China is planning the largest live-fire exercises it has conducted in the Taiwan Strait in recent memory, and this time the designated zones appear to intrude into territorial waters claimed by Taiwan’s government. If carried out, the drills would represent an unprecedented escalation in cross-strait tensions.
The exercises are the most visible part of Beijing’s reaction to the arrival of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in Taipei. Her long-telegraphed visit is the first by an American official of her rank since 1997, when then-U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich made a trip to the independently-governed island. In an op-ed published to coincide with her arrival, Pelosi delivered a similar message to the one Gingrich delivered 25 years ago: “America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, as it defends itself and its freedom.”
For Beijing, Pelosi’s visit comes uncomfortably close to official recognition of Taiwanese statehood. This is a red line for the People’s Republic of China, which views Taiwan as an integral part of its own territory and has threatened to reunify the island by force if necessary. PLA Navy and PLA Air Force activity over the Taiwan Strait has been inching up over the past year, and U.S. officials have warned that an attempted cross-strait invasion could happen within the decade.
Beijing’s official respose to Pelosi’s visit has been threatening. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned bluntly that “some U.S. politicians are flagrantly playing with fire on the Taiwan question for selfish gains and making themselves enemies of the 1.4 billion Chinese people. They will not come to a good end.” Assistant foreign minister Hua Chunying asserted that
“if the US insists on pursuing the wrong course of action, it will assume full responsibility for all serious consequences.”
The People’s Liberation Army has signaled a series of military drills around Taiwan to begin shortly after Pelosi’s departure. Six exercise zones are laid out at locations around the island, including – for the first time – three zones that partially overlap with Taiwan’s territorial seas claims. If China were to follow through and conduct military operations within Taiwan’s waters, it would mark an unprecedented step up in cross-strait tensions.
China’s military exercises around Taiwan in August 2022 and March 1996 (Third Taiwan Strait crisis). This time, some exercise areas overlap with Taiwan’s territorial waters, an apparent escalation. pic.twitter.com/egw4hyu5U5
— Duan Dang (@duandang) August 2, 2022
Based on satellite tracking and official statements, the PLA Navy carriers Liaoning and Shandong have put to sea, along with the amphib Guangxi. Japanese forces have also tracked two Chinese surface combatants heading southbound towards Taiwan.
The PLA Navy will not be alone in the area. The U.S. Navy’s USS Ronald Reagan and the amphib USS Tripoli are operating in the region, both carrying F-35 fighter jets and both escorted by several destroyers. The amphib USS America is nearby in Sasebo, Japan.
Pelosi’s visit is significant to Beijing because of her position – Chinese state media describes her as the United States’ “number three politician” – but there may be an additional personal element. Decades before she became Speaker of the House, Pelosi was already a fierce critic of the PRC’s human rights record. In 1991, at the beginning of her career as an elected official, she joined two U.S. congressmen in unfurling a pro-democracy banner at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where the Chinese government had crushed a protest movement just two years before.
As a junior congresswoman, Pelosi also pressed Congress to block permanent free-trade status for China in the late 1990s, fearing that it would cost American jobs. She lost the argument, and the Clinton administration ultimately green-lighted China’s application to the World Trade Organization. Over the next two decades, WTO membership enabled a fivefold expansion of Chinese manufacturing exports, providing the underpinnings of the modern Chinese economy.