Danger on the Horizon: Lessons from Tsai Ing-wen’s Latest US Transits

Danger on the Horizon: Lessons from Tsai Ing-wen’s Latest US Transits

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Danger on the Horizon: Lessons from Tsai Ing-wen’s Latest US Transits

In late March and early April, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) visited New York and California on her way to and from diplomatic visits to Guatemala and Belize. These so-called “transit stops” revealed much about Taipei, Washington, and Beijing. Observers in all three capitals had been holding their breath since Kevin McCarthy secured the speakership of the House of Representatives. McCarthy had previously indicated that he would like to visit Taiwan. Such a visit would have been in accord with the US “One-China Policy” and with historical precedent, but Beijing worried that a McCarthy visit would deepen what it sees as an American shift away from its “One-China” framework—while Taipei and Washington were concerned about a more intense replay of China’s post-Pelosi-visit antics of last August. 

In the end, Tsai and McCarthy met in California, while China’s response—both in the leadup to the meeting and in its wake—was, in some ways, more restrained than it had been seven months earlier. Even so, sighs of relief may be premature.

Responsible Stakeholders

There is a tendency among some in Washington to use Taiwan policy to punish China or to score points against political opponents. For them, Taiwan is a cudgel, too quickly grasped because doing so is an easy way to prove oneself tough on China. This is problematic for Taiwan, whose people are likely to feel the pain regardless of whether they are getting hammered, or getting used as a hammer. But it is also a problem for the United States, as it raises tensions in the Taiwan Strait, in US-China relations, and in US-Taiwan relations without making meaningful policy progress.

One conclusion to draw from the Tsai transits is that, while there are vocal individuals that seek to use Taiwan to poke China in the eye, they are not actually running the show. Josh Rogin reported that Tsai, after consulting with the Biden Administration, decided against opening to the press the New York reception at which the Hudson Institute awarded her its Global Leadership Award, and the right-leaning think tank complied. Neither Tsai nor Hudson has released a full transcript of her remarks, instead publicizing only brief summaries. Here, Hudson respected Taiwan’s assessment of its own interests.

Speaker McCarthy did so as well. On March 8, Kathrin Hille and Demetri Sevastopulo reported for Financial Times that “Tsai Ing-wen has convinced US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to meet in California rather than Taipei to avoid an aggressive Chinese military response.” There were also concerns in Taipei about how a McCarthy visit later in the year could interact with Taiwan’s presidential campaign season, which will begin kicking into high gear in the summer. McCarthy deserves plaudits for refraining from insisting on making the trip despite his previously stated intentions, even though Taipei might have found it difficult to say no if he did.

Overall, the transits showed that the Tsai Administration, the Biden Administration, and the speaker’s office are capable of exercising pragmatic caution without sacrificing on important principles. Tsai did not shy away from receiving, in person, an award from an influential Washington think tank, nor did she shy away from meeting with Speaker McCarthy, despite Beijing’s rhetorical insistence that a meeting with the speaker was unacceptable regardless of location. As a Chinese embassy spokesman put it in early March: “No matter [if] it is the Taiwan leaders coming to the United States or the US leaders visiting Taiwan, it could lead to another serious collision in the China-US relationship.” American and Taiwanese leaders, working together, called that bluff, and rightly so.


Image: US Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California (April 5).(Image source: Time)

Good News, Bad News

As for China’s response to the Tsai transits, it is a good news/bad news story. First, the good news: Beijing’s reaction to the Tsai-McCarthy meeting was more muted than its reaction to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last August. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) activities near Taiwan were less intense and less sustained, and did not involve live-fire drills. There were fewer cyberattacks on Taiwan government websites and fewer personal sanctions levied on Taiwanese and American individuals. The economic pressure that China imposed was not designed to have an immediate sting. These differences from last August are positive. There were not serious concerns about escalation as the Chinese response unfolded last month. Perhaps as a result, observers did not rush to label this latest episode a new “Taiwan Strait Crisis,” as some did last August.

Even so, some aspects of China’s response are deeply troubling. Days before Tsai’s departure for her visits to the United States and Latin America, Honduras severed diplomatic ties with Taipei and established formal relations with Beijing, with the Honduran foreign ministry describing Taiwan as “an inalienable part of Chinese territory.” This was the ninth time in Tsai’s tenure that China has poached a diplomatic ally from Taiwan, rendering the tactic something of a dull-edged tool. Its continued use is troubling nonetheless.

Taiwan now has just 13 diplomatic allies, down from 22 a decade ago. China seems unconcerned that as that roster continues to shrink, stability in the Taiwan Strait might suffer. But there is a real risk for Beijing here. As I wrote for East Asia Forum after Solomon Islands and Kiribati severed diplomatic relations in 2019, “If one day Taiwan finds itself with few or no diplomatic allies, the door will be open to a reassessment of Taiwan’s existence as the Republic of China (ROC).” Beijing seems unlikely to welcome a conversation in Taiwan about what direction the country should set for itself in a world where the ROC has only a limited or no recognized legal standing. Yet China continues to push Taiwan in that direction. In doing so, it is tempting fate.

China’s response to the Tsai transits also included a PLA component. April 10 saw the highest-ever daily intrusions of Chinese military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). The Shandong, China’s first indigenously produced aircraft carrier and second overall, patrolled to the east of Taiwan for the first time since its commissioning in 2019. The truly concerning activities, however, were quieter, yet potentially far more dangerous.

On the same day Tsai and McCarthy met in California, the Fujian Maritime Safety Administration announced a three-day patrol and inspection operation in parts of the Taiwan Strait, which it said would include “on-site inspections” of vessels. The Maritime Safety Administration’s Haixun 06 patrol ship led a group of law enforcement vessels during the operation, which crossed the Taiwan Strait median line and which one of Taiwan’s own coast guard vessels shadowed. Taiwan’s coast guard instructed civilian vessels to refuse inspection and to call upon the coast guard for assistance if necessary. In short, conditions were ripe for an at-sea confrontation, with military assets certainly lurking in the vicinity. 

In the event, the Haixun 06 never tried to board a Taiwanese or any other vessel and the three-day patrol ended without incident. China’s imposition of a no-fly zone north of Taiwan, which was initially announced as a three-day event but then bizarrely reduced to 27 minutes after Taiwan government complaints, likewise ended without incident. The important thing, however, is not the lack of enforcement this time. Rather, it is the demonstration of a tool that China is ready to use in less-than-crisis situations—which could itself very well lead to a crisis. China’s decision to pull these tools from its toolbox amounted to a claim to the right to deny Taiwan and other international actors access to waters and skies that are beyond Chinese jurisdiction. It was, in this sense, a major escalation. It is worth noting that American crisis simulations focused on the Taiwan Strait often start with China imposing sea or sky closures; Beijing surely knows this, and may be signaling that it is very comfortable playing with fire. 

The bottom line is that, in the face of Taiwanese and American restraint, China displayed a troubling inability to pocket what it could reasonably conceive to be (or spin as) small victories. Even amid a response to the Tsai “transit stops” that Beijing designed to appear less threatening than those of last August, Xi Jinping (習近平) could not help but find new ways to pressure—and, yes, to provoke—Taiwan and its overseas partners. Xi is painting himself into a corner and courting catastrophe in the process.

The main point: Tsai Ing-wen’s US transits showed that the Tsai Administration, the Biden Administration, and the House Speaker’s office are capable of exercising pragmatic caution without sacrificing important principles. But in the face of Taiwanese and American restraint, China displayed a preference for escalation.