Tension in Taiwan: Speaker Pelosi’s Visit Sparks Regional Crisis
The recent visit of the United States’ Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan on August 2nd has sparked a major security crisis in the Indo-Pacific region. On August 3rd, following the Speaker’s departure, China commenced a series of military exercises that transgressed Taiwan’s maritime and aerial boundaries. These appeared to be an escalation of the various trade sanctions China’s Ministry of Commerce had imposed on Taiwanese companies in the lead up to the Speaker’s visit.
The apparent purpose of the visit was to make an “unequivocal statement that America stands with Taiwan … as it defends itself and its freedom”, and to honour the United States’ “commitment to democracy” abroad. This purpose, however, stands in direct contrast with Beijing’s view that Taiwan is a rogue province of China that will one day be reunited with the mainland. Indeed, on August 10th, the Chinese Ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, warned that his government was prepared to use “all necessary means” to prevent Taiwan from becoming independent, giving reference to the ‘One China’ principle upon which Beijing bases its claim to sovereignty over Taiwan - and the Taiwan Strait. Ambassador Qian’s warning came on the heels of China’s State Council issuing a white paper that detailed this principle at length.
Washington, however, does not officially recognize Beijing’s claim to Taiwan. The Taiwan Relations Act, legislated by the U.S. Congress in 1979, and the Six Assurances of the Third Communique issued between the U.S. and China in 1982, establish that this claim is only informally acknowledged - not officially recognized. This small yet substantive difference in language is what allowed for diplomatic relations between the United States and China, despite the disagreement over Taiwan, while also providing the U.S. with room to court “unofficial relations with Taiwan” and thus maintain “its security and commercial interests” in the island. The consistent application of this policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ by consecutive U.S. administrations has arguably been a significant factor in maintaining a relative balance of peace in the Taiwan Strait. Speaker Pelosi’s visit, however, appears to have challenged this balance - at least in Beijing’s view. Being the first U.S. official of her rank to visit the island in over thirty years, it is clear that Beijing views the visit as a direct affront to its presumed sovereignty.
What is the significance of the Taiwan Strait?
The Taiwan Strait is the stretch of water separating mainland China and Taiwan. Due to its disputed status in international politics, it is seen as “one of the last vestiges of the Cold War” and as “emblematic of the division between the authoritarianism of China and the thriving democracy of Taiwan”. Today, it is a major international shipping route resting beneath a busy flight path, with more than 48% of all operational container ships passing through it in the first half of 2022 alone. Critically, Taiwan’s status as the world’s major producer and exporter of semiconductors makes the Strait central to the security of the global economy.
Within policymaking and academic circles, a confrontation over the political status of Taiwan is often seen as the trigger in a war between China and the United States. This is reflected in the theory of international relations known as ‘Thucydides Trap’. Accredited to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, this theory posits that “when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling one, the most likely outcome is war”. This theory has been consistently applied in assessments of U.S.-China relations to suggest that a conflict between the two states is inevitable. In understanding the calculus behind Speaker Pelosi’s visit, it suggests that Washington views China’s rising economic and military might as a catalyst for the reunification of Taiwan. Accordingly, the purpose of the Speaker’s visit appears to be as stated: to warn Beijing off such a path. However, leaders of the Chinese government - including President Xi Jinping himself - have made several statements warning against suggestions of inevitable war, signalling a desire to avoid conflict with the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. Despite these attempts to placate fears of war, its perceived inevitability has prompted responses from key regional actors.
How have regional actors responded?
The Japanese government has voiced serious concerns about China’s recent actions in the Taiwan Strait. During The People’s Liberation Army’s military exercises, five missiles passed over Taiwan and landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, presenting a “serious threat to Japan’s national security and the safety of the Japanese people”. Beijing rebutted this by stating that it did not recognise the zone, as it disputes the legitimacy of Tokyo’s claim that the Senkaku islands (alternatively known as Diaoyu in China) form part of the Okinawa region - and thus within Japan’s maritime territory. This dispute over territory is a cause of major tension between Tokyo and Beijing - and Washington as well, given the U.S.-Japan security alliance.
