China created acute tensions in the Taiwan Strait with four days of unprecedented and provocative military exercises surrounding the island in response to the visit to Taiwan by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on August 2. In the aftermath of the exercises and withdrawal of forces, China’s military pressures on Taiwan remained strong, though Beijing’s threatening rhetoric subsided. Renewed Chinese military escalation could further change the situation.
For now, the impact of the crisis has strengthened U.S. government resolve to counter Chinese challenges over Taiwan and other issues.
U.S. Reactions and Debate
Reactions to the crisis saw an outpouring of alarmed media and specialist commentary sharply critical of the Pelosi visit for endangering U.S. national security. More limited administration and congressional commentary targeted China for overreacting and trying to reverse increasing U.S. support for Taiwan. The debate gave greater prominence to important differences among Americans over U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan.
On one side of the U.S. debate is the so-called Washington Consensus, featuring bipartisan majorities in Congress that worked closely with Trump and Biden administration officials in a years-long overall hardening of U.S. policy, creating a “whole of government” effort to counter Beijing’s security, economic and governance challenges.
Since 2018, two challenges have been seen as particularly dangerous, existential threats to fundamental U.S. national security and well-being. The first is the Chinese effort to undermine U.S. power and influence in Asia, allowing Beijing to dominate. The second is the Chinese effort to seek dominance in the high technology industries of the future. Such dominance would make the U.S. subservient to Chinese economic power and, because such technology is essential to modern national security, subservient to Chinese military power.
Supporting Taiwan as an important partner in dealing with these challenges remains a high priority.
On the other side of the U.S. debate are many American China and foreign policy specialists and commentators of various stripes, along with large business and investment firms and universities and their high technology specialists with strong institutional and personal interests in close collaboration with China. In broad terms, they oppose the U.S. hardening toward China, including greater support for Taiwan, arguing it is based on an excessive view of Chinese challenges, counterproductive for U.S. economic development and innovation, and increasing the danger of China-U.S. war. A focus is placed on establishing an overall U.S. relationship with China acceptable to both sides. In the recent Taiwan crisis, the United States was advised to understand fully and take into account Beijing’s concerns over U.S. intentions toward Taiwan, which Beijing sees crossing its so-called “red lines.”
By contrast, the Taiwan government and its American supporters judge that such U.S. reassurances to China in the past have diminished U.S. support for Taiwan. Notably, in reaction in the danger posed by Chinese provocative actions during the last major Taiwan Straits crisis in 1995-96, the Clinton administration in 1995 sharply turned against Taiwan and privately accommodated Beijing, moving to end restrictions imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and welcoming a summit meeting long sought by Chinese leaders. Only toward the end of the nine months of off-and-on Chinese military displays in 1996 did the administration send two aircraft carrier battle groups to face off with Chinese forces threatening Taiwan.
To those in the Congress and the administration focused on defending the United States in the face of very threatening challenges from China, putting a priority on offering U.S. reassurance to Beijing over Taiwan seems out of place. U.S. reassurances to Xi Jinping’s government were tried repeatedly by the Barack Obama government; they were seen as allowing for Chinese exploitation and manipulation as U.S. efforts to counter Chinese expansionism and other adverse practices failed badly.
Many point recently to China’s strong alignment with Russia. Beijing’s strident opposition to U.S. measures to sanction Vladimir Putin’s government and support Ukraine with advanced U.S. weapons are viewed as emblematic of the stark danger the United States faces from China as well as Russia, warranting ever greater U.S. resolve. The fates of Ukraine and Taiwan are mixed together in arguments for greater U.S. resolve to counter China. The bipartisan passage in August of the multi-billion dollars CHIPS and Science Act as well as the many anti-China features in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 – a produce of unusual unity among Democrats – reflected strong administration and congressional focus to counter Beijing.
U.S. Government Actions
Overall, U.S. government actions up to now reflect continued resolve against China’s challenges and support for Taiwan.
Despite China’s aggressive response to Pelosi’s trip, there was no change in U.S. congressional visits to Taiwan. Other congressional delegations used the opportunity of the summer recess to go forward with visits less than two weeks after Pelosi’s visit prompted the military crisis.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration moved forward with negotiations seen leading to a sophisticated and closer Taiwan-U.S. economic relationship in several ways, in line with the bilateral free trade agreement long sought by Taiwan and by many congressional backers of Taiwan. A Taiwanese delegation focused on agriculture is set to ink several deals in a high-profile visit to Washington, D.C., next week.
Despite various disclosures of U.S. administration angst over the Pelosi visit and the Chinese reaction, the public posture of the Biden administration remained firm in criticizing China for overreacting. The administration avowed repeatedly that the United States would not be intimidated. The Washington Post reported on August 20 that Biden refused a private request by Xi Jinping a few days before the Pelosi visit that the administration block the visit.
As the administration promised, the United States resumed on August 28 publicized warship transits of the Taiwan Strait with two battle cruisers, significantly larger and more powerfully armed than the usual single U.S. destroyers used in such transits. China’s public response was muted.
Politico reported – later publicly confirmed by the White House – that an arms sales package featuring advanced missiles and a sophisticated radar system collectively worth $1.1 billion was being notified to Congress.
Congress also carried out other business as usual, seeking to finish the 117th Congress with several major legislative achievements countering China’s challenges. And in early September the Biden administration rolled out its plan to spend $50 billion on advanced computer chip manufacturing targeting China. It also put aside U.S. industry lobbying in implementing tougher export controls, cutting off China’s military and civilian artificial intelligence enterprises from needed components.
On the other hand, the administration and congressional supporters reportedly worked to head off legislation to overhaul U.S. policy toward Taiwan. A bill that would have substantially advanced U.S. political and other relations with Taiwan was poised to pass the Senate in August. However, the legislation was held over until after the summer recess, allowing for planned revisions to modify language seen especially sensitive to Beijing.
In sum, the situation is subject to change, but the Washington Consensus remains united and the direction of U.S. policy toward both China and Taiwan is clear.