Considering Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

I have said this in other forums, but here is the deal:

PRC military exercises after Pelosi’s visit are akin to silverback male gorillas who run around thrashing branches and beating their chests when annoyed, disturbed or seeking to show dominance. They are certainly dangerous and not to be ignored, but their aggression is about signaling/posturing, not imminent attack. In other words, the behaviour is a demonstration of physical capabilities and general disposition rather than real immediate intent. If and when the PRC assault on Taiwan comes, it will not be telegraphed.

As for why Pelosi, third in the US chain of command, decided to go in spite of PRC threats and bluster. Along with a number of other factors, it was a show of bipartisan, legislative-executive branch resolve in support of Taiwan to allies and the PRC in a midterm election year. SecDef Austin was at her side, so Biden’s earlier claims that the military “did not think that her trip was a good idea” did not result in an institutional rupture over the issue. The show of unity was designed to allay allied concerns and adversary hopes that the US political elite is too divided to act decisively in a foreign crisis while removing a basis for conservative security hawk accusations in an election year that the Biden administration and Democrats are soft on China.

The PRC can threaten/exercise/engage indirect means of retaliation but cannot seriously escalate at this point. It’s launching of intermediate range ballistic missiles over Taiwan and into Japan’s EEZ as part of the response to Pelosi’s visit certainly deserves concerned attention by security elites, as it signals a readiness by the PRC to broaden the conflict into a regional war involving more than the US and Taiwan. But the PRC is too economically invested in Taiwan (especially in microchips and semi-conductors) to risk economic slow downs caused by disruptions of Taiwanese production in the event of war (which likely will be a protracted affair as Taiwan reverts to the “hedgehog” defence strategy common among island nations and facilitated by Formosa’s terrain), and it is not a full peer competitor with the US when it comes to the East Asian regional military balance, especially if US security allies join the conflict on Taiwan’s side.

The PRC must therefore bide its time and wait until its sea-air-land forces are capable of not only invading and occupying Taiwan, but be able to do so in the face of US-led military response across all kinetic and hybrid warfare domains. Pelosi’s visit was a not to subtle reminder of that fact.

So the visit, while provocative and an act of brinkmanship given the CCP is about to hold its 20th National Party Congress in which President Xi Jinping is expected to be re-elected unopposed to another term in office, was at its most basic level simply conveying a message that the US will not be bullied by the PRC on what was a symbolic visit to a disputed territory ruled by an independent democratic government.

For the moment the PRC must content itself with mock charges and thrashing the bush in the form of large-scale military exercises and some non-escalatory retaliation against the US and Taiwan, but it is unlikely to go beyond that at the moment. It remains to be seen if this sits well with nationalists and security hardliners in the CCP who may see what they perceive to be the relatively soft response as a loss of face and evidence of Xi’s lack of will to strike a blow for the Motherland when he has the chance and which could have also served as a good patriotic diversion from domestic woes caused by Covid and the ripple effect economic slowdown associated with it.

In that light, the Party Congress should give us a better idea if the factional undercurrents operating within the CCP will now spill out into the open over the Pelosi’s visit. If so, perhaps there was even more to the calculus behind her trip than what I have outlined above.

6 thoughts on “Considering Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.”

  1. Thanks so much for this. I love your analogy to the gorillas – made me laugh – and when I look at footage of the retaliatory action of the Chinese it is a very apt analogy (the tank driving through holiday-makers, children, on the beach, among other things). It is laughable, if it wasn’t war games. I knew their missiles had been fired over the Island, but not that they had gone into Japan’s EEZ – that is serious.
    In your other comments, are you suggesting that China is not as strong as the US in east Asia?
    A possible ‘protracted war’ you say – I have always thought it would be easy for China to overrun this Island, its a ‘david and goliath’ scenario surely.
    ‘A soft response’? Gosh, if that is soft … It was concerning, but your piece puts it more in perspective, and the continued analogy of the Chinese ‘thrashing the bush’ (we’ve all seen that footage of the gorillas haven’t we lol) makes it seem slightly less threatening. (Is this true – the Chinese it now seems will look to the smallest excuse to advance their regaining the territory of Taiwan.) More importantly there must be fallout from the Chinese withdrawal of all contact with the US concerning other important issues like climate change. A further advance towards their goal of reunification with Taiwan. Shouldn’t we really be worried?