This decision, however, does appear to have consequences for Beijing. Concerned with its future regional security, the Japanese government has announced increases in military spending, particularly in the Okinawa region, with its Ministry of Defence requesting over JP¥ 5 trillion (USD 40.4 bn) for the 2023 fiscal year alone - the “largest ever budget request” in Japanese history. This marks a significant shift from previous defence strategies, which have been based on pacifist principles - and a dependence on the U.S. alliance - since the end of the Second World War. As such, Beijing is presented with its own complicated calculus to avoid the Thucydides Trap. Should it continue in its military ambitions towards Taiwan, it will likely provoke further defensive policy measures from Tokyo and potentially push military cooperation between regional partners, like those in the QUAD security dialogue.
The United States:
Despite acting as an official representative of the United States government, Speaker Pelosi’s visit prompted a mixed response within the U.S. itself. President Joe Biden had initially stated that the visit was “not a good idea” but has since hardened his stance, stating that US policy had “not changed” but that if China’s “flirting with danger” escalated to an invasion of Taiwan, then the United States would intervene. Importantly, the visit does appear to be in line with public opinion in the U.S., which is generally supportive of Taiwan, though not supportive of U.S. military involvement in the region. Comparatively, foreign policy analysts and some media commentators were generally critical of the visit, with a prominent thinktank stating that the visit had brought the “action-reaction cycle to an increasingly unstable equilibrium”. Overall, domestic support for the visit was contrasted against a background of serious concerns in the international relations community.
In Taiwan, the official response to the Speaker’s visit was somewhat muted. The Taiwanese representative to Australia stated that “it is common practice for Taiwan to receive parliamentary members around the world”, and that since “there was a precedent for [the] US House Speaker to visit Taiwan, [it] should not become an excuse for escalating tensions across … the region”. This response appeared to downplay the significance of the visit to the Taiwanese government. Taiwanese civilians did appear to support the visit, though many voiced concerns about its consequences, particularly over the potential for a military confrontation or further economic sanctions from China. Under the principles of Thucydides Trap, such responses signal a hope for a non-confrontational outcome.
Curiously, while Speaker Pelosi’s visit sparked media commentary in India - a member of the QUAD security dialogue and a major actor in the Indo-Pacific region - the government in India refrained from making any official statements on the visit. Some commentators have suggested that New Delhi's silence is a calculated one, aimed at keeping its relations with Beijing from escalating further, especially given existing tense relations over disputed Himalayan territory.
Comparatively, in Canberra, the recently installed Labor government was at pains to strike a neutral tone. Prime Minister Albanese stated that“[t]he level of US engagement with our Taiwanese counterparts is a matter for them”. Foreign Minister Penny Wong struck a similar chord, stating that the visit was “a matter for [the United States].” These statements are likely calculated to prevent any further deterioration in Australia-China relations, which has experienced considerable tension during the international posture of the previous Morrison government.
Further conflict into the future?
Speaker Pelosi’s visit may have started a new chapter in Indo-Pacific regional security, with some scholars voicing concern about the potential for a fourth Taiwan Strait crisis - or, of course, a wider, direct conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan. It is crucial that Australia remains engaged in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific, especially in efforts to provide regional actors with a viable exit from the danger of the Thucydides Trap. Australians should view Speaker Pelosi’s visit as evidence that distrust and anxiety continue to thrive in the Indo-Pacific, and that discourse and diplomacy are more necessary than ever. While it is not apparent what lies ahead, one thing is for sure – all eyes are on Taiwan.
Madeleine Bishop is a recent graduate of Macquarie University, where she studied Arts/Law with a major in International Relations. She is interested in East and South Asian politics, with a specific focus on inter-state relations. In her spare time, Madeleine enjoys tackling a sudoku, going for a climb and a good slice of avo toast.