After US Speaker of House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan between August the 2nd and 3rd, frictions over Taiwan’s status have accelerated. China labelled the visit as a dangerous provocation and infringement of the One China Principle, launching unprecedented live-fire military drills around the island between August the 4th and 7th. In the following days, Beijing also conducted other military exercises with aircrafts’ and vessels’ incursions, with the aim of violating the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) declared by Taipei and the median line of the Taiwan Strait.
To prevent a Chinese-ruled Taiwan Strait as a “fait accompli” and to emphasise the very existence of the median line, two US Navy ships entered the Strait on August the 28th. Though it used to be a standard route in the past, it was the first time this move occurred, following Pelosi’s controversial trip. The operation was presented as testament to the US’ commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific as well as to freedom of navigation. Allowing China to undermine free transit through the Strait would result in a strategic advantage for Beijing which, in turn, might severely affect the Taiwanese — and global — economy. Indeed, almost half of the of the world’s container ships have transited through the Strait this year, especially the largest ones. In addition, 1 million barrels of oil are carried by tankers through the Strait every day.
The issue of Taiwan’s status has also resurged as a central subject in the international debate in light of the war in Ukraine. In February, questions over China’s willingness to match the Russian invasion with an invasion of Taiwan were a hot topic among observers. This was also based on recurring calls by PRC’s President and CCP General Secretary, Xi Jinping, for the island’s complete unification with mainland China to accomplish China’s full rise.
Against this backdrop, the US’ strategic ambiguity — that is, the practice of being intentionally ambiguous over Taiwan’s status — has also been thrown into question. In fact, President Biden has cast doubt over the practice on three separate occasions, declaring that the US would help Taipei military in the face of a Chinese attack. Those declarations were immediately downgraded as “gaffes” by the Biden administration. However, a triple mistake can also be interpreted as a subtle strategy to bring up the notion as a feasible scenario or, in the very least, as the indication of Biden’s earnest personal position.
Gaffes, visits, and military drills have re-ignited tensions around Taiwan over the past month. Nonetheless, this scenario could be further exacerbated in the coming months. Indeed, this fall will mark a sensitive moment for domestic politics in both Washington and Beijing between the US mid-term elections in November and the XX Congress of the Chinese Communist Party from October the 16th. Now more than ever, Taiwan has become a flagship issue of US-China competition. I Identity statements by Chinese officials and US lawmakers will abound in order to gain the support of a nationalistic — and increasingly radicalized — domestic voter base. It is not by chance that, after Pelosi’s visit, three additional US delegations have travelled to Taiwan, even if only for a brief photo opportunity. In China, waving the banner of the reunification with Taiwan is as well an easy option to shift the focus from domestic issues, such as the effects of Xi Jinping’s Zero-Covid policy or the state of Chinese economy. Should new Covid variants spread across the country, or the economy slow any further, from China we should expect an increasingly audacious stance on Taiwan.
With regards to the Taiwan issue in general, and to Pelosi’s visit in particular, the reactions from America’s regional partners such as India and South Korea hold a great significance. South Korean President Yoon did not interrupt his vacation to meet Pelosi in Seoul. Yoon, who was elected last spring, had already shown a clear commitment to side with the US he participated in the Nato Summit and expressed his will to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). Not to meet Pelosi was a source of major debate in Seoul. Whether he wanted to avoid any diplomatic friction with Beijing, or whether his refusal to meet Pelosi depended on a lack of interest in foreign affairs, in any case this episode cast doubt with regards to the role South Korea could play in the Indo-Pacific architecture. On the other side, India proved to be more aware of its own international role. New Delhi is at the same time blaming China for militarizing the Strait, carefully distilling its adherence to the One-China policy, and joining military exercise organized by Russia in Vostok along with China. Once again, India is emerging as the player who gained the most from the war in Ukraine. New Delhi is the partner that both sides – the West and the Us vs. China and Russia – need to show the international community that they represent the interests of a global majority.