    Thanks so much and kind regards.

    PS and why did the West adopt the ‘One China’ policy in the first place? Convenience? Trade? purely for co-operation?

  2. Thanks Barbara,

    For the comments. The US still has the edge when it comes to East Asian regional military superiority, but that is eroding fast. The PLA will not be at the forefront of the assault on Taiwan. That will be left to the PLAAF and PLAN, with amphibious elements and paratroopers sent in to provide the boots on the ground. But with a tenacious hedgehog defence and US backing, Taiwan can make any such venture a protracted struggle and prohibitively costly for the PRC–at this moment. Ten years from now? Who knows.

    The two aspects that are most worrisome about this latest bust up is the PRC firing IRBMs over Taiwan (what would have happened if one misfired and landed not he island?) and its withdrawal from channels of communication on other issues like climate change. They are signalling that they can regionalise the war in a hurry and that they are prepared to cut back on global matters of concern in order to prevail on the issue of Taiwanese independence/sovereignty/autonomy. The capture of Hong Kong has embossed PRC nationalists even though they realise that Taiwan is a whole different kettle of fish, so the move into non-military policy areas signals either hardline commitment to re-taking Taiwan (and hardline dominance in foreign policy circles over more moderate or softlink factions), or some semi-rational posturing before the 75th Party Conference. Either way, things are afoot within the CCP that are bringing a more strident tone to its rhetoric.

    I am not up on the history but I believe that the “One China ” policy originated with Kissinger’s opening to the PRC in the early 70s, which among other things was premised on the US renouncing its recognition of the Republic of China/Taipei/Taiwan/Formosa as an independent state and adopting what became the “One State, Two Systems” approach that was eventually used in Hong Kong (and we see how that went). Once the US adopted that new policy (which happened in 1979 under the Carter administration), its has had to revise and refine what its relationship is with the island state, which among other things resulted in the passing of the Taiwan Relations Act in force to this day. Meanwhile the PRC has been nibbling away at Taiwans freedom to move in international circles by buying off small country votes in international forums in exchange for their de-recognition of Taiwan (one example is the 2019 Solomon Islands recognition of the PRC and termination of diplomatic relations with Taiwan, something that has led directly to massive PRC investment in primary good extraction in that country and the latest bilateral security pact that has Western analysts agitated). However, Taiwan has turned into a economic powerhouse that is integrally linked–vitally so in some economic areas–to the PRC, so it has been able to maintain itself as a prosperous democracy since the 1990 in spite of PRC pressure and periodic threats.

    Anyway, for a primer on US Taiwan relations check this out: https://www.csis.org/analysis/what-us-one-china-policy-and-why-does-it-matter

  3. Thanks Barbara,

    For the comments. The US still has the edge when it comes to East Asian regional military superiority, but that is eroding fast. The PLA will not be at the forefront of the assault on Taiwan. That will be left to the PLAAF and PLAN, with amphibious elements and paratroopers sent in to provide the boots on the ground. But with a tenacious hedgehog defence and US backing, Taiwan can make any such venture a protracted struggle and prohibitively costly for the PRC–at this moment. Ten years from now? Who knows.

    The two aspects that are most worrisome about this latest bust up is the PRC firing IRBMs over Taiwan (what would have happened if one misfired and landed on the island?) and its withdrawal from channels of communication on other issues like climate change. They are signalling that they can regionalise the war in a hurry and that they are prepared to cut back on global matters of concern in order to prevail on the issue of Taiwanese independence/sovereignty/autonomy. The capture of Hong Kong has emboldened PRC nationalists even though they realise that Taiwan is a whole different kettle of fish, so the move into non-military policy areas signals either hardline commitment to re-taking Taiwan (and hardline dominance in foreign policy circles over more moderate or softlink factions), or some semi-rational posturing before the 75th Party Conference. Either way, things are afoot within the CCP that are bringing a more strident tone to its rhetoric.

