China has created acute tensions in the Taiwan Strait with four days of unprecedented and provocative military exercises around the island in response to the visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the August 2nd. In the aftermath of the drills and the withdrawal of forces, Chinese military pressure on Taiwan remained strong, even as threatening rhetoric from Beijing subsided. Further Chinese military escalation could change the situation yet again.
For now, the impact of the crisis has strengthened the US government’s resolve to counter Chinese challenges over Taiwan and other issues.
Reactions and debate in the United States
Reactions to the crisis saw an outpouring of alarmed media and expert commentary strongly criticizing Pelosi’s visit for endangering US national security. A more limited administration and comments from Congress have targeted China for overreacting and trying to subvert growing US support for Taiwan. The debate gave greater prominence to the significant differences between Americans on US policy toward China and Taiwan.
On one side of the American debate is the so-called Washington Consensus, with bipartisan majorities in Congress working closely with Trump and Biden administration officials as part of an overall policy toughening. that spanned years, creating a “whole of government” effort to counter Beijing’s security, economic and governance challenges.
Since 2018, two challenges have been considered particularly dangerous existential threats to the fundamental national security and well-being of the United States. The first is the Chinese effort to undermine US power and influence in Asia, allowing Beijing to dominate. The second is the Chinese effort to seek dominance in the high-tech industries of the future. Such dominance would make the United States subservient to Chinese economic might and, because such technology is essential to modern national security, subservient to Chinese military might.
Supporting Taiwan as an important partner in addressing these challenges remains a top priority.
On the other side of the American debate are many American scholars and commentators on China and foreign policy from a variety of backgrounds, as well as large corporations and investment firms and universities and their high-tech specialists with strong institutional and personal interests in close cooperation with China. Generally speaking, they oppose US toughening of China, including increased support for Taiwan, arguing that it is based on an excessive view of Chinese challenges, counterproductive for economic development and innovation of the United States, and increases the danger of a Sino-American war. The focus is on building a comprehensive relationship between the United States and China acceptable to both parties. During the recent Taiwan crisis, the United States was advised to fully understand and consider Beijing’s concerns about American intentions towards Taiwan, which Beijing sees crossing its so-called “red lines”. “.
In contrast, the Taiwanese government and its American supporters believe that such American assurances of China in the past have diminished American support for Taiwan. Notably, in response to the danger posed by provocative Chinese actions during the last major Taiwan Strait crisis in 1995-96, the Clinton administration in 1995 abruptly turned against Taiwan and accommodated Beijing, preparing to end restrictions imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and hosting a summit meeting long sought after by Chinese leaders. It was not until the end of nine months of intermittent Chinese military demonstrations in 1996 that the administration sent two carrier battle groups to confront Chinese forces threatening Taiwan.
For those in Congress and the administration who are focused on defending the United States against very threatening challenges from China, prioritizing reassuring the United States to Beijing on Taiwan seems out of place. American assurances to the government of Xi Jinping have been attempted on several occasions by the government of Barack Obama; they were seen as enabling Chinese exploitation and manipulation, as American efforts to counter Chinese expansionism and other nefarious practices were failing badly.
Many have recently pointed to China’s strong alignment with Russia. Beijing’s strident opposition to US moves to sanction Vladimir Putin’s government and support Ukraine with advanced US weapons is seen as emblematic of the danger the United States faces from China as well as from Russia, justifying ever greater American determination. The fates of Ukraine and Taiwan are intertwined in the case for greater US determination to counter China. August’s bipartisan passage of the multibillion-dollar CHIPS and Science Act plus the many anti-China features of the Cut Inflation Act of 2022 — a product of unusual unity among Democrats – reflected a strong concentration of the administration and Congress to counter Beijing.
US government actions
Overall, the US government’s actions so far reflect a continued resolve in the face of China’s challenges and its support for Taiwan.
Despite China’s aggressive response to Pelosi’s trip, there has been no change in US congressional visits to Taiwan. Other congressional delegations took advantage of the summer recess to press ahead with visits less than two weeks after Pelosi’s visit sparked the military crisis.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration has advanced negotiations seen as leading to a sophisticated and closer economic relationship between Taiwan and the United States in several ways, in line with the bilateral free trade agreement long sought by Taiwan and by many Taiwan Congress supporters. A Taiwanese agriculture-focused delegation is expected to sign several agreements during a high-profile visit to Washington, DC, next week.
Despite various revelations about the US administration’s angst over Pelosi’s visit and the Chinese backlash, the Biden administration’s public stance has remained firm in criticizing China for its overreaction. The administration has repeatedly confessed that the United States will not be intimidated. The Washington Post reported on Aug. 20 that Biden had refused a private request from Xi Jinping days before Pelosi’s visit that the administration block the visit.
As the administration had promised, the United States resumed publicized warship transits through the Taiwan Strait on August 28 with two battlecruisers, significantly larger and more powerfully armed than the usual U.S. destroyers used. in such transits. China’s public response has been muted.
Politico reported — later publicly confirmed by the White House — that an arms sales package including advanced missiles and a sophisticated radar system worth a collective $1.1 billion was being notified to Congress.
The Congress also conducted other business as usual, seeking to end the 117th Congress with several major legislative achievements to counter challenges from China. And in early September, the Biden administration rolled out its plan to spend $50 billion on manufacturing advanced computer chips targeting China. He also sidelined lobbying by U.S. industry to implement tougher export controls, cutting off Chinese military and civilian AI firms from needed components.
On the other hand, the administration and congressional supporters reportedly worked to prevent legislation to overhaul US policy toward Taiwan. A bill that would have significantly advanced U.S. political and other relations with Taiwan was set to pass the Senate in August. However, the legislation was postponed after the summer recess, allowing for planned revisions to change language seen as particularly sensitive in Beijing.
In sum, the situation is likely to change, but the Washington Consensus remains united and the direction of US policy toward China and Taiwan is clear.