Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) recent visit to Taiwan raised already-hot tensions between the U.S. and China, but it’s also prompting concerns that it will cause Beijing to speed up its timeline for a widely expected invasion of Taiwan.
For a week following Pelosi’s visit to the island nation, China continued military exercises and the blockading of Taiwan’s major ports. The drills were announced in protest of her visit to the island nation, just 100 miles off China’s coast, and were supposed to have ended Sunday. Yet they were ongoing until Wednesday, at which time Taiwan also launched their own anti-invasion drills. In the meantime, China warns that “war preparation” continues.
Military Exercises Offer Glimpse into China’s War Plans
On Tuesday, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister accused China of using the military exercises as a “game plan” for invasion. “It is conducting large-scale military exercises and missile launches, as well as cyberattacks, disinformation, and economic coercion, in an attempt to weaken public morale in Taiwan,” said Joseph Wu.
Monday on MSNBC, retired Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, noted that in undertaking these drills China may have shown its hand. “We have learned a lot about what it might look like if China decided to attack,” he said. “It would probably start with some kind of a blockade. It would start with long-range missile attacks. They’ve shown us that. Now they’re showing us the anti-submarine warfare and the anti-surface ship warfare. So frankly, we’re getting a good idea of what their ideas might be.”
Tensions May Cool Before Communist Party Meeting
Stavridis added that he’d expected the exercises to end pretty quickly because China’s ruling Communist Party is holding its 20th Party Congress in November, during which President Xi plans to run for an unprecedented third term.
“Xi does not want an exchange of ordinance, if you will, with the United States. He’s got big political fish to fry this fall,” said Stavridis.
Gordon Chang, Author of “The Coming Collapse of China,” agrees. “Remember, in order to invade Taiwan, it would be a combined land-air-sea operation. That’s something that the People’s Republic has never done,” he tells Political IQ. “And to do that, Xi Jinping has to give a General or Admiral almost complete control of the Chinese military. That makes that flag officer the most powerful figure in China, and at a politically sensitive time, Xi Jinping would not want to do that.”
Does China Have a Window for Taiwan Invasion?
So, what is the Chinese timeline for invading Taiwan? “I don’t know that they’ve got a plan, but I would see that in the next five years is a period where China will do something with regard to Taiwan,” says Chang.
He says this is because the Chinese view the Biden Administration’s foreign policy as being “in disarray” when they see, for instance, junior officials walking back the President’s comments regarding Taiwan.
Chang adds to this what the Chinese view as the “catastrophic” withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as the Russian invasion of Ukraine—which, he says, the Chinese do not take as a cautionary tale. The Chinese, he says, see it this way: “Despite the overwhelming power of the United States and West over Russia, we failed to stop the invasion.”
Dr. Rafiq Dossani, Director of the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy, says of a Taiwanese invasion, “I don’t think the timeline has been decided as such, but I think they would like it before too long.”
Whether “too long” means five, 10, or even 15 years, Dossani says it depends on how Taiwan “adapts to the new situation”—that is, China reacting with strong military shows like we’ve just seen. “So now Taiwan will spend a lot more of its resources on military upgrades. That’s the risk China is taking with this.”
A “Miscalculation” Could Speed Up the Timeline
And every act of military showmanship can raise the risk of escalation.
“Let’s remember that wars start not necessarily over a leader waking up and saying, ‘I’m going to invade,'” Chang cautions. “Sometimes they happen over accidents.”
Admiral Stavridis posed a similar warning on Friday. “Those fighters that are potentially going nose to nose in and around Taiwan…these are young men and women, they’re fired up, they’re highly trained. They themselves are highly cognizant of the tensions. Potential for a miscalculation up there, one plane, either Chinese or U.S. believing it’s being lit up by fire-control radar, that’s the kind of incident that could spark further escalation.”
China Suspends Cooperation on Socio-political Issues
Simultaneous to its military drills, China also suspended cooperation with the U.S. on a number of issues, including climate change and combating transnational crimes like drug trafficking.
Chang sees verbal negotiations with the Chinese, particularly concerning drug crimes, as a waste, anyway. Under Obama, Trump and Biden, “the Chinese have been deliberately selling fentanyl in the United States and killing Americans by tens of thousands,” he says. “Also, these fentanyl gangs are laundering their proceeds through the Chinese state banking system. And yet we have these continual discussions with China about control of the fentanyl gangs.”
The solution, he believes, “is imposing severe costs on China. Talking just delays necessary action.”
As for climate talks, though, Dossani says both the U.S. and China are hurt by breaking cooperation because both have made strong commitments to reducing emissions and becoming carbon neutral. But he adds, “I think that the Chinese will come back fairly quickly once tempers cool down.”
This may be because China’s average ground temperature is rising far more quickly than the rest of the world. This past week, the Vice-Director of China’s National Climate Center warned that without action, the country risks impacting its water resources, damaging ecosystems and reducing crop yields.
Pelosi’s Visit Got Bipartisan Support
As for Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, despite discouragement from the White House, she has received bipartisan support.
“I’m glad she went. If she hadn’t gone what would that have signaled to the Iranians and the Russians?” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
“I do think that Nancy Pelosi was right to go to Taiwan,” said Nikki Haley, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN during the Trump Administration. “They are a huge force when it comes to our economy, and we need to make sure that Taiwan knows that we are going to be there for them.”
While Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-MD), Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who went with Pelosi to Taiwan, said, “We’re not going to allow—and Speaker Pelosi is absolutely right about this—President Xi to dictate to us where we should or should not go.”
For her part, Pelosi on Tuesday questioned China’s aggressive reaction, given that in the past several months alone, a handful of U.S. Congressional delegations have visited Taiwan—including one in which the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-NJ) went along.
“There’s something wrong with this picture,” she said. “But you know what? Why don’t we just show China that we support Taiwan? It’s part of the Taiwan Relations Act. I didn’t go there to change our policy. We still support the One China Policy. We go there to acknowledge the status quo of what our policy is. There’s nothing disruptive about that.”