The passage of two U.S. guided-missile cruisers, Antietam (CG-54) and Chancellorsville (CG-62), through the Taiwan Strait on August 28 shows that there is anything but a “new normal” in the situation across the Taiwan Strait yet.
After the large-scale exercises by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which followed U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s early August visit to Taiwan, a number of commentators had come to the misguided conclusion that with those exercises, Beijing had created a “new normal” under which it could cross the Taiwan Strait centerline and conduct military operations closer to Taiwan at will.
While Beijing is certainly trying hard to push in the direction of such a “new normal,” it is certainly far too early to tell, as Taiwan and the United States are pushing back against that notion. Both are working hard to prevent China from slicing another slice of the salami by pushing in the opposite direction, as expertly described by Bonnie Lin of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Joel Wuthnow of the National Defense University.
China’s Exercises Had Their Limits
The “new normal” conclusion primarily arose from the mistaken perception that the exercises China conducted from August 4 through August 10 – right after the Pelosi visit – gave the PLA pretty much free rein on where and when to conduct military operations. That was simply not the case. At all points and at all times, Taiwan and U.S. military forces were close by to ensure that the Chinese did not cross any red lines.
Yes, the PLA reportedly fired a total of 11 short-range ballistic DF-15 missiles into pre-determined areas in the seas around Taiwan, thus “bracketing” the island and implying that at a future occasion China could hit land targets. However, in practice the main “result” of this exercise was that it clearly painted China as an aggressive, belligerent force, as was clearly reflected in the G-7 response, issued on August 4. That five of the missiles landed in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) certainly did not enhance Beijing’s standing in Tokyo either; the Japanese government strongly protested.
The exercises also involved large number of fighter aircraft, primarily of the Russian made Su-30 type, as well as the Chinese-made J-10, J-11, and J-16. No bombers were involved, except on August 7, when three H-6 bombers briefly flew across the median line of the Taiwan Strait, and then turned back when confronted by Taiwanese fighter aircraft. And this became the pattern: PLA aircraft crossed the line, were met by Taiwanese fighter aircraft, and then turned back.
The same happened with naval incursions by PLA Navy ships: They got closer to Taiwan’s coast than before, but at no point did they enter Taiwan’s territorial waters. The PLA fully realized that such a move would have resulted in a confrontation with unforeseen consequences. It certainly helped Taiwan that a number of U.S. ships were lingering in the background, including the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), and the USS Tripoli (LHA-7), an amphibious assault ship on its maiden voyage with some 20 F-35B aircraft on board. All of this ensured that the PLA did not have a free rein on their operations.
Thus, did Beijing “gain ground” with these exercises? It may have been an opportunity to test their new integrated command structure, and they may have simulated some initial steps in a possible blockade or invasion, but internationally it had a very adverse effect. Particularly in the United States, Europe, and among like-minded countries in the region such as Japan and Australia, it called attention to the long-term threat posed by Beijing to the stability in the region.
Was Pelosi’s Visit “Provocative”?
With all of this in mind, can the visit by Pelosi be labeled “provocative” or “unwise,” as described in a number of U.S. publications? The answer is negative. For sure, the move led to an increase in tensions because of China’s military exercises. But as U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken argued in his August 5 statement from Phnom Penh, “China has chosen to overreact and use Speaker Pelosi’s visit as a pretext to increase provocative military activity.”
The PLA exercises laid bare China’s aggressive intentions, and are thus an important motivation for Taiwan, the United States, and like-minded allies to strengthen their efforts to deter any similar moves in the future. This collective deterrence will be a main factor to maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. The value of Pelosi’s trip is that it has brought this into sharp focus.
Pelosi’s trip also highlighted that Taiwan is a vibrant democracy under threat. In an op-ed in the Washington Post about her visit, Pelosi wrote: “…[D]isturbingly, this vibrant, robust democracy – named one of the freest in the world by Freedom House and proudly led by a woman, President Tsai Ing-wen – is under threat. ….. We cannot stand by as the CCP proceeds to threaten Taiwan – and democracy itself.”
How Far Will the U.S. Go to Help Taiwan?
One final question is, how far the United States will go to help Taiwan militarily? Newswires often recite a statement along the lines of “The United States has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan but is bound by law to provide the island with the means to defend itself.” That second part of the sentence, however, is only half the story.
Indeed, the Taiwan Relations Act, which indeed commits the U.S. to provide “arms of a defensive character” to Taiwan, also states that the U.S. “shall maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”
This much more powerful language has been emphasized by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the June 2022 Shangri-La meeting in Singapore, and by Blinken in his recent speeches and statements.
We need to wait until the full effect of this (re)discovery of U.S. commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act plays out against the background of China’s heightened aggressiveness before deciding whether there is a “new normal” in the Taiwan Strait or not. The United States, together with Taiwan and other like-minded allies in the region, now has a much stronger focus on how to deter China from further adventurism.
And, as Pelosi emphasized in her Washington Post op-ed, the fight to preserve Taiwan’s democracy, and ensure that its 23 million people can freely decide their own future, is closely linked to Ukraine’s fight for its survival as a democratic nation. It is part of the worldwide struggle between democracy and autocracy. That is the real “new normal.”