One Year Later: How Has China’s Military Pressure on Taiwan Changed Since Nancy Pelosi’s Visit?

One Year Later: How Has China’s Military Pressure on Taiwan Changed Since Nancy Pelosi’s Visit?

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One Year Later: How Has China’s Military Pressure on Taiwan Changed Since Nancy Pelosi’s Visit?

It has been over one year since then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Taipei to meet with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in early August 2022. To retaliate for the visit, Beijing initiated sanctions against Pelosi, other US officials on the trip, and Pelosi family members. However, the brunt of the response focused on Taiwan, which included military exercises, missile tests, sanctions, and import bans on over 100 Taiwanese goods. This article analyzes how the military dimensions of the cross-Strait status quo have changed in the year since Pelosi made her historic trip.

After Pelosi and her colleagues were safely out of Taiwan, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) initiated joint air and naval live-fire exercises that included missile tests over Taiwan and in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), as well as a simulation of a military blockade of the island. The drills occurred in six declared closure areas around Taiwan, with Chinese military aircraft and naval vessels dominating the Taiwan Strait throughout the exercises. The aircraft made regular median line crossings, essentially eliminating the tacit military demarcation line between Beijing and Taipei once and for all. Nearly 450 aircraft flew into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in August 2022 alone, the highest monthly total ever recorded. The second-highest recorded month for ADIZ activity was April 2023 (the month that Tsai met with current US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California), with 259 incursions. [1]

In the immediate aftermath of the exercises and ADIZ incursions, I argued that the post-Pelosi response would mark the beginning of a new phase in Chinese military pressure against Taiwan in the Taiwan Strait. I also predicted that this second phase of ADIZ incursions would be characterized by regular median line crossings, with less emphasis on flights into the southwestern ADIZ region near Pratas/Dongsha Island (東沙島).

After one year of post-Pelosi Chinese ADIZ incursions and military pressure against Taiwan, it is worth considering the patterns in PLA activity that have changed relative to the period before Pelosi’s visit—and to consider the near-term prospects for additional changes to the military balance and cross-Strait status quo in the lead-up to Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election.

Removing “Taiwan” from the “Taiwan Strait”

Since August 2022, the nature of ADIZ incursions has inextricably changed. Before Pelosi’s visit to Taipei, Chinese military aircraft only crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait a total of 23 times (on September 18 and 19, 2020 and May 10, 2022). The number jumped to 563 incursions in 2022 following Pelosi’s visit (although that figure is less than half the total number of southwestern ADIZ incursions, which was 1,166 in 2022). Between January and August 23, 2023, there have been 461 median line crossings and 560 southwestern incursions. [1] By the end of 2023, this year’s total median line crossings will likely exceed the number for 2022.

The trend line of overall ADIZ activity continued to increase between August 2022-2023, with the lowest recorded month of activity (October 2022) seeing 96 incursions. The monthly totals since the Pelosi visit—even at their lowest—represent an overall increase in activity. By making a greater focus on the Taiwan Strait, Chinese military aircraft are conducting their operations closer to Taiwan proper. In turn, this increases the risk for Taipei, by leaving less time to respond to a median line crossing (the median line is about 25 miles from Taiwan’s territorial waters) than to an incursion in the southwestern ADIZ. It also demonstrates to the international community (and people of Taiwan) that the Chinese military has the upper hand—and possibly even control—of the Taiwan Strait, as Taiwan’s military does not have the resources to respond to so many median line crossings. The crossings represent a concerted effort by Beijing to reduce Taiwan’s sovereignty and international image by making the Taiwan Strait less Taiwanese, and more of a PLA training ground. These crossings have also created new questions: how far beyond the median line is too far for Taiwan?

Screenshot 2023 09 18 at 1.04.53 PM

Image: Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (second from right) meeting with on August 24 with an Atlantic Council delegation led by former Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė (second from left). Former US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was also present (rear left). PRC military flights across the Taiwan Strait centerline rose significantly following this visit. (Image source: ROC Presidential Office)

Two Case Studies: Tsai and Lai’s US Stopovers

In the year since Pelosi visited Taipei, she was replaced as Speaker of the House by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who had announced plans to visit Taipei himself. However, McCarthy later changed course after Taipei allegedly warned against such a trip. The two sides compromised, and Speaker McCarthy met President Tsai during her stopover visit in California on April 5, 2023. China’s response to the meeting was a stark contrast to its August 2022 paroxysm. Compared to the 302 median line crossings in August 2022, there were only 135 in April 2023. [1] The overall military response was much shorter and more muted as well, with the bulk of the incursions peaking on April 10. The ADIZ response to the Pelosi visit was much more drawn out over many more days.

