In the aftermath of China’s August military exercises near Taiwan, Beijing’s message to the world was clear: China will not shy away from challenging the United States, and its military will continue to uphold China's claim to Taiwan. The message suggests that tensions in the region will remain high, with an increasing risk of confrontation between the United States and China.
China’s military exercises came following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August of this year. Pelosi is the highest-ranking American official to have visited the island since 1997, and her decision to do so was immediately marked by rising tensions with Beijing.
It is important to note that Pelosi’s visit came at an already tenuous time in world politics. Michael Beckley, an associate professor of political science and specialist in U.S.-China relations, pointed out the two countries’ strained relationship in light of recent events.
“China, even prior to Pelosi’s visit, had been conducting the most sustained and aggressive show of force in the Taiwan Strait in more than a generation,” Beckley explained. “[Between] the crushing of Hong Kong, the concentration camps in Xinjiang … and … China’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, … I would say that relations [between China and the US] were pretty awful even prior to the visit, and even more awful now.”
To fully comprehend the context of the speaker’s visit, it is helpful to understand the complex relationship between China and Taiwan. Though Taiwan has its own democratically elected government, Beijing views the island as a breakaway province and seeks reunification. In an October 2021 address, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that “the historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled, and will definitely be fulfilled.” In a response, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council rejected Xi’s statements and entreated Beijing to desist with its “provocative steps of intrusion, harassment and destruction.”
Even as the United States officially subscribes to a “One China policy,” it has enjoyed extensive commercial and informal political tieswith Taiwan. The U.S. also supplies Taiwan with “arms of a defensive character” per the Taiwan Relations Act, and operates under “the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.”
For Pelosi, a visit to Taiwan is in character with a career that involves a 1991 tripto Tiananmen Square and leadinga congressional delegation to Kyiv in May of this year. In a call with President Joe Biden prior to Pelosi’s arrival in Taipei, Xi highlighted Beijing’s discontent with the visit and the current state of Washington’s Taiwan policies. “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” he said.
Beckley further contextualized China’s strong disapproval of Pelosi’s visit.
“I think [Pelosi’s visit] accelerated trends that were already there, namely that China perceives the U.S. as determined to upgrade Taiwan’s status and upgrade the U.S. relationship with Taiwan,” Beckley said.
According to Kevin Du, a junior from Hangzhou, China, Beijing’s aversion to the speaker’s visit was palpable, even prior to August’s military exercises. Du anticipated the Chinese foreign ministry’s displeasure with her presence in Taiwan.
“I don't know if ‘scared’ is the way to put it, [it was more that I was] extremely concerned before Pelosi made the visit, because in China, [there] was an increasing number of concerns and outcry about, ‘you [Pelosi] should not be doing this and we will be extremely unhappy,’” Du said.
In this context, Du questioned the reason behind Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and shared his frustration as the U.S.-China relations continue to deteriorate.
“My family and the people [in China] definitely have a sense of resentment, a sense of like, why are you doing this?” Du said. “You cannot sacrifice the already intense relationship between the U.S. and China to another level, especially [when] it could involve people’s deaths and the war between two countries.”
China’s military exercises this summer entailed firing “long-range explosive projectiles” and “multiple conventional missile launches in three different areas in the eastern waters of Taiwan,” according to the Eastern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army. Japan’s Defense Ministry said on Twitter that four missiles may have flown over Taipei.
Beckley shared his view on what these military exercises might mean for the geopolitical risks and future of the region.
“[Pelosi’s visit] allowed China to establish this new normal in the Taiwan Strait of having massive military forces out there, barging across the median line between China and Taiwan. And that not only helps it ramp up pressure on Taiwan, it also means that if there is going to be an assault on Taiwan sometime in the future, China could use that to gain some tactical military surprise,” Beckley said.
Beckley elaborated on his assessment of the overall tension between the United States and China over Taiwan.
“It's not that I think war is likely, but it has just become much more likely, especially given the rise in tensions, … than it has been in any time I can remember honestly,” Beckley said.
Jason Wu, a junior from Taipei, Taiwan, underscored the negative impacts of Pelosi’s visit on the people of Taiwan in light of his lived experiences.
“On a personal level, I did not think that it was good for Taiwan for Nancy Pelosi to visit, simply because it's a sensitive time. … She knew that Xi Jinping’s re-election was coming up … and that her trip would be unprecedented. … She knew that Beijing would react, either militarily or diplomatically or economically,” Wu said. “So it's unfortunate that the people of Taiwan have to face the consequences of her political gamble.”
The consequences Wu spoke of have been felt widely. Echoing Wu’s sentiment, Du drew attention to unique challenges that many international students face as U.S.-China tensions escalate.
“Because we stay in the states for so long … [and] get exposed to a lot of different media coverage and also the key values of the United States, [we] learn that through American history, you learn through civic discussions with Tufts people … the importance of democracy and the importance of preserving that,” Du said. “[Through these interactions], you understand that there’s definitely merit [to] having a democratic system … [but] I’m Chinese, and I … totally understand my fellow Chinese [in regards to Taiwan policy].”
Du urged the Tufts community to consider what the ongoing conflict between the United States and China might mean for international students at Tufts.
“I would love [the Tufts community] to know about the tricky balance [that] international students — I think every international student — needs to strike when it comes to political conflict between their home country and the United States,” Du said.
In the coming months and years, the international community can only wait to witness how the relationship between the United States and China evolves or deteriorates. Amid this uncertainty, Wu offered a call to action to the U.S. government.
“With China being more assertive, diplomatically and militarily, I do hope that the U.S. [moves] away from strategic ambiguity and [makes] it more clear that China would face consequences if they were to invade,” Wu said.