By Rebecca Choong Wilkins and Colum Murphy
With US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi poised to land in Taiwan later on Tuesday, the world is now bracing for China’s response.
China’s President Xi Jinping told US leader Joe Biden during a phone call last week that “whoever plays with fire will get burnt” in reference to Taiwan, which China regards as its territory. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian then said Monday the People’s Liberation Army “won’t sit idly by” if Pelosi becomes the highest-ranking American official to visit Taiwan in 25 years.
Neither Xi nor Biden have an interest in triggering a conflict that could do even more economic damage at home, and the call last week indicated they were preparing for their first face-to-face meeting as leaders in the coming months.
But the bellicose rhetoric and growing animosity in both countries adds to pressure on Xi to take a strong response, particularly as he prepares for a twice-a-decade party meeting later this year at which he’s expected to secure a third term in office.
While the US scrapped its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan in 1979, China must weigh the possibility America’s military would get drawn in. Biden said in May that Washington would defend Taiwan in any attack from China, although the White House clarified he meant the US would provide military weapons in line with existing agreements.
“The big constraint on both sides is still the risk of a war that would just be too costly from either side’s perspective,” Andrew Gilholm, director of analysis for China and North Asia at Control Risks, said on Bloomberg TV. Still, he added, “the concern is that risks will be taken because of domestic drivers.”
Here are options for actions China could take:
1. Bigger Warplane Incursions
With daily incursions into the island’s air defense identification zone already the norm, the People’s Liberation Army would need to send in either a particularly large or unusual series of flights. The daily record is 56 PLA planes on Oct. 4, which coincided with nearby US-led military exercises. Some 15 planes flew around the east side of Taiwan, rather than the usual southwestern routes, after a US congressional delegation visit in November, for example.
China could keep this level of aggression up for days, or weeks, depleting the resources of Taiwan’s already stretched Air Force as it seeks to drive away the planes.
China will have to respond militarily “in a way that’s a clear escalation from previous shows of force,” said Amanda Hsiao, a senior analyst at Crisis Group based in Taiwan.
2. Flying Warplanes Over Taiwan
The Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper has suggested China should conduct a military flight directly over Taiwan, forcing President Tsai Ing-wen’s government to decide whether to shoot it down. Last year, Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng warned: “The closer they get to the island, the stronger we will hit back.”
Alternatively, sending a deep or extended sortie across Taiwan Strait’s median line, a buffer zone the US established in 1954 that Beijing doesn’t recognize, would put pressure on Taiwan’s military by requiring its planes to stay in the air. PLA aircraft repeatedly breached the line in September 2020, when then-US Undersecretary of State Keith Krach traveled to the island.
Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the Global Times, said in a now-deleted Tweet that PLA warplanes could “forcibly dispel Pelosi’s plane.” He even suggested that Chinese warplanes “accompany” Pelosi on any attempted flight into Taiwan, a move that could easily lead to a miscalculation on either side.
3. Missile Test Near Taiwan
The summer of 1995 saw one of China’s most provocative responses to an exchange between Washington and Taipei, when Beijing test-fired missiles into the sea near the island. The move was part of China’s protests against President Bill Clinton’s decision to let Taiwan’s first democratically elected president, Lee Teng-hui, visit the US.
China declared exclusion zones around target areas during the tests, disrupting shipping and air traffic. More recently, the PLA launched “carrier-killer” ballistic missiles into the South China Sea in August 2020, in what was seen as a response to US naval exercises.
4. Economic Pain
China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. Beijing could leverage that advantage by sanctioning exporters, slapping a boycott on some Taiwanese goods or restricting two-way trade. On Monday, China banned food imports from more than 100 Taiwanese suppliers, according to local outlet United Daily News. However, China must tread carefully as it needs Taiwan for semiconductors.
Beijing has already hit various Taiwanese leaders with sanctions, including bans on traveling to the mainland. More officials could face similar actions, but they’d have little impact as Taiwanese politicians are unlikely to travel to the mainland or do business there.
China could also disrupt shipping in the Taiwan Strait, a key global trade route. Chinese military officials in recent months have repeatedly told US counterparts that the strait isn’t international waters. Still, any moves that hinder commercial shipping would only hurt China’s economy.
5. Diplomatic Protest
The Global Times warned Tuesday that the Biden administration would face a “serious” setback in China-US relations for Pelosi’s trip. That could mean recalling China’s US Ambassador Qin Gang, who took up his post last year. In 1995, Beijing withdrew its then-US Ambassador Li Daoyu after Washington allowed Taiwan’s then-President Lee to visit the US. However, that spat occurred at a higher diplomatic level to Pelosi, who is second in line to the presidency.
Last year, China recalled its ambassador to Lithuania after the Baltic nation allowed Taiwan to open an office in its capital under its own name, rather than Chinese Taipei — a term Beijing considers more neutral.
On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a news briefing that Beijing would be in touch with its US ambassador “when appropriate.” She left the door open when asked about a possible in-person summit between Biden and Xi, however, saying any meetings would be decided “through diplomatic channels.”
6. Seize an Island
Beijing has military options other than mounting a risky invasion across the 130-kilometer (80-mile) Taiwan Strait — such as seizing one of the smaller outlying islands held by the government in Taipei, although though this form of provocation is highly unlikely.
During the early days of the Cold War, the PLA’s military bombardment of Taiwan’s Kinmen Islands, located just off southeastern China’s coastline, drew major US military support. Taiwan repelled the Chinese advance, but not before hundreds of its soldiers were killed. The Taipei-controled Pratas Island, 400 kilometers (250 miles) from Taiwan’s coastline, is another vulnerable point.
China in 2012 occupied the Scarborough Shoal, a coral reef roughly the size of Manhattan Island, which the Philippines claimed as its own, in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea. The US would view any such seizure of Taiwanese territory as a major escalation that could test the limits of Biden’s military commitment to the island democracy.
Still, such an action also carries diplomatic risks for Beijing. Seizing an island under Taiwan’s control could trigger the US to add more sanctions on China and alarm neighboring countries in Asia, many of which also have territorial disputes with Beijing.