China’s overreaction and retaliation toward Taiwan following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) visit show that the leadership in Beijing is now focusing on taking the island by force, not through peaceful reunification, as it has long claimed. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s strategy has moved from winning Taiwanese hearts and minds to inciting fear and loathing.
Although China seems to be finally winding down its military exercises around Taiwan, a week after Pelosi visited the democratic island, China’s drastic responses and ongoing punishments mark the beginning of a new era of heightened danger. China canceled three military-to-military dialogues and suspended several bilateral cooperation programs on topics ranging from climate change to counternarcotics.
But the bulk of China’s actions were aimed at the Taiwanese government, economy and people. China shot missiles over Taiwanese cities for the first time. China’s unprecedented military exercises all around the island could be a dry run for a blockade or an invasion. Economically, China is restricting imports of 100 Taiwanese products. On Aug. 3, Chinese authorities detained a Taiwanese businessman on charges of being a “Taiwanese independence advocate,” a clear threat to all Taiwanese companies that do business in China.
Diplomatically, Beijing has sanctioned several Taiwanese cabinet members and is threatening “criminal liability” for Taiwan’s democratically elected leaders. The Chinese ambassador to France said China would subject the Taiwanese people to “reeducation” after reunification, evoking the reeducation centers used in the ongoing genocide of Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province.
“Beijing’s scorched-earth diplomacy suggests it is leaving itself fewer and fewer alternatives to war,” former deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger, who now chairs the China program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told me. “Xi Jinping has systematically shut down any credible path to diplomacy. They are slashing and burning the pathways to a peaceful resolution.”
In a news conference Wednesday, Pelosi said China is using the delegation’s visit as a pretext to continue its steadily increasing aggression. “What we saw with China is that they were trying to establish sort of a new normal. And we just can’t let that happen,” Pelosi said.
Chinese officials continue to insist that Beijing is committed to “peaceful reunification,” and they blame Taiwan for pushing away that possibility. Beijing maintains that China’s actions are responses to U.S. and Taiwanese provocations. This narrative is often picked up by some elite figures in the United States, who also blame the tensions on America.
Reunification without war has been the Chinese Communist Party’s professed preference for decades. But practically, the level of pain and suffering Beijing is imposing on Taiwan’s leaders and its people is likely to destroy whatever good will remained there for supporting such an approach.
Some experts warn that the Chinese government might feel compelled to use force in Taiwan because they perceive that the United States and Taiwan are moving toward independence, even if leaders in Washington and Taipei don’t see it that way. Beijing doesn’t want a military confrontation right now, in part because it is not yet prepared.
“I believe that they think that if they just let this continue, that there will come a time in the very near future that they will have to use force,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund. “And I believe that, for lots of reasons, they’re not ready to do so.”
Although Beijing appears to be speeding up its preparations for an attack on Taiwan, Undersecretary of Defense Colin Kahl testified this week that the Pentagon doesn’t believe China will invade Taiwan within the next two years. Other senior U.S. military leaders have speculated that China’s preparations for an attack won’t be complete until 2026 or 2027.
The Biden administration will certainly keep trying to build channels with Beijing to mitigate the risk of conflict and encourage cooperation, as it should. But if China’s leaders think ending climate change cooperation is a punishment to the United States, that means they never bought into the idea it was a shared interest in the first place.
Commentators who blame the rising tensions in Taiwan on the United States wrongly assume that if Washington backed down, China would cease its aggression. Xi’s actions in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and around the world show that China’s aggression is widespread and limited only by its capabilities.
China’s overreaction in Taiwan and its efforts to create a new, more dangerous status quo should be a wake-up call for the world. Time is running out to increase support for Taiwan such that China will conclude an invasion would not succeed. Short of a change of heart in Beijing, that’s the best and perhaps last remaining way to avoid outright conflict.
An earlier version of this column misspelled the name of Chinese President Xi Jinping. This version has been updated.