However, the McCarthy-Tsai meeting resulted in a new development: Beijing announced a three-day “special joint patrol and inspection operation” in the Taiwan Strait, whereby Chinese military vessels would search ships transiting the waterway. While the operation did not result in any actual vessel stoppages, the announcement sets the stage for a future expansion of this initiative, which could cause a military standoff between the Chinese and Taiwanese militaries in the Taiwan Strait. The operation, if carried out to the fullest extent, would have similarities to Chinese military and militia practices in the South China Sea.

It also set down a clear precedent for Beijing’s future coercive responses: a high-level US official visiting Taiwan will result in a much more significant military response than a similar meeting happening in the United States. The recent stopovers in New York and San Francisco by vice president and leading presidential candidate William Lai (賴清德) demonstrate this point. In the immediate aftermath of his stopovers in mid-August, there were only 26 median line crossings over two days (August 14 and 19). In fact, since the Lai stopover (between August 14 and 19), there only were a total of 37 incursions throughout the entire ADIZ. [1] Granted, Lai’s visits themselves were relatively low-key and less public in the wake of his recent remarks about how it is the long-term goal of Taiwan for its president to visit the White House. On the economic front, Beijing also announced another import ban, this time on Taiwanese mangoes, in response to Lai’s trip.

Based on these two cases, it appears—for now—that Taiwan’s top two government officials traveling through the United States and meeting with US counterparts corresponds to a less robust military response than does a visit to Taiwan by a high-level US government official, such as the Speaker of the House. Since Speaker McCarthy has not completely ruled out a visit to Taiwan, this lesson should be instructive for how to proceed with future US-Taiwan engagements. Also, the muted response to Lai’s stopovers was somewhat surprising given his current lead in the presidential race. This would seem to be something of a missed opportunity by Beijing, as the other two leading candidates—the Kuomintang’s (KMT, 中國國民黨) Hou You-yi (侯友宜), and the Taiwan People’s Party’s (TPP, 台灣民眾黨) Ko Wen-je (柯文哲)—are trying to demonstrate that they can work to reduce cross-Strait tensions, and that Lai’s presidency would result in further deterioration of relations across the Strait. Foxconn (富士康) founder Terry Gou (郭台銘) has also attempted to make this case while announcing his own independent run for the presidency. At the same time, Beijing, determining that the Taiwanese populace has soured on Chinese military adventurism, could have calculated that an overreaction on its part could work in Lai’s favor.

Toward the January Election

The year since Pelosi visited Taiwan and changed the nature of Chinese military incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ has demonstrated that Beijing used the trip to alter the military status quo by breaking the previously existing taboo against crossing the median line. At the same time, the less significant responses to the Tsai and Lai stopovers demonstrated that US officials visiting Taiwan constitute an apparent red line. Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中國共產黨) officials issued stern warnings and threats in response to the Tsai and Lai visits, but that rhetoric did not necessarily translate into ADIZ incursions, as the pattern since 2020 might indicate. In fact, the visit of former US Defense Secretary Mark Esper and former Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė to Taiwan in late August resulted in more provocative aircraft flight paths than the Tsai-Lai stopovers. In days after President Tsai met with the delegation, Chinese military aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) crossed the median line and circumnavigated Taiwan—seemingly confirming this hypothesis.

The second phase of Chinese ADIZ incursions has stabilized since August 2022, when Chinese military aircraft broke through the median line that had created a relatively stable military balance for decades. Incursions still regularly occur in the southwestern region, but now receive less attention because they are considered less provocative than the median line crossings. When Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND, 中華民國國防部) first started publicly reporting the incursions, a large-scale southwestern incursion was considered major news. However, such provocations are barely notable now that Beijing has upped the ante.

The current pattern will likely continue—until Beijing has an opportunity to blame Taipei or Washington for forcing it to change course, with still further pressure. It happened when Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Keith Krach visited Taipei in September 2020, and again when Speaker Pelosi visited in August 2022. Will the next high-level US government official spark the next change? Could the election of William Lai and the further deterioration of Beijing’s chances for peaceful annexation lead to the next phase?

The main point: In the year since then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made her historic trip to Taiwan, Chinese military incursions across the median line of the Taiwan Strait have stabilized and have become another regular part of Beijing’s military coercion of the island. However, it is notable that stopover visits in the United States by President Tsai Ing-wen and Vice President William Lai have not resulted in the same level of military response as occurred after Pelosi’s visit.

[1] These figures are drawn from the database of ADIZ incursions compiled by Ben Lewis and Alex Kung, which draws information from the regular reports released by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense. The database is available at: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1qbfYF0VgDBJoFZN5elpZwNTiKZ4nvCUcs5a7oYwm52g/edit?sharingacti#gid=454305972.