China’s Reaction to Tsai-McCarthy Meeting Indicates Chinese Calculation 

Photo Credit: AFP/Taiwan Ministry of National Defense

By Karyn Kao
Staff Writer

Although leaders on both sides attempted to make it low-profile, the meeting between Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen and Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy still received considerable attention. On route to Guatemala and Belize, Tsai stopped in New York and Los Angeles to meet with the leaders of both U.S. parties as she made her seventh transit through the United States as Taiwan’s president. 

Instead of meeting McCarthy on Taiwanese soil, Tsai proposed to stop by the U.S. to avoid Beijing repeating similar violent and escalatory actions as those witnessed after Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in 2022. This tactic seems to work. Compared to the reaction after Pelosi’s Taiwanese visit in 2022, China’s response was more muted with less military intimidation this time. And, this is not a new trend. China has been flexible in its response to increasing interaction between the U.S. and Taiwan based on multiple determinants. As a result, China’s reaction to the interaction between Taiwan’s presidents and U.S. officials has been a consistent indicator of Chinese strategic considerations and shifts in foreign policy. 

In 1995, former Taiwanese president Lee Teng Hui covertly visited the U.S., provoking Chinese retaliation when the visit was revealed and the subsequent Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. China canceled U.S.-China military exchanges and relegated diplomatic contacts of both sides; it also launched ballistic missiles and live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait. China has been aiming to prevent the rise of Taiwanese independence and the expansion of Taiwan’s international presence since the government of the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) relocated to Taiwan in 1949. China resorted to both diplomatic and military approaches. Beijing’s intention to intimidate Taiwanese voters continued until Taiwan’s presidential election the next year. However, the Crisis had the opposite effect of what China expected. Taiwan moved toward a well-developed democratic system, and the Taiwanese identity (in contrast to Chinese identity) considerably increased.

Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan as Speaker of the House has become known as the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis. To protest the deepening Taiwan-U.S. relationship, China pressured Taiwan militarily and economically. Before Pelosi landed in Taiwan, China carried out military operations around Taiwan to demonstrate its readiness to escalate. After Pelosi arrived, Beijing heightened the strength of its military approach by launching ballistic missiles four times. Taiwan’s Air defense identification zone (ADIZ) was also abused by Chinese seven-day air incursions.

A series of Chinese military coercion and China’s 2022 White Paper, illustrating Xi Jinping’s policy toward Taiwan, demonstrated the Chinese determination to escalate tensions against Taiwan. Chinese signaling intended to sabotage Taiwanese support for Tsai and for the Taiwan-U.S. relationship. Moreover, China’s attempt to dismiss the median line of the Taiwan Strait is to establish a new normal to create future opportunities for more military obtrusion. However, the Crisis has led to Taiwanese hostility toward China’s aggression. The tie between Taiwan and the U.S. has also been reinforced as the congressional members’ visits continue despite Chinese interference.

Compared to China’s previous reactions, its response to Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy was relatively mild. China carried out the drill of Shandong, a Chinese aircraft carrier, and rehearsed for pre-invasion strikes. Yet, according to former officials from the Department of Defense, the practice of Shandong was more “a form of coercion and political warfare” rather than an actual threat. Except for the carrier exercise, China did not resort to such strong military actions as those during Pelosi’s visit; instead, diplomatic and economic approaches, such as a few public statements and sanctions, were favored by Beijing officials this time. Both U.S. and Taiwan officials did not expect, and have not monitored, significant Chinese escalation.

There are a plethora of reasons why China hasn’t pursued actions similar to those in the Taiwan Strait Crisis. It is speculated that the muted Chinese reaction to Tsai’s transit through the U.S. is China’s attempt to refocus on its domestic economic recovery after suffering from the pandemic. China may also want to reshape its international image to rebuild its diplomatic as well as economic relationship with Europe. It is also possible that China might have learned from Pelosi’s visit that overreaction would only result in hostile public opinion in Taiwan. With the upcoming Taiwan 2024 presidential election, China wants to avoid the victory of the Democratic Progressive Party, the pro-American party, and hopes for the party’s alternation to Kuomintang, the pro-China party by shaping its peace-loving image.

The number of times Taiwan’s presidents visit or transit through the United States does not seem to largely affect China’s calculation to escalate or not. China does not always react strongly to the transits of Taiwan’s presidents either. Instead, when predicting the Chinese reaction to the increasing Taiwan-U.S. official interaction, we must take multiple factors into account. China chooses its response after observing the dynamic of the U.S.-Taiwan-China relationship and public opinion both in Taiwan and China. Beijing would not want to evoke Taiwanese antagonism toward China or mess up socioeconomic stability in China in an attempt to sabotage the possibility of Taiwan’s independence. 

Yet, even though it did not significantly escalate the tension in response to Tsai’s 2023 stopover, with the constant use of military coercion, China has not abandoned military means to assault Taiwan. China will continue its efforts to complete the “historic mission of unifying Taiwan” with careful calculation and flexible strategy adjustment. 

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