    I am not up on the history but I believe that the “One China ” policy originated with Kissinger’s opening to the PRC in the early 70s, which among other things was premised on the US renouncing its recognition of the Republic of China/Taipei/Taiwan/Formosa as an independent state and adopting what became the “One State, Two Systems” approach that was eventually used in Hong Kong (and we see how that went). Once the US adopted that new policy (which happened in 1979 under the Carter administration), it has had to revise and refine what its relationship is with the island state, which among other things resulted in the passing of the Taiwan Relations Act that is in force to this day. Meanwhile the PRC has been nibbling away at Taiwans freedom to move in international circles by buying off small country votes in international forums in exchange for their de-recognition of Taiwan (one example is the 2019 Solomon Islands recognition of the PRC and termination of diplomatic relations with Taiwan, something that has led directly to massive PRC investment in primary good extraction in that country and the latest bilateral security pact that has Western analysts agitated). However, thanks to Western investment and domestic ingenuity and entrepreneurship,Taiwan has turned into an economic powerhouse that is integrally linked–vitally so in some economic areas–to the PRC, so it has been able to maintain itself as a prosperous democracy since the 1990 in spite of PRC pressure and periodic threats.

    Anyway, for a primer on US Taiwan relations check this out: https://www.csis.org/analysis/what-us-one-china-policy-and-why-does-it-matter

  4. The PRC is facing some serious demographic problems which could make sending off young men to die even more of a problem in a decade or two. Rather like Russia but more so (1.16 children per woman vs. Russia’s 1.52), and Putin’s response to that problem was to attack Ukraine while it was still a solid option. Probably it’s one of the reasons he did so anyway.
    Do you think there’s any pressure for quick action within China due to this? Quick meaning less than a decade. An invasion looks unlikely to succeed now but a blockade might be possible, at least if Trump or a lookalike becomes US President.

  5. Assuming the PRC are watching the west’s reaction to Putin invading Ukraine- do you think that seems like a disincentive regarding invading Taiwan, or not a real worry to them?

  6. Fletcher and AVR:

    Good questions. The demographic pressures are incentive for the PRC to move sooner rather than later but it has two problems. First, Ukraine has shown that even a vastly larger military can be stymied by a resolute and better trained force that receives continuous re-supply from third parties. Dragging out the conflict plays into Taiwan’s hands, and given that there is a significant water passage to traverse rather than contiguous land approaches, the task of subduing Taiwan will be more difficult than Ukraine even if the island is smaller than the Ukrainian land mass. It could well a block-by-block, meter -by- meter affair even with preliminary bombardments to “soften” Taiwanese defences.

    A blockade might work but then again blockades work both ways: if the US and its allies engage in counted-measures or mine the access routes to key PRC ports and help take out strategic airfields (which they likely will), the maritime space will become very congested, contested and therefore stalemated. Issues of comparative re-supply then come to the fore.

    The second problem is that a protracted occupation of Taiwan will be increasingly difficult due to PRC demographic pressures and the steady resistance of Taiwan and its allies, even if the Taiwanese have to revert to guerrilla warfare both in urban as well as rural areas (remember that Formosa is a very hilly jungle covered island). The PLA is at its largest right now but will not be centrally involved in an assault on Taiwan other than paratroopers and specialist amphibious units. This will be mostly an air-sea conflict, and even if the PRC decides to level Taiwan with ballistic missile fire prior to a full invasion, the economic repercussions and reality of ongoing resistance from well-entrenched and dug-in guerrilla units makes the costs of invading prohibitively high at this juncture. The longer the fight goes on the less likely than the PRC can completely prevail and may have to try for some sort of accomodation. Like the Ukrainians, the Taiwanese are unlikely to be in a conciliatory mood after being invaded but not completely defeated.

    Plus, none of the PRC military forces have faced a real peer military in battle. If the US and other allies join int he defence of Taiwan and put kinetic pressure on PLA, PLAN and PLAA forces, it is likely that the lack of combat experience will be seen from the ranks all the way up into the command and control levels.

    But it is true that hawks in the PRC, including military-security professionals, believe the time to strike is now while the US is (perceived as) weak and its alliance commitments are fragile. The idea is that a large thrust against Taiwan right now will leave the US alliance structure in disarray, especially given the commitment of resources to Ukraine’s defence. NATO cannot really help Taiwan so it will have to be East Asian, SE Asian and Australasian partners who are willing to sacrifice men and material in the defence of Taiwan. That is very much an open question, and if they fail to respond then the PRC can later the regional geopolitical status quo in its favour even if it does not achieve all of its strategic goals vis a vis Taiwan.

    When you add the upcoming CCP congress and Xi’s quest for a third presidential term and the cultural obsession with saving face and upholding Han honour, and the stage is set for a rash move over the short term.

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