China’s People’s Liberation Army Eastern Theater Command said in a statement on Monday (August 8) that joint drills in the sea and airspace around Taiwan were continuing.
The notice did not specify the precise location of the exercises or when they would end. Whether the six danger zones for the August 4-7 exercises remain in effect is unclear. The PLA never officially announced the end of the war games.
The announcement will likely leave US officialdom as clueless – or at any rate pretend-clueless – as was betrayed by their statements when Taiwanese officials said Chinese aircraft and warships had rehearsed an attack on the island on Saturday.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby complained that the Chinese “can go a long way to taking the tensions down simply by stopping these provocative military exercises and ending the rhetoric.” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said China’s actions over Taiwan showed a move from prioritizing peaceful resolution toward the use of force.
By comparison, the statement by the Japanese Ministry of Defense that as many as four missiles flew over Taiwan’s capital, which is unprecedented, and that five of nine missiles fired toward its territory landed in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), had the advantage of being factual and accurate.
What neither the White House nor Foggy Bottom appears to have grasped to date is that in the wake of House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “reckless” visit to Taiwan (Tom Friedman’s terminology in his New York Times column) the Xi government took the irreversible decision to “cross the Rubicon” and systematically force the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland.
Too willfully provocative was Pelosi’s action and too puny were the White House and National Security Council’s efforts to rein her in. Together they persuaded Beijing that this Washington or the next administration under Biden’s successor would continue to vitiate and ultimately aim to discard the One China policy.
Live-fire exercises that began on August 5 were not a drill but the real thing, namely a blockade of the island that China can prolong at will.
An amphibious invasion of Taiwan by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is not Beijing’s preferred scenario. On the contrary: a naval blockade would shut down the island’s economy in a matter of weeks and force capitulation. Taiwan’s pro-Beijing China Times August 3 edition noted that the PLA exercise is the equivalent of a three-day blockade.
The Taiwanese economics ministry reports that the island has an 11-day supply of natural gas and 146 days’ worth of oil. A blockade softens up Taiwan while leaving open the option of an invasion; if the mainland were to invade, it would do more or less what the PLA is doing in the present exercises.
Except for timely and intensive intervention by the US National Security Council, China well might have applied force already.
Minnie Chang summed it up in the Alibaba-owned South China Morning Post:
This time is different, with Beijing breaking tacit cross-strait understandings and showing better planning of massive exercises meant to warn Taiwan, according to defense analysts.
From repeating advanced warnings, to the formal announcement and specific operations of the war games, the People’s Liberation Army wants to show the world that they are not only combat-ready for a Taiwan contingency, but also keeping all risks under control,” said Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of Canada-based Kanwa Asian Defence…
The last time the PLA held missile tests aimed at Taiwan, all of the mainland’s warships stayed within the median line, and while a few warheads hit waters near Taipei and Kaohsiung, none of the missiles flew over the island.
Taipei-based military expert Chi Le-yi said the 1995-1996 tests covered the north and south of Taiwan to block its air and sea routes and were to verify the army’s “missile blockade tactics”.
However, this time, the PLA is going further to bring east Taiwan and the southwest Bashi Channel under its missile range coverage,” Chi said. “This is a clear move aimed at showing how they would block the entrance of vessels and aircraft from the US and Japan to Taiwan in the event of a contingency.
Pelosi left behind a regional strategic situation that is changed fundamentally. On her way home, she met Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on August 4. Not unusual. Buy by contrast, Pelosi “was offered a reception in South Korea that might best be described as cool,” Andrew Salmon wrote in Asia Times.
“President Yoon Suk-yeol, who is on vacation this week, (albeit, at his home in Seoul) did not meet with the senior US politician, though he did hold a 40-minute telephone conversation with her. Foreign Minister Park Jin also did not meet her: He is on a trip to ASEAN.” The South Koreans share a border with China and understand its concerns.
Why Pelosi crossed China’s red line
What has changed, and why has it changed? The answer lies in the details of diplomatic redlines.
US diplomatic relations with China began with the Shanghai Communique of 1972, which states:
The Chinese side reaffirmed its position: the Taiwan question is the crucial question obstructing the normalization of relations between China and the United States; … Taiwan is a province of China … the liberation of Taiwan is China’s internal affair in which no other country has the right to interfere; and all US forces and military installations must be withdrawn from Taiwan.
The US side declared: The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.
In an off-the-record discussion with Asia Times, one of the original members of the Richard Nixon delegation to China in 1972 stated that the Pelosi visit “clearly violates the spirit of the Shanghai Communique.” That stems from the Constitutional status of the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Suppose that the president or vice-president of the United States was to visit Taiwan. A presidential visit would constitute de facto recognition of a sovereign Taiwan in contravention of the Shanghai Communique because heads of state do not visit heads of state of countries that they do not recognize or plan to recognize.
