A risk assessment of Beijing-Taipei relations after Pelosi’s visit
Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has undoubtedly heightened Beijing-Taipei tensions from now to the end of 2023 but, most importantly, it has consolidated mainland China’s determination to use force, if necessary, to deal with Taiwan’s political future in the period after Taiwan’s presidential election in early 2024.
Pelosi’s visit was characterized by her liberal ideology and politically problematic assumption that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would not do anything detrimental to the interest of Taiwan. Her open praise and recognition of Taiwan under the rule of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) created an irreversible impression that the US government has already changed its one-China policy, even though the US leadership has insisted that the one-China policy has remained intact.
In the short run, China has already conducted military exercises in six zones surrounding the island of Taiwan, implying that Beijing demonstrates how a partial and temporary military blockade can and will easily affect Taiwan’s economy negatively. Some Taiwan air flights and fishing boats had to divert their routes immediately in these three days.
If a full-scale military blockade were conducted, Taiwan’s economy would be paralyzed and society’s confidence be undermined seriously.
Most importantly, the Chinese military exercises near Taiwan are becoming a normal phenomenon, raising the specter of a possible military conflict or accident between the two sides.
China has banned the imports of some Taiwan fruits into the mainland while criticizing the core leaders of the DPP as “traitors,” including Tsai Ing-wen and Hsiao Bi-khim.
The open criticisms of some DPP core leaders have tremendous political implications. In the event of a peaceful or forceful reunification of Taiwan, it would be very likely that the DPP’s current core leaders would be politically “punished.”
The case of Hong Kong’s radicals who stirred up the anti-extradition movement in Hong Kong during the latter half of 2019 was a good example. All those core leaders had to be punished as a demonstration effect on other localists in Hong Kong. Taiwan is and will be no exception to this rule, especially as the PRC attaches immense importance to its sovereignty over Taiwan.
The military exercises around the island of Taiwan means that the PRC is by no means a “paper tiger,” as some US politicians and strategists might misperceive. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has conducted military exercises and missile tests outside the Taiwan waters, meaning that it has the strong capacity and capability to “capture” back Taiwan if the PRC leaders opt for such a solution as the last resort to deal with Taiwan’s future.
Pelosi is now being sanctioned by the PRC. Given her anti-China sentiment, Pelosi and her advisers miscalculated the unintended consequences of her visit. The most important unintended consequence is to enhance China’s determination, especially from the hardline faction, to use military force to reunify Taiwan if the peaceful means are encountering increasing difficulties. The conservative hardline faction in the mainland has been reinforced by her irresponsible visit, calculating the scenarios in which China would resort to military force to reunify Taiwan if necessary.
From now to the Taiwan presidential election in early 2024, the relations between Beijing and Taipei remain politically and militarily unstable. Beijing is likely applying constant pressure on Taiwan, especially before the county and mayoral elections by the end of 2022, to show to the people of Taiwan that it is by no means a “paper tiger,” that the DPP must change its strategy, and that the blue camp like the Kuomintang would argue for the need for Taiwan to adopt an appeasement rather than a confrontational strategy toward mainland China.
The 2024 presidential election in Taiwan will be a very critical turning point. In case of a continuous DPP victory, Beijing-Taipei relations would remain tense. Even worse, if the DPP puts up an anti-China election platform and wins the presidential election, mainland China would likely consider a swift attack on Taiwan militarily, capturing the main “traitors” and leading to a forceful process of reunification. The US would be unlikely to intervene militarily if the mainland Chinese “attack” would be swift, effective and paralyzing the Taiwan opposition within a very short period of time. Given the increasing military disparity between mainland China and Taiwan, a quick military “occupation” of Taiwan by the mainland would become a realistic possibility.
The US and Japan would be unlikely to intervene quickly to help Taiwan resist any swift mainland military recovery of China’s sovereignty over the island republic.
Adding to the mainland Chinese swift recovery of its sovereignty over Taiwan would be the possibility of pro-reunification activists launching a political movement dividing the Taiwan society into two parts, one pro-China and the other one anti-China.
One hope for a peaceful resolution of Beijing-Taipei relations is to explore a peaceful reunification model quickly. The mainland authorities insist on the “one country, two systems” in which Taiwan would be able to maintain its military and have some degree of external autonomy. That is, Taiwan would continue to enjoy its existing diplomatic relations with other parts of the world. If Taiwan’s political leaders really take a turn for the better by adopting the 1992 consensus between the mainland and Taiwan, a breakthrough in making concessions on the part of the mainland would likely be made. Reversely if the DPP continues to adopt a hardline policy toward the PRC, the result would likely be catastrophic.
A wise DPP policy toward China – which is now non-existent as it opposes the 1992 consensus – is to rely on go-betweens to mediate its relations with the mainland. Such intermediaries may include Taiwan businesspeople, some core leaders of the KMT trusted by the mainland side, and perhaps heavyweight academics who have good relations with both the mainland and the Taiwan side.
The DPP’s constant attack on the KMT is natural and understandable from the electoral market perspective. But from the perspective of ameliorating Beijing-Taipei relations, the KMT and other blue forces, like the New Party, can and should be utilized by the DPP and the US as useful and constructive intermediaries.
Sadly, so far, the DPP adopts an openly anti-China stance, which is by no means conducive to Beijing-Taipei relations. Even worse, the DPP’s explicitly pro-US and pro-Japan policy does not bode well for its relations with the mainland. Making Taiwan look like a proxy of the US would likely make the island republic increasingly encounter a Ukrainian scenario in which a buffer state was failed to emerge in the first place to fend off Russian threats on the one hand and to avoid Ukraine from becoming an agent of the pro-US alliance on the other.
For the US, its policy makers on mainland China and Taiwan have not heeded the good advice of veteran diplomat Henry Kissinger who has constantly advised the US leadership to separate its foreign policy toward China from domestic American politics.
It is unfortunate that the Biden administration sticks to an openly anti-China position of the Donald Trump government without becoming far more sophisticated by reining in the radical forces in Taiwan on the one hand and without adopting a constructive engagement policy toward the mainland authorities dealing with Taiwan on the other hand.
In short, the tense relations between the two Straits today are a direct result of Pelosi’s visit, which has already generated an irreversible image that the US government has changed and abandoned its one-China policy. Even worse, from now to the Taiwan presidential election in early 2024, military exercises conducted by the PLA surrounding Taiwan will become a regular and normal phenomenon, thereby increasing the likelihood of military accidents and conflicts. The most critical juncture would be the presidential election in Taiwan in early 2024. If the KMT would return to the presidential position, Beijing-Taipei relations would take a turn for the better. If the DPP continues to dominate the political scene of Taiwan without adopting a far more sophisticated policy toward mainland China, the PLA’s military “recovery” of the PRC’s “sovereignty” over Taiwan would become increasingly possible and inevitable.