China did threaten to board and inspect Taiwan-flagged ships in the Taiwan Strait, but so far it has limited its reaction to the McCarthy meeting to military exercises that are relatively subdued compared to what happened after Pelosi’s visit in August.
Four days after Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) met on Wednesday (Thursday in Taiwan) with U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in Los Angeles, things seem to be “comparatively calm” in the waters around Taiwan. The last time Tsai met a U.S. House speaker face to face, the meeting was with the previous speaker, Nancy Pelosi. That get-together caused Beijing to issue multiple threats before it happened and afterwards resulted in the PLA firing ballistic missiles over Taiwan while sending its warships and warplanes to execute wartime drills closer to Taiwan than ever before.
This time around, Beijing also sent out a few warnings, with Reuters citing one commentator on Chinese state television saying that those who seek Taiwan’s independence will “have their bodies smashed to pieces and bones ground to powder.” However, China’s government itself used less aggressive wording, saying in a press release that Taiwan is “the first red line that must not be crossed in China-U.S. relations” and threatening “strong and resolute measures” in response to the McCarthy-Tsai meeting. Beijing also called such meetings “seriously erroneous acts of collusion between the United States and Taiwan,” adding that “China will take resolute and effective measures to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
As the clock ticks on into the fifth day after the Tsai-McCarthy meeting ended, it seems that China has this time limited its reaction to a three-day spike in military maneuvers around Taiwan, while also threatening to board and inspect Taiwanese ships in the Taiwan Strait for three days, though according to Reuters no incidents of such boardings having been reported yet as of Monday afternoon, Taiwan time. China also sent its Shandong aircraft carrier around Taiwan to exercise at a position 200 nautical miles, or 370 kilometers, due east of Taiwan’s southern tip, according to Taiwan and Japan’s defense ministries.
One of the reasons why China has so far not reacted as aggressively to Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy is because this time it happened during a stopover in the U.S., while the Pelosi meeting happened in Taipei after weeks of Chinese threats of retaliation if Pelosi went ahead with her trip.
In July of last year, McCarthy said that Pelosi should go through with her plans to visit Taiwan and that he himself would want to do the same if elected speaker. In January, The Hill reported there were rumors that McCarthy was planning a trip to Taiwan in the spring of this year. Since then there has been no news of such a rumored trip. The Financial Times reported on March 9 that Tsai had convinced McCarthy to meet in California rather than Taipei to avoid causing the same high-risk “Pelosi reaction” from Beijing.
Ko Cheng-heng (柯承亨), deputy head of Taiwan’s National Security Bureau, told lawmakers on Thursday that his department did not expect such a strong reaction from China as the reaction that followed Pelosi’s trip. “What the Chinese Communists care more about is whether McCarthy will visit Taiwan,” he said.
Another reason for Beijing’s relatively subdued reaction this time around is that French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen were in Beijing last week to reset ties with China. Ko said on Thursday that China is therefore also trying to show a more diplomatic face to the world, “so at the moment they are continuing to put on a more peaceful, great power image.”
On Thursday, Taiwan was, however, still concerned about China’s announcement late Wednesday that for a period of three days its maritime safety administration will inspect Taiwan-flagged ships in the Taiwan Strait, including possibly boarding them. Taiwan’s government has told shipping operators that if they encounter such requests from China, they should refuse them and immediately ask Taiwan’s coast guard for assistance.
During a parliamentary hearing in Taipei on Thursday, Taiwan’s Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正) told lawmakers that Taiwan would “absolutely not permit” Taiwanese ships to be boarded by Chinese officials.
“Of course it is not allowed,” said Chiu, adding that both Taiwan’s maritime commission and its Ministry of Communications have explained this to China — and that the safeguarding of sovereignty is the common responsibility of all ministries and commissions.
If China does insist on boarding Taiwanese ships over the next few days, things could still get ugly, but so far it seems that China is not intent on aggressively pursuing the ship-boarding policy.
China has stated that the Taiwan Strait is its sovereign territory, but Chiu says “it was China that unilaterally announced its jurisdiction over that sea, and we do not agree with this.” Chiu said on Thursday that the ship China has sent to lead the inspections, the Haixun 6 (海巡06), is still in waters close to the Chinese coast, and he was not aware of any recent cases of Chinese officials boarding Taiwanese ships.
By Monday afternoon there had been no reports of Chinese officials boarding Taiwanese vessels. Several media outlets did report though that China had sanctioned several Taiwanese officials and organizations from visiting China or doing business with Chinese organizations in retaliation for the Tsai-McCarthy meeting.
Newsweek reports that the Haixun 6’s maneuvers around the northern and central sections of the Taiwan Strait were live-streamed for three hours on Thursday by China’s state broadcaster CCTV while state commentators explained the reasons for the ship’s actions. The broadcast explicitly mentioned the McCarthy-Tsai meeting as the reason for the ship’s actions, but the commenters also implied that China’s reaction was relatively restrained compared to the aggression shows when Pelosi visited Taipei in August.
The broadcast explained that Wednesday’s Tsai-McCarthy meeting was “especially low key” and involved a grassroots politician in McCarthy, whose background was significantly different from that of Pelosi’s political family. The CCTV analysts also said that the Republican leader wasn’t a “radical hawk” who put on shows to display “deeply ingrained political ideologies.”
Image: U.S. Department of Defense, Public Domain