Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen started her trip to the Central American countries of Guatemala and Belize yesterday. Her official visits to these diplomatic allies are currently being preceded by a stopover in New York that will end on Friday. After she leaves Central America on April 4, Tsai is scheduled to stop over in Los Angeles, where she is expected to meet with U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Wednesday, April 5 before flying back to Taipei on the night of Thursday, April 6.
Beijing considers Taiwan to be a breakaway province and is opposed to the two stopovers in the U.S. On Wednesday, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office issued a warning against the trip. Zhu Fenglian (朱鳳蓮), the office’s spokesperson, told a news conference that “if [Tsai] contacts the U.S. House speaker McCarthy, it will be another provocation that seriously violates the one-China principle, harms China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and destroys peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. We firmly oppose this and will definitely take measures to resolutely fight back.”
Just before her departure on Wednesday, Tsai told reporters external pressure would not stop Taiwan from engaging with the world. “Taiwan’s determination to go to the world will only become stronger and stronger,” she said. “We are calm, confident, unyielding and non-provocative.”
As this implies she will go ahead and meet with McCarthy on April 5, Taiwan and its allies are now trying to anticipate what Beijing’s reactions would look like.
The last time a speaker of the House met Tsai in person was when then-speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei in August of 2022. China used that visit as a pretext to launch the “Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis,” which consisted of economic sanctions and unprecedented military exercises around Taiwan. The previous Taiwan Strait Crisis started in 1995 and lasted until 1996, but the shorter 2022 crisis saw Chinese warships and warplanes pushing even closer to Taiwan’s main island, with some of the designated “exercise zones” extending into Taiwan’s territorial waters. China also fired a number of ballistic missiles over the main island of Taiwan, with some of these inside the exclusive economic zones of Japan and the Philippines.
It is feared that China may take the same type of actions next Wednesday. Analysts say when it comes to punishing Taiwan, China can repeat what it did after Pelosi’s visit or go even further. The more aggressive options would include a temporary or long-term blockade of Taiwan’s shipping, which could be extended to aircraft as well. Other high-risk options include China cutting some of the undersea internet cables that connect Taiwan to the world, as Taiwan accused China of doing to Taiwan-owned cables that connect Taiwan and its Matsu frontline island group in February. Then there are the extremely aggressive options of invading either one or more of Taiwan’s frontline islands, or Taiwan’s main island itself.
The one thing that makes it unlikely for China to go so far as to invade or blockade Taiwanese islands is the fact that such an action could quickly escalate into a expensive conflict between the U.S. and regional stakeholders like Japan. If, for instance, China blockades Taiwan, the U.S. might decide to blockade cargo ships from reaching China, thereby cutting China off from the oil, food and raw materials it needs to feed its economic engine. The U.S. could also use economic sanctions against China.
As it is unlikely that Beijing would risk a disastrous miscalculation, it is likely that it would resort to less aggressive tactics. That could mean a repeat of what happened in August, or could look more like what happened in previous spats sparked by Taiwanese official meetings with senior U.S. officials.
The “Third Taiwan Strait Crisis” started when Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) paid what he called a “private visit” to the U.S in June 1995. In response, China canceled all military and high-level exchanges with the U.S. and recalled its ambassador from Washington. It also postponed all discussions with the U.S. regarding nuclear energy cooperation. In late July, China began a series of live-fire military exercises that continued until March 1996, when Taiwan was preparing for its presidential elections.
Then there was the incident when Taiwan’s then-president Chen Shui-bian had a stopover in the U.S. in May 2001. China reacted by summoning the U.S. charge d’affaires to condemn the stopover and calling it “gross interference” in China’s politics. Later, China launched massive military exercises that simulated the invasion of Taiwan, information warfare and counter-interference tactics.
When Chen Shui-bian did another stopover in January 2007, China pressured Mexico to block Chen’s airplane from entering its airspace, delaying his transit in Los Angeles. China condemned the transit, saying “the real aim” of the stopover was “to carry out activities whose purpose is to split China and damage Sino-U.S. relations.” Just before Chen landed in Los Angeles, on January 11, 2007, China carried out its first test of an anti-satellite weapon. The test involved a ballistic missile smashing into a non-operative Chinese satellite, thereby proving that China could destroy U.S. satellites in space. It also created a large cloud of space debris that will threaten space activities for decades to come. Beijing did not officially link the test to Chen’s stopover, but the timing likely had an impact on the way the U.S. interpreted the event.
Then there was the time when President Tsai Ing-wen did a stopover in the U.S. in July of 2019. China’s ambassador to the U.S. was prompted to tweet that “those who play with fire will only get themselves burned.” During the stopover, Beijing also announced it would suspend a pilot program that allowed Chinese tourists to visit Taiwan. The PLA launched a week of military exercises that took place on both ends of the Taiwan Strait, marking the first such intrusive exercises were held since the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995.
Much has happened since the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995. That event confirmed that China was militarily too weak to threaten Taiwan, as U.S. aircraft carriers were sent to sail forcefully through the Taiwan Strait. The fact that the aircraft carriers could operate between Taiwan and China, while deploying a force of airplanes that could decimate a Chinese invasion force, reminded China how little it could do to effectively threaten Taiwan at the time.
Since 1995, China has embarked on a massive military buildup that resulted in the arms race between Washington and Beijing we see today. China now has many missiles it claims can destroy U.S. carriers from hundreds of miles away. With large numbers of modern Chinese warplanes, warships, missiles, radar installations and other infrastructure, many analysts believe China currently has the ability to keep U.S. warships and warplanes from coming within hundreds of miles of Taiwan during a theoretical invasion scenario.
Compared to 1995, China’s recent military buildup makes it now more likely that it could decide to launch an invasion of Taiwan. However, the cost of such an invasion would be disastrous for all parties involved. Also, the C.I.A. believes it would be able to spot preparations for a real invasion many months in advance. The U.S. has so far not publicly announced any such preparations, which it did to great effect before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Much depends on whether Beijing believes it is ready to start a conflict that could quickly escalate into a global war. And only Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) knows the answer to that question.
Most analysts believe China won’t be ready for a full-scale invasion of Taiwan until 2027, or at least 2025. So, it is more likely that Beijing would at most decide to stick to the playbook it used last August. However, it could decide to launch a very risky blockade to test the waters. Only time will tell, and it is set to tell next Wednesday.
Official Photo by Wang Yu Ching / Office of the President, CC BY 2.0
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