Another U.S. Congressional Delegation Visits Taiwan, Beijing Restarts Military Drills

On Sunday, another U.S. Congressional delegation traveled to Taiwan, less than two weeks after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to the country. In response to the latest delegation’s visit, Beijing announced it would stage new military exercises, following those conducted in unprecedented proximity to the island immediately after Pelosi’s departure. These tit-for-tat measures have left many wondering what new equilibrium will emerge from the regional tensions and how to prevent further escalation

Johnson Lai of the Associated Press reported on the motivation and composition of this recent bipartisan delegation:

The U.S. lawmakers, led by Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, met with President Tsai Ing-wen, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu and legislators, according to the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s de facto embassy on the island.

[…] Markey is one of the few members of Congress still serving who voted for the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act that ensured continued relations with the island following the switch of U.S. diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. The other members of the delegation are Republican Rep. Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen, a delegate from American Samoa, and Democrats John Garamendi and Alan Lowenthal from California and Don Beyer from Virginia.

In a statement from his Senate office, Markey cited the 1979 law in saying the U.S. must maintain its commitment to “help Taiwan withstand cross-Strait coercion” and avoid conflict. [Source]

When the delegation met with President Tsai Ing-wen on Monday, Chinese state media announced sanctions on seven individuals—including Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the U.S., Hsiao Bi-khim; the head of Taiwan’s national security council, Wellington Koo; and Lin Fe-fan, the deputy secretary general of the governing Democratic Progressive party—designed to “resolutely punish” those purportedly encouraging Taiwanese independence. The People’s Liberation Army announced that it had begun new combat drills the same day and that it “continues to train and prepare for war.” In The Financial Times that day, Kathrin Hille reported on Beijing’s additional military response and increasing encroachment around Taiwan:

The People’s Liberation Army’s new “multiple services joint combat-readiness patrols and exercises” come barely five days after it completed week-long drills that followed US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. China said last week those drills had succeeded in “obliterating” the median line in the Taiwan Strait, an unofficial buffer zone, and that the PLA would from now on regularly patrol around the island.

Since then, PLA aircraft and warships have been conducting daily manoeuvres around Taiwan in numbers far exceeding those prior to Pelosi’s visit and in areas close to Taiwan where they were not frequently active before the current crisis.

According to the Taiwanese defence ministry, 96 Chinese military aircraft were active around the island between last Thursday and Sunday — after Beijing had said its exercises were over, but that it would keep a “close eye” on Taiwan and the US and conduct frequent patrols in the area. [Source]

On Monday, AFP’s Rachel Yan, Clara Ip, and Jeff Li wrote about the wave of pro-Beijing, anti-American misinformation that accompanied China’s military drills:

Taiwanese defence officials said they had identified some 270 “false” online claims in recent weeks.

[…] In other widely viewed posts, a warning message purportedly issued by China’s state-run Xinhua news agency erroneously claimed China would “resume sovereignty” over Taiwan on August 15.

The message — viewed more than 356,000 times on the Chinese-owned app TikTok — said Taiwan’s army would be disbanded and that an opposition party politician would be installed as governor.

The same claim also circulated repeatedly on Facebook.

AFP’s Fact Check team found no evidence that the state-run news agency had run such a report.

Another video falsely claiming the Kinmen Islands –- a collection of Taiwanese-controlled islands off the coast of mainland China –- had agreed to be transferred to Chinese rule racked up more than 80,000 views on YouTube within two days. [Source]

A Chinese military expert told the Global Times on Monday that the “Taiwan encirclement” drills have not finished, adding, “The current military exercises and drills are being held on a regular and long-term basis.” Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, described in Foreign Affairs the new status quo that China is trying to cement, and how the U.S. and Taiwan should push back:

In the case of Taiwan, Beijing appears to be putting force behind two of its recent assertions. The first is that China does not recognize any median line in the Taiwan Strait. The second is that China has “sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait.” From Beijing’s perspective, these positions stem from its policy that Taiwan is a part of China. By operating aircraft and naval vessels across the median line of the Taiwan Strait in unprecedented numbers after Pelosi’s visit, Beijing is seeking to establish that its military will no longer be constrained to its half of the Taiwan Strait. And by lobbing ballistic missiles into waters near Taiwan’s commercial ports, Beijing appears to be signaling that from now on, it will act militarily wherever it deems necessary in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing’s firing of multiple missiles into waters within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone similarly serves as a warning to Tokyo about further involvement in cross-strait affairs.

