As China Vows More Military Exercises, Taiwan Is Undeterred

If China’s show of force over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip was meant as a deterrent, it has not had the intended effect in Taiwan, where the military drills have reinforced a careful two-pronged strategy of shoring up international support, while avoiding overt confrontation.

The exercises, which encircled the self-ruled island and simulated a blockade, appear instead to have hardened the Taiwanese belief in the value of the island’s diplomatic, economic and military maneuverings to stake out a middle ground in the big-power standoff between China and the United States.

Under President Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwanese officials have quietly courted Washington, making gains with weapon sales and vows of support for the democracy. They have also held back from flaunting that success, in an effort to avoid outbursts from China, which claims the island as its own.

As Beijing vows to normalize the military drills ever closer to Taiwan, that approach is likely to guide the island’s continuing response, setting up new rounds of brinkmanship around one of the world’s most dangerous flash points.

When Beijing recently sent dozens of fighters across the median line separating the waters between China and Taiwan, the Taiwanese military said it would not escalate and took relatively soft countermeasures. In a contrast with the lurid and violent warnings from Chinese diplomats and state media, Taiwan issued sober statements and welcomed a letter from the leaders of the Group of 7 nations condemning the drills.

Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, center, attending an event in Keelung, Taiwan, on Tuesday. She has quietly sought support and weapon sales from Washington, while avoiding overt confrontation with Beijing.Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

In some respects, China’s military spectacle has been self-defeating, said Fan Shih-ping, a politics professor at National Taiwan Normal University.

“This time the world has seen through China’s actions,” he said. “Taiwan has become a new focus of the world.”

For all their shock and awe, the drills have damaged some of China’s interests.

In Taiwan, they have galvanized opposition to China, adding to the growing urgency over the need to defend the island and diversify away from economic reliance on China. Within China’s political party of choice, the Kuomintang, they have triggered internal differences over how to maintain relations with Beijing as Taiwanese public opinion sours on the prospect. Abroad, they have raised awareness about Taiwan’s plight, often overlooked and poorly understood, and prompted condemnation of China’s actions.

“China’s exercises have already aroused such great criticism from the international community. For Taiwan, it would be impossible to reduce future foreign engagement because of this. Instead, it will only hope to strengthen its international participation further,” Mr. Fan said.

Even the high political theater of Ms. Pelosi’s visit itself may serve as a model going forward. Taiwan has grown adept at courting senior lawmakers from major powers, in what has been called “congressional diplomacy.”

Tourists visiting Liuqiu Island in Taiwan last week. The Chinese military drills have galvanized opposition to China in Taiwan.Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

The strategy has allowed Taiwan to strengthen international exchanges without raising the specter of full diplomatic recognition, and the ire of China, that might come with the visit of a president or a prime minister. In July, Nicola Beer, a vice president of the European Parliament, visited the island, in a recent parallel of Ms. Pelosi’s trip that caused less controversy.

“Maybe after the election, the new speaker of the U.S. Congress will also visit Taiwan, which would make it a routine,” Mr. Fan said, adding that he thought it possible that Ms. Pelosi might invite Ms. Tsai to speak in front of the U.S. Congress.

Understand the China-Taiwan Tensions

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Understand the China-Taiwan Tensions

What does China mean to Taiwan? China claims Taiwan, a self-governing island democracy of 23 million people, as its territory and has long vowed to take it back, by force if necessary. The island, to which Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese forces retreated after the Communist Revolution of 1949, has never been part of the People’s Republic of China.

Understand the China-Taiwan Tensions

What does Xi Jinping want? China’s leader has made it clearer than any of his predecessors that he sees unifying Taiwan with China to be a primary goal of his rule — and a key to what he calls China’s “national rejuvenation.” Mr. Xi is also keen to project an image of strength ahead of his expected confirmation to an unprecedented third term this fall.

Understand the China-Taiwan Tensions

How is the U.S. involved? In an intentionally ambiguous diplomatic arrangement adopted in 1979, the United States maintains a “one China” policy that acknowledges, but does not endorse, Beijing’s claim over Taiwan. U.S. leaders have remained vague about how they would help Taiwan if China attacked, but President Biden has pledged to defend the island.

Understand the China-Taiwan Tensions

Why are tensions rising now? Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent trip to Taiwan has ignited regional tensions. She is the highest-level American official to visit the island since 1997. A chorus of official Chinese bodies portrayed her trip as part of an American effort to sabotage China’s efforts at unification with Taiwan.

Understand the China-Taiwan Tensions

How is China responding? In retaliation for Ms. Pelosi’s visit, China conducted its largest-ever military exercises near Taiwan. After the 72-hour show of force, China said it would hold new drills near the island, a sign that Beijing might be seeking to normalize its military’s presence around Taiwan, allowing Chinese forces to practice imposing a slow squeeze on the island.

That attention could also add further urgency to American arms sales to Taiwan. The Russian invasion of Ukraine had already convinced many in Washington and Taipei that a Chinese invasion was a possible danger, and that a smaller military, if armed with the right weapons, could beat back a larger force.

