Jack Butcher | Indo-Pacific Fellow
United States Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's recent visit to Taiwan was intended to bolster security for US allies in the Indo-Pacific, strengthen economic prosperity and promote rules-based governance. However, apart from a "symbolic victory" for the US and the Tsai Ing-wen administration in Taipei, it remains difficult to see any tangible benefits stemming from Pelosi's visit. The lynchpin of regional stability in the Indo-Pacific, the US-China relationship, has again fallen to new lows. This puts vital cooperation over shared issues, such as the careful management of strategic competition, climate change, and economic prosperity, at risk.
Pelosi's visit to Taipei could not have come at a worse time for strategic stability in the Indo-Pacific. The deterioration of Sino-US relations amid the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine has put most countries in the region on high alert. The implications of a hypothetical US-China conflict over Taiwan would reverberate far beyond the immediate region, resulting in mass disruptions to global supply chains and economic prosperity in both lower and higher-income countries. Although symbolically, Pelosi's visit aimed to deter Beijing from challenging the status quo by force, it may accelerate the process through which China seeks to achieve its long-held ambition of cross-strait "reunification".
The Biden administration's recent mixed messaging over its commitment to a One-China policy has resulted in the perception in Beijing that Washington is incrementally shifting from strategic ambiguity to an open defence policy. Subsequently, Chinese strategic planners likely believe they could miss a crucial window before the US officially commits to Taiwan's defence. In addition, growing support for independence among Taiwan's population renders the option to act sooner rather than later more attractive to China, particularly as the island’s identity moves increasingly away from the mainland.
There are also reputations on the line; the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is expected to be held this November. Foreign policy has been touted as a central theme. This may set the scene for China to act, particularly as more politicians in liberal democracies discuss potential visits to Taipei. Such visits risk humiliating Beijing, due to reunification with Taiwan being deeply embedded in the Chinese national consciousness after the Nationalists (KMT) retreated to the island in 1949. This straddles Beijing’s notorious “red line” on independence as stated by its One-China Principle, which opposes the idea that China and Taiwan are two countries. Subsequently, public pressure for the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to respond would mount if high-level visits become frequent.
Increased military pressure
Two short-term effects of Pelosi's visit loom large: frequent large-scale military exercises and increased grey-zone activities, which refer to asymmetric actions that fall short of war in peacetime. Both risk open conflict between China and Taiwan if a miscalculation occurs, which may draw in the US and its regional allies, including Japan and Australia. Even before Pelosi's visit, China actively sought to dissuade her from visiting by announcing live-fire drills in the South China Sea. After Pelosi left, Beijing did not renege on what it perceived was a proportionate response by conducting live-fire naval drills surrounding Taiwan on all sides. China then launched a ballistic missile from the neighbouring Fujian Province over the island. Both have not previously occurred, even during tensions in 1995-1996.
Alongside cyber-attacks and economic sanctions, Beijing has pledged to conduct more air and maritime patrols in the Taiwan Straits. Incursions across the US-designated "median line" are expected to increase in frequency and size. This puts Taiwan's air defences in a difficult position, as almost-daily incursions strain Taiwan's pilots, fighter aircraft and increasingly outdated military equipment. The effects of wear have been mitigated somewhat by purely tracking incursions via anti-aircraft missile systems. However, Pelosi's visit has ensured that frequent exercises and incursions will become the new normal, leaving Taiwan to bear the burden.
Cooperation over shared issues at risk long-term
Immediately after Pelosi's visit, China suspended bilateral climate talks, military dialogues and cooperation over fighting organised crime with the US, effectively severing already limited cooperation channels, except for economy and trade. Beijing's move hits hard at some of the Biden administration's key priorities regarding Sino-US relations, which have seen positive progress on climate change and fighting drug trafficking. However, the cancellation of military dialogues remains potentially dangerous long-term due to the risk of escalation if a miscalculation similar to the 2001 Hainan Incident reoccurs.
Although Pelosi's visit sought to show solidarity, it may end up doing more harm than good to the region and, most importantly, to Taiwan. It has only resulted in a precarious new normal. Nevertheless, sympathetic international actors should remain careful not to force a premature decision over independence. Otherwise, they risk pulling the region into a more dangerous situation than it is now, which requires immediate and careful management between the regional superpowers to avoid a potential conflict.
Jack Butcher is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.