U.S.-China relations are tense enough to spark concerns of military confrontation after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
Pelosi received a vigorous welcome in Taipei on Tuesday and was given strong bipartisan support in Washington, despite the Biden administration’s misgivings. But her trip has enraged Beijing and Chinese nationalists — and will complicate already strained ties even after her departure.
Already, China is preparing new shows of force in the Taiwan Strait to make clear that its claims are non-negotiable on the island, which it regards as a renegade province. And, as the U.S. presses ahead with demonstrations of support for Taiwan, the escalating tensions have raised the risks of military clashes, intentional or not.
Tensions date back to Chinese Revolution
China insists that Taiwan is part of its country. But Taiwan is self-governing and its leaders reject Beijing’s claim of sovereignty, meaning that political control of the island is disputed.
Taiwan has been an ally of the U.S. since 1950, when the U.S. was at war with China in Korea. Mao Zedong’s communists had just taken power in Beijing in 1949, defeating Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) nationalists in a civil war. The KMT-led former government of China retreated to the island of Taiwan and cut off contact with the mainland.
The Taiwan Strait — an arm of the Pacific Ocean that lies between China’s southeastern coast and the island of Taiwan — became the site of increasing tensions in the 1950s, with China launching artillery attacks on some Taiwan-controlled islands. The U.S. deployed a fleet to protect Taiwan in 1950, and the island fought using some U.S.-supplied weapons in 1958.
U.S. opposes ‘any unilateral changes’
In 1979, the U.S. adopted its current “one China” policy and switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. It also passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which says that the country’s diplomatic ties with China depend on peace in Taiwan.
These policies guide the U.S. Department of State’s current stance on Taiwan. “We oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side; we do not support Taiwan independence; and we expect cross-Strait differences to be resolved by peaceful means,” the Department says on its website.
Neither Canada nor the U.S. recognizes Taiwan as a sovereign state and neither country maintains official diplomatic relations with the island.
In recent decades, one Taiwanese leader sought closer ties with China while others have supported formal independence.
Former U.S. president Donald Trump broke decades of diplomatic precedence and infuriated China with a series of moves, including speaking to the Taiwanese president directly and approving $1.4 billion US in arms sales to the island.
Wary of the reaction from China, the Biden administration discouraged but did not prevent Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan. The administration has taken pains to stress to Beijing that the House speaker is not a member of the executive branch and her visit represents no change to the one China policy.
That was little comfort for Beijing. Pelosi, who is second in line to the U.S. presidency, was no ordinary visitor and was greeted almost like a head of state. Taiwan’s skyline lit up with a message of welcome, and she met with the biggest names on the island, including its president, senior legislators and prominent rights activists.
China calls Pelosi’s visit ‘a provocation’
Chinese officials were enraged.
“What Pelosi has done is definitely not a defence and maintenance of democracy, but a provocation and violation of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said after her departure.
“Pelosi’s dangerous provocation is purely for personal political capital, which is an absolute ugly political farce,” Hua said. “China-U.S. relations and regional peace and stability is suffering.”
The timing of the visit may have added to the tensions. It came ahead of this year’s Chinese Communist Party’s Congress at which President Xi Jinping will try to further cement his power, using a hard line on Taiwan to blunt domestic criticism on COVID-19, the economy and other issues.
Still, the status quo — long identified as “strategic ambiguity” for the U.S. and quiet but determined Chinese opposition to any figment of Taiwanese independence — appears to be no longer tenable for either side.
“It’s getting harder and harder to agree on Taiwan for both Beijing and Washington,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an emeritus professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.
In Taipei and the U.S. Congress, moves are afoot to clarify the ambiguity that has defined U.S. relations with Taiwan since the 1970s. The Senate foreign relations committee will soon consider a bill that would strengthen relations, require the executive branch to do more to bring Taiwan into the international system and take more determined steps to help the island defend itself.
China appears to be pressing ahead with steps that could prove to be escalatory, including live-fire military exercises planned for this week and a steady uptick in flights of fighter jets in and near Taiwan’s self-declared air defence zone.
“They are going to test the Taiwanese and the Americans,” said Cabestan, the professor in Hong Kong. He said the actions of the U.S. military in the area will be critical.