Nonetheless, Taiwanese officials have complained about delays and unfilled orders, in part over production constraints. Other systems Taiwan has wanted, including sophisticated naval helicopters, have been judged unnecessary by U.S. officials for fighting China with an asymmetric strategy that focuses on mobility and precision attacks.

The delays and strategic disagreements could put Taiwan in a difficult position were a sudden conflict to break out. American officials have considered stockpiling arms in Taiwan out of concern that it might be tough to supply the island in the event of a Chinese military blockade.

A Taiwanese military helicopter landing during a live-fire drill in Pingtung. The risk of a conflict breaking out could add further urgency to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

“The arms sales process is one where Taiwan has to justify the need to the Americans on why we want those weapons,” said Kitsch Liao, a military and cyber affairs consultant at Doublethink Lab, a Taiwanese research group. “And there’s nothing more powerful than empirical evidence of what’s happening on the ground, so the drills would provide the hard proof to back up future requests.”

The drills may also have helped improve coordination between the militaries of Taiwan and the United States, as the two worked to ensure the security of Ms. Pelosi’s landing in Taiwan. And the military exercises, which China has said it will continue to carry out in the Taiwan Strait, offer valuable experience for Taiwan and the U.S. to share observations and intelligence.

Su Tzu-yun, a security analyst with the National Policy Foundation in Taipei, said the exercises offered a rare chance to assess China’s military capabilities, which he judged were not developed enough to “attack Taiwan in an all-around way,” he said.

Serving as a sort of wake up call, the Chinese actions have bolstered support for the military within Taiwan, which has struggled with accidents and morale in the face of such a would-be foe as China. By many accounts, Taiwan’s forces are poorly equipped and understaffed.

Though the administration of Ms. Tsai has discussed extending the length of military service, she has struggled to impose a new strategic vision on the military’s leadership. The drills, said Mr. Su, have added urgency and led to new calls for an increase to the island’s defense budget.

“It’s not just the responsibility for soldiers in uniforms, but the responsibility for civil servants in suits,” he said of the need to reinforce the military.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Ms. Tsai in Taipei last week. Her visit may serve as a model going forward for routine visits by senior lawmakers from major powers.Credit…Chien Chih-Hung/Office of the President, via Getty Images

The drills also could pave the way for better ties with some of Taiwan’s neighbors. After five Chinese missiles landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, the country’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, condemned the drills. That presents a potential opening for Taiwan officials, who have called for a security dialogue with Japan.

More Coverage of the China-Taiwan Tensions

  • Narrowing Options: China’s 72-hour display of military might indicated how few policy carrots Beijing has to entice Taiwan toward unification.
  • Urging Resistance: When a Taiwanese democracy advocate was imprisoned in China, his wife publicly resisted Beijing’s authority. Now reunited, the couple is inspiring others not to be intimidated by China.
  • Fight or Surrender?: A generational shift in Taiwan has transformed the island’s relationship with China. While the older generation tends to see China more positively, attitudes among the young have hardened.

“What is needed is no longer just a bilateral discussion between Taiwan and Japan or Taiwan and the U.S., but dialogue, communication and contact established as soon as possible between Taiwan and the U.S.-Japan pact,” said Lai I-chung, an executive committee member at the research group the Taiwan Thinktank, and a former official in the island’s Democratic Progressive Party.

Taiwan should learn from Ukraine, he said, and not allow China to dictate a new status quo that wears away at Taiwan’s territory and autonomy. Calling Ms. Tsai’s approach “prudent,” he said some Taiwanese yearned for stronger action, signaling possible political risk for Ms. Tsai’s approach.

“She is very cautious even to a point that some Taiwanese youngsters who hold strong Taiwanese identity are not satisfied with her,” he said.

Perhaps just as important for Ms. Tsai will be to limit the economic fallout from new Chinese bans on Taiwan agricultural products. Despite China’s bellicosity, it remains Taiwan’s largest trading partner, a position it further weaponized around the time of Ms. Pelosi’s visit by banning additional Taiwanese food products.

A fish facility in Pingtung in June. New Chinese bans on Taiwan agricultural products could encourage diversification away from China by some companies, something that has already been going on.Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

Those efforts are likely to encourage an ongoing diversification. Taiwanese companies have already been reassessing the Chinese economy, which has slumped on its harsh Covid measures that have prompted repeated lockdowns across the country.

Because Chinese companies rely on Taiwan’s electronics manufacturers, Beijing’s moves have largely avoided those. Even so, those manufacturers, many of which have factories in China, have also in recent years looked into moving production somewhere else.

That sentiment has been echoed in Europe and the United States, which have worked to bring home more production of key tech products, like semiconductors.

A multibillion dollar U.S. law to support the semiconductor industry has made it more feasible for Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, one of the world’s most important chip makers located in Taiwan, to expand production in the United States. Other manufacturers have moved some plants closer to customers, in places like Southeast Asia, India and Eastern Europe.

“There is a new feeling brought by the United States and Europe, that is, things have to be supplied and sourced locally, instead of relying only on China,” said Liu Meng-chun, a director at the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research.

Artillery during a live-fire drill by the Taiwanese military in Pingtung this week. The Chinese actions have strengthened support for the military within Taiwan.Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

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