China’s reaction to the visit by Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, to Taipei is already leading it to be termed the ‘Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis.’ The first two crises took place in 1954 and 1958, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) shelled the Taiwanese held islands of Kinmen, while the third followed in 1995-6. It was sparked initially by a visit by then Taiwanese president Lee Deng-hui to the US to receive an honorary degree, then a few months later, in response to the first direct elections for a president in Taiwan. In a crude attempt to warn Taiwanese against choosing a ‘pro-independence’ candidate, the PLA Navy ‘test fired’ missiles into waters close to Taiwan.
The gambit backfired badly. First, then US President Clinton sent two aircraft carrier task forces into the area in a show of strength, forcing the PLA Navy to back down. Second, boosted by the Chinese threats, Lee Deng-hui won the election comfortably.
Humiliated, the Chinese leadership drew two lessons. The first was to build up the PLA, its Navy especially. Several years of double-digit growth in Chinese defence spending followed, including the acquisition and construction of new aircraft carriers and an ambitious missile program. This approach has yielded results. In response to Pelosi’s visit, the PLA Navy demonstrated its ability to blockade Taiwan in the process daring the US to respond.
The second was that the Taiwanese were unlikely to respond well to threats and intimidation. So, after Hu Jintao assumed the Chinese leadership in 2002, the door was kept open to dialogue with the Taiwanese government, even though under Lee’s successor Chen Shui-bian, ‘pro-independence’ tendencies were even sharper. Notwithstanding occasional bellicose rhetoric and