[…] One issue in need of attention between policymakers in Washington and Taipei is how they define the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. Senior officials in Washington and Taipei have vowed to uphold the status quo, but neither side has provided much clarity on how they identify it. If Washington and Taipei publicly define the status quo narrowly around pushing the Chinese military back across the Taiwan Strait median line in the near term, they risk setting themselves up for failure. Rather than grant Beijing such a perception of progress, Washington and Taipei would be wise to define the status quo around a more principled set of objectives. These could include preserving non-war in the Taiwan Strait, maintaining Taiwan’s political autonomy, steadily strengthening U.S.-Taiwan relations, preventing the Chinese military from operating in Taiwan’s territorial waters or airspace, and continuing to fly, sail, and operate anywhere that international law allows. [Source]

According to Bonnie Glaser, the director of Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund, this weekend’s Congressional delegation was planned a month ago, and another is expected to visit Taiwan before the end of the month. Prior to Pelosi’s trip, the last U.S. Congressional visit to Taiwan was made in April by a delegation of six U.S. lawmakers led by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. A Bloomberg tally shows that 33 lawmakers have visited Taiwan during President Joe Biden’s term thus far, compared to 35 during President Donald Trump’s entire term and 71 during President Barack Obama’s second term. Sixty percent of the U.S. lawmakers who visited in the past decade were Republican. Some analysts have criticized Congressional visits to Taiwan by Pelosi and other lawmakers as being merely symbolic and unnecessarily provocative. Adding to this criticism in The Diplomat on Monday, Andrei Lungu argued that there are other less risky, more sustainable actions that U.S. lawmakers can take to support Taiwan:

[T]here are other actions that can really help Taiwan and reduce the risk of invasion. For example, because Taiwan’s budget is quite limited and, therefore, there are only so many weapons it can buy, billions of dollars in foreign aid would help Taipei redirect some money from domestic needs toward its military budget and defense industry. This sort of spending would also be far less provocative, because the West would provide money for schools and hospitals, not submarines and rockets.

[…] Instead of visiting Taipei, Western politicians can play a far more important role by visiting their own constituents and spending countless hours explaining to them, so they won’t fall prey to propaganda, where Taiwan is, what Taiwan is, the intricacies of the cross-strait situation and why Taiwan matters. Leaders should try to convince voters affected by the high cost of living, sometimes driven by feelings of isolationism or nationalism or simply lack of knowledge about faraway issues, that Taiwan is worth spending dozens of billions to defend, whether in direct aid or in the costs of sanctions – or that Taiwan will even be worth the sacrifices of American lives. [Source]

Even if lawmakers adopt more meaningful actions than symbolic visits, The Economist described how escalating tensions in the Taiwan strait will likely create a perilous new era of hostility

Some foresee a cycle of action and reaction, with increased risks of accidents and miscalculations. “Historians may very well look back at the summer of 2022 as the moment when US-China relations shifted from competition for relative advantage to overt confrontation, with a much greater risk of crises and escalation,” says Taylor Fravel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

[…] America is also likely to strengthen Taiwan’s defences by selling it more offensive weapons, training more of its troops, and lending or giving it cash to buy more kit, including small, mobile arms like those that have proved so effective in Ukraine. “Confrontation will go to a higher gear,” predicted Shi Yinhong of Renmin University in Beijing.

Congress will probably demand more. It is currently considering the Taiwan Policy Act, which would allow the island to join military exercises with America and declare it a “major non-NATO ally”, facilitating the provision of more advanced weaponry. It would also authorise “de facto diplomatic treatment for Taiwan equivalent to other foreign governments”. China would almost certainly consider any one of those moves as crossing a red line. [Source]

However, war may not be inevitable. The Wall Street Journal reported that in a telephone conversation shortly before Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Xi told Biden that while he strongly condemned the Speaker’s plan, he had no intention of going to war. Beijing’s saber rattling in reaction to the Congressional visits and its nationalist visions of annexation may be aimed more at distracting a domestic audience from other issues on the home front. Speaking to The New York Times about Chinese state media’s steady barrage of nationalist headlines and hashtags related to Taiwan, CDT’s Xiao Qiang noted, “Covid control, the economy going through this dramatic decline — those are real issues. […] There are many other things that people are concerned about in their daily life. And right now it’s all being repressed […] under this nationalist issue.”

Moreover, while the superpowers “play with fire,” the Taiwanese people appear to be unperturbed by Beijing’s military posturing. A recent public opinion poll in Taiwan revealed that the majority of respondents welcomed Pelosi’s visit and were less inclined towards unification after China’s new military drills:

Several cartoons capturing this Taiwanese sentiment of confident apathy spread throughout social media:

Reacting to China’s latest round of military drills, an editorial in the Taipei Times on Wednesday explained that Taiwanese resolve is only strengthened by continued bellicosity from Beijing

What Beijing fails to comprehend is that the more it ratchets up each of the battlespaces — conventional, cyber, information and psychological — the more it stiffens the resolve of ordinary Taiwanese, and strengthens the case for independence. Each time Beijing holds high-profile military exercises, firing ballistic missiles in ever-closer proximity to Taiwan or saturates the information space with jingoistic military propaganda and video footage of warships and military aircraft encircling Taiwan, they signal to ever greater numbers of Taiwanese that China is an implacable enemy with designs on their homeland.

[…] It has been said that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

The more Beijing steps up military coercion against Taiwan, the more it shoots itself in the foot. It is the definition of insanity. [Source]


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