There is never a good time for a leader to look weak. But for China’s leader, Xi Jinping, this moment would be especially bad. He faces an important party congress this autumn, when he hopes to secure a third term in power. With the Chinese economy stalling, it was already essential for him to project an image of strength and competence. Then the US house speaker Nancy Pelosi decided to visit Taiwan.
Over the last decade Xi has based his claim to power, and his burgeoning cult of personality, on the idea that he is a singular leader – the “pilot of the great revival”, as one recent propaganda campaign put it. He is depicted in Chinese state media outlets as a necessarily strong and endlessly wise ruler, who is reclaiming China’s rightful place in the world and making sure that the country will never again be humiliated at the hands of foreign powers. (Chinese schoolchildren are taught that the country suffered a “century of humiliation” before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took control in 1949). Since taking over the party leadership in November 2012, Xi has stoked nationalism and cultivated pride in the Chinese military, vowing never to concede “even one inch” of territory, including, perhaps especially, the self-governing island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own. In short, he has made it very difficult for himself to back down in the face of any perceived challenge to China’s sovereignty.
In the weeks since the first reports of Pelosi’s planned visit emerged, Chinese officials have issued increasingly forceful warnings, threatening “strong countermeasures” and cautioning that the military would not “sit idly by”. On 28 July, Xi personally warned US president Joe Biden not to “play with fire” over Taiwan. He will now want to show that those warnings were not mere bluster, and that his words cannot simply be ignored.
The first elements of that response began even before Pelosi’s plane had landed in Taipei on 2 August, with Beijing announcing a ban on imports of more than 100 Taiwanese food products. Cyber-attacks took down Taiwanese government websites, including that of the presidential office (although cybersecurity researchers said these were likely carried out by Chinese activists rather than the government). But the real actions started once Pelosi left.
Twenty-two Chinese fighter jets crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait on 3 August, forcing Taiwan to scramble its own aircraft in response. The following day the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began an extraordinary series of naval, air, missile, and artillery drills using live ammunition in the waters around Taiwan. Chinese state media outlets circulated a map and a series of coordinates showing six zones surrounding the island where the exercises would continue until Sunday 7 August and said the drills would simulate a “blockade”. Several of these zones are so close to Taiwan that they encroach on its designated territorial waters, presenting a direct challenge to the Taiwanese military and commercial ships, which will be forced to choose between avoiding these areas of risking a serious confrontation.
“The risk of an incident, for example a missile falling within Taiwan’s territorial sea or friction between Taiwanese and Chinese armed forces when they encounter each other, cannot be ruled out,” Jyun-yi Lee, an associate research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taiwan, told me. He said both the Chinese and Taiwanese governments would feel the need to take a strong stance to meet domestic expectations. “This is especially the case for Xi, given that he is to secure a third term soon,” Lee added, noting that Beijing might also try to ramp up disinformation “to undermine the people’s morale” in the weeks and months to come.
“Taiwan will be under considerable pressure,” said Amanda Hsiao, a senior analyst for China at the International Crisis Group, who is based in Taipei. “The militaries of Taiwan and China will be in close proximity. The risks of an accident increase under these circumstances.” Hsiao told me that while Pelosi’s visit represented a major political victory for the Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen and her administration, Beijing has already made clear that Taiwan will bear most of the cost of the visit. “This next period will therefore likely be challenging,” she explained, “as the government will have to deal with various economic and military counter-responses from China.”
Pelosi’s visit is the proximate cause of Beijing’s outrage and the trigger for the actions that will now follow, but the real, underlying concern for Chinese officials is what they view as a broader pattern of behaviour, with the US appearing to shift its approach to Taiwan and undermining its previous commitments. Biden has said three times over the last 12 months, for instance, that the US would defend Taiwan militarily if it was attacked, although his aides have insisted each time that he was not changing US policy. In 2021 he also walked back a careless reference to Taiwan as “independent”; independence for Taiwan represents a red line for Beijing. This followed moves by Donald Trump’s administration to strengthen ties with Taipei that included sending a cabinet secretary to the island – these drew complaints from China.
Xi wants to halt this trajectory and prevent what he sees as a dangerous slide towards support from the US for an independent Taiwan. While there is no indication that he plans to try to take control of the island through force in the near term, above all else, he does not want to be the leader who loses Taiwan. The calibration he must now make is how to deliver a sufficiently muscular response to signal the extent of his concern without risking a serious military confrontation. He needs to look strong, not reckless. Perhaps the one point both the US and China can currently agree on is that neither side wants conflict. The Chinese response will, therefore, likely be multifaceted, including economic and diplomatic pressure, along with grey zone tactics, such as cyber-attacks, disinformation, and influence operations.
The last Taiwan Strait crisis was in 1995-96, following the decision to grant then Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui a US visa. China held a series of military exercises and fired missiles close to Taiwan. But the Chinese military was relatively weak at the time and Beijing backed down after the US sent two aircraft carriers to the region. Now, China has its own aircraft carriers, and Dong-Feng 21 “carrier killer” missiles. If the current situation does escalate and develop into a new crisis – which is by no means guaranteed – it will be considerably more dangerous and harder to contain.
“The situation now in the Taiwan Strait is as tense as it has been since 1996-96,” Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served on the US national security council during the Obama administration, told me. “There likely will not be any near-term pressure release valve that returns the situation to a calmer steady state.” Given those dangers, Hass said it was essential for the US to restore discipline and consistency to its messages and actions. “The US’s topmost interest is in upholding peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” he said. “Every word and deed must be guided by that interest.”
There are domestic political considerations at play here too. In Washington and Beijing, increasingly, talking tough on Taiwan and taking a strong stance against the other plays well. “I’m about to use four words in a row that I haven’t used in this way before,” said the Republican senator Roy Blunt as Pelosi travelled to Taiwan on 2 August. “Speaker Pelosi was right.” Ahead of the CCP congress in Beijing and the US midterm elections this autumn, and beyond – with presidential elections to follow in Taiwan and the US in 2024 – the imperative to avoid looking weak will only grow, and with it, the risk of a serious crisis in the Taiwan Strait. If in doubt, the safest bet for political leaders on all sides will be to opt for strength, and that could put them on a dangerous collision course.