Diplomatic recognition, after all, was the purpose and the outcome of Nixon’s China visit.
Under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, the Speaker of the House of Representatives is next in line to the vice-president for succession. Because of the Speaker’s Constitutional position, she is the third highest official in the United States. A presidential or vice-presidential visit to Taiwan would cross China’s red line. A visit by the Speaker nudges the red line.
That is precisely how Beijing understands the issue.
Xie Maosong of Tsinghua University’s National Institute of Strategic Studies wrote in the “Observer” (guancha.cn) website on August 5:
The United States and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-Wen government took the initiative to break and change Taiwan’s status quo in substance. China was therefore forced to activate the anti-secession law [of 2005], and undertake the reunification process at any time of it is choosing. Whether that means reunification by force, or to advance reunification by [threat of] force, is up to China. There are complete and legitimate reasons for this.
Article 8 of the Anti-Secession Law to which Xie Maosong refers states:
In the event that the “Taiwan independence” secessionist forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Official Chinese media have made numerous references to the Anti-Secession Law during the past week, including a statement from the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress reported by China Daily on August 2.
After then US President Trump launched a trade war with China in 2018, Kissinger believed that Sino-US relations would never return to the way they were before. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s visit to China. As a special envoy in 1971, Kissinger was an advance man and icebreaker. At 10:43 p.m. on the 2nd, the moment Pelosi–the third most important political figure in the United States–landed at Taipei Songshan Airport, the status quo in Taiwan was unilaterally changed by the United States and the Taiwan authorities, and it will never return to what it was in the past.
Kissinger, as the icebreaker for Sino-US relations fifty years ago, has been invited by all US presidents since Nixon to meet at the White House and discuss his views on Sino-US relations … The sole exception is the current US President Joe Biden.
50 years ago, as well as 50 years later, the initiative came from the United States. This time the United States chose the opposite of what it chose in 1972. In both cases, America’s choice was subordinate to what the United States believed to be its own national interests. This is political realism in international relations.
Some of China’s leaders proposed to prevent Pelosi’s plane from reaching Taiwan, according to sources familiar with discussions in Beijing. The US military evidently considered that a serious possibility. As Pelosi’s aircraft turned north over the Philippines on its trip from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei, a second aircraft took off from Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines and trailed the Speaker’s plane.
If Pelosi were forced to land elsewhere than Taipei, it might have been in a remote location without access to refueling, and her plane might run short of fuel after the five-hour flight from Malaysia. The trail plane was there to transport Pelosi and her party to her next stop in Seoul if necessary.
Members of Biden’s National Security Council were in continuous telephone contact with their counterparts in China. Their message to the Chinese was that the Biden administration did not want Pelosi to turn up in Taiwan. As Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times August 2 column: “Biden’s national security team made clear to Pelosi, a longtime advocate for human rights in China, why she should not go to Taiwan now.”
Nonetheless, Friedman added, “the president did not call her directly and ask her not to go, apparently worried he would look soft on China, leaving an opening for Republicans to attack him before the midterms. It is a measure of our political dysfunction that a Democratic president cannot deter a Democratic House speaker from engaging in a diplomatic maneuver that his entire national security team — from the CIA director to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs — deemed unwise.”
What will happen now that the implications of the Xi government’s “Rubicon moment” are unfolding?
Contrary to some fantasists inside the Beltway, Beijing is in no great hurry. Elbridge Colby, a minor Defense Department official under the Trump administration, is an often-cited advocate for the notion that invasion is imminent.
He tweeted on July 13 that Beijing is “not going to hoodwink the Taiwanese people into giving up through ‘political warfare’ or what not. Taiwan can see what happened to Hong Kong. And the younger generation is more anti-mainland than the older one: Taiwan is moving away from unification. So military force is likely the best option for Beijing. And, as Ukraine shows, if you’re going to use military force, use it decisively.”
This is entirely wrongheaded. China need not overextend geographically, demographically, militarily or financially in order to effect unification. The natural course of economic development in East Asia itself (and globally) is its most powerful weapon. Time is on China’s side. Military force is the ultima, not the prima ratio. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme strategy.
After Xi’s harsh words in his video call with Biden, expectations of nationalist commentators and stirred up netizens in China ran high for a swift military reaction. It did not happen. Instead, Phase One of a longer-term and flexible strategy was enacted, a strategy of military exercises which amount to blockades, a tighter military noose increasing the threat level.
This already has many foreign companies rethinking their Taiwan commitments. This will be followed by some relaxation, a pause for reflection and offers of talks. Squeeze and relax, with the message that at any time a large military exercise could be the real thing. In fact, the effective blockade is the real thing.
Washington may not see it yet or may prefer not to call it by name. But the takeover is underway. It’s out in the clear light of day.
Follow these writers on Twitter at @uwe_parpart and @davidpgoldman