xi’s goal of complete regional control.

In order to succeed as leader of his country, Xi Jinping will not unnecessarily risk a broad war over Taiwan; instead, he will try to turn Taiwan’s vibrant democracy into the shell of Hong Kong that he created, reabsorbing both entities in a way that is much more difficult for other countries to protest.

Taiwanese history

By Supreme Dragon – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60580839

The Republic of China (ROC), the of nse were forced to cede the island after their defeat in World War II. Japan had held Taiwan since the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki between the Qing Dynasty and Japan.

The ROC occupied Taiwan in 1949 after the Chinese Civil War, in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), led by Mao Zedong, drove the Kuomintang (KMT), led by Chiang Kai-shek, out of the mainland.

From 1949–1987, the KMT declared martial law to prevent the CCP from taking over Taiwan. This period saw civil and democratic rights in Taiwan seriously curtailed, somewhat mirroring the situation in modern-day China.

Taiwan held its first free legislative and presidential elections in 1992 and 1996, respectively. Different parties ran for office, as opposed to the one-party CCP rule in Beijing. Taiwan was clearly becoming its own country, regardless of what Beijing said.

After President Tsai Ing-wen and her party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won the 2016 elections in a landslide, Ms. Tsai abandoned the efforts of her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, to improve ties with mainland China.

Despite Beijing’s efforts to the contrary, Taiwan was continuing to strengthen its democracy and develop its own national identity.

U.S. commitments

In 1979, the United States Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which established non-diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and the 1982 Six Assurances, which former President Ronald Reagan conveyed to Taiwan. These documents lay out the U.S.’s official policy regarding Taiwan, most importantly that while the American government recognizes the CCP as the legitimate authority of Taiwan, it rejects Chinese use of force and implements a policy known as strategic ambiguity. The official U.S. position is convoluted and ambiguous by design: America wants to leave open the possibility to defend Taiwan should China invade, but keep Beijing unsure of America’s true intentions.

However, this strategic ambiguity has become less and less ambiguous, especially under President Joe Biden. In a conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Mr. Biden replied “yes” to a question that asked if the U.S. would defend Taiwan if China invaded.

Beijing would be risking a multinational war if it decided to invade Taiwan; Xi Jinping surely would not want such a conflict to muddy his record as General Secretary of the CCP.

Nancy Pelosi: China hawk

Nancy Pelosi has garnered support from some of her traditional adversaries in the Republican Party because of her continued defense of Taiwan. “Speaker Pelosi is right to visit Taiwan because the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t control Taiwan or puppet Congress,” said Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) in a statement. A joint statement by 26 House Republicans said, “We support Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan…We are also committed now, more than ever, to all elements of the Taiwan Relations Act.”

Ms. Pelosi’s first major stance against Beijing came in 1991, when she traveled to Tiananmen Square where two years prior, student-led demonstrations were crushed, leaving anywhere between hundreds and several thousand dead. She stood in solidarity for the pro-democracy protesters killed in the massacre in the face of a Chinese Communist Party that has continued to seek to remove the event from Chinese history.

Ms. Pelosi was invited to Tibet in 2015, an autonomous region of China typically off-limits to foreign officials. Her support for pro-democracy movements in China was the major reason for such an exception being made.

In even more recent history, Ms. Pelosi called for a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in response to Beijing perpetrating a genocide on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The Uyghurs are an ethnically Turkic, Turkic-speaking, and Muslim-majority people, whom Beijing has sought to forcibly assimilate into Han Chinese society. She celebrated U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision ultimately not to send diplomats to the Olympics.

Speaker Pelosi has been a thorn in the side of Beijing for decades, and she is continuing her streak of supporting international democracy by unambiguously standing with Taiwan.

Current tensions

Soviet-developed Su-30 fighter jet; China has used it during demonstrations in Taiwanese airspace | By Alex Beltyukov – http://russianplanes.net/id145423, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38823397

Speaker Nancy Pelosi was the most senior U.S. official to visit Taiwan since 1997, when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich arrived on a similar Asia tour, though in a strikingly different political climate. When Mr. Gingrich arrived, there was a somewhat more open attitude toward China and the possibility for greater U.S.-China cooperation. Ms. Pelosi went to Taiwan to show China that America stands with Taiwan, even if Beijing vehemently opposes it.

The data surrounding Ms. Pelosi’s trip speaks to the gravity of her visit: 2.92 million people followed her flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Taipei, Taiwan, making it the most tracked flight of all time.

Ms. Pelosi was greeted on the airstrip by Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu. Her delegation composed of Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), Suzan DelBene (D-WA), Andy Kim (D-NJ), and Mark Takano (D-CA) met with President Tsai and several Taiwanese officials and businesspeople.

China responded to what it sees as an American “hegemonic mentality and gangster logic” by sanctioning Ms. Pelosi and her immediate family and using several live missiles to demonstrate its power. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense has said that 49 planes entered its air defense identification zone (ADIZ), and Japan said that five Chinese projectiles landed in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry also said that 12 Su-30 fighter jets, eight J-11 fighter jets, and two J-16 fighter jets flew over its airspace on August 4.

China is demonstrating its military might to quiet Taiwanese desires for more autonomy, and even if only fourteen countries officially recognize Taiwan as an independent country (mostly small countries like Saint Kitts and Nevis and the Holy See), there are clear tacit understandings between Taiwan and major world powers that should China invade, there would be a swift, forceful international response.

President Xi Jinping, while seeming willing to militarily invade Taiwan, would likely choose a much quieter path, one that would dissuade foreign powers from getting involved.

China’s path forward

Outright war on Taiwan remains a real — albeit unlikely — possibility for the near future. Various people have speculated on the imminence of an invasion, ranging from 18 months up until 2049, the hundredth birthday of the CCP. Instead of obvious military action, Xi Jinping would be more effective in achieving his goal of “national rejuvenation” by dissecting Taiwan’s democratic government with elections, referendums, and crackdowns on dissent.

Beijing ultimately was able to quell the 2019-2020 protests in Hong Kong through a combination of sustained pressure and enforced political shifts. (The COVID-19 pandemic also forced the protests to die down, a welcome advantage for Beijing.) Despite between 270,000 and over a million people protesting for freedom, the protests were eventually silenced.

After Beijing restored the status quo in Hong Kong, Premier Li Keqiang appointed John Lee Ka-chiu as Chief Executive to succeed Carrie Lam, who proved unable to implement the national security law.

Despite a multi-year effort to maintain Hong Konger freedom and autonomy, Xi Jinping and Beijing were able to restore their control. With this recent experience, Xi Jinping is certainly looking at how to apply the same approach used in Hong Kong to the current situation in Taiwan.

A clear majority of Taiwanese do not want to unify with mainland China. Allowing this sentiment to persist threatens the domestic peace that Mr. Xi desperately wants to maintain. Through various propaganda techniques, Mr. Xi can attempt to sway Taiwanese public opinion in his favor.

This alone is unlikely to turn the tide in Beijing’s favor, however; growing numbers of young Taiwanese are willing to fight to maintain their autonomy. This necessitates the unseating of President Tsai.

While Ms. Tsai is certainly not a replica of Ms. Lam — for one, Ms. Tsai supports Taiwan’s democracy, while Ms. Lam wanted to move Hong Kong toward Beijing — Mr. Xi can seek to replace Ms. Tsai (who cannot run for a third term in 2024) with a Taiwanese version of John Lee Ka-chiu. This person could mold public opinion into something suitable to Beijing, leading into the third prong of Mr. Xi’s diplomatic strategy: a referendum.

Once Mr. Xi is confident that he was able to sway enough Taiwanese away from an autonomous mindset and more toward a Chinese mindset, achieved through a pro-Beijing president in Taiwan, the president could call a referendum to determine the trajectory of the autonomous region.

At this potential future stage of Taiwanese history, there are two types of referendums that could occur, one being free and fair, and the other being manipulated by Beijing. A free referendum has two possible outcomes: either a) Taiwan votes to reunify with China, or b) Taiwan remains autonomous or becomes completely independent. Mr. Xi would not take that risk, and would instead ensure that Taiwan becomes part of China by fixing the outcome of the election. Such an operation would be covert, and Beijing could claim that any international protestation is foreign interference, and that the Taiwanese people had spoken in favor of Beijing.

This is a gradual strategy, one that would keep Mr. Xi in line with Chinese laws that encourage the peaceful reunification with Taiwan unless force is absolutely necessary. He must show military might now to prevent foreign entities from supporting Taiwanese sovereignty more forcefully, but in order to achieve the “national rejuvenation” that he so deeply desires, Mr. Xi will employ pseudo-democratic processes to bring Taiwan into Beijing’s one-party rule.

International mitigation

The international community cannot let Beijing take over Taiwan. If Beijing is allowed to slowly degrade a vigorous democracy in the critically important East Asia and Pacific region, China moves significantly ahead of its competition for influence in the region, and world politics at large.

If democratic societies allow Xi Jinping to slowly take over Taiwan, they will have missed their opportunity. Beijing can tout the pseudo-democratic process that reunited Taiwan with China, and the international community would have little ability to do anything about it. The democratic world must forcefully defend Taiwan now.

President Joe Biden was right in clearly stating that the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s aid if China attacked, even if those comments were later walked back. The time for strategic ambiguity has come and gone. China is not going to wait indefinitely before strongly pushing for Taiwanese reunification with China.

The U.S. must explicitly state that if China invades Taiwan, America will respond. Washington must not leave any room for misinterpretation of this policy shift. If the U.S. unequivocally supports Taiwan, the rest of the world will likely follow suit.

After the U.S. delayed the test launch of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said, “the United States is demonstrating […] the behavior of a responsible nuclear power, by reducing the risks of miscalculation and misperception.”

This decision drew pushback from some congressional Republicans, including Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), who said in a statement that this delay, as well as a similar one after Russian President Vladimir V. Putin invaded Ukraine, was a “weak-kneed pearl-clutching attempt[] at appeasement [that] hurt[s] our readiness and will only invite further aggression by our adversaries.”

Mr. Kirby and Mr. Rogers expressed differing views of this decision, and while they both skirt around the best path forward, neither official expressed a commitment to assist Taiwan. There would be no need to fear “misperception” if the U.S. made clear that it would defend Taiwan, a position that Mr. Rogers has not yet taken up.

The decision to expressly support a country whose adversary spends 22.5 times as much as it does on defense is not a simple one, but it is one that must be made. Taiwan’s democracy is worth protecting, and it can no longer afford the strategic ambiguity employed by the international community up until this point. War should always be the last resort, but if the democratic world wants to prevent one, it must clearly say that it is ready.

Taiwanese democracy has triumphed over tremendous adversity; international trepidation must not let it die.

By Vincent M

Vincent M writes about global political developments and is based in the U.S. He focuses on the enduring impact of history and analyzes the complexities of the modern political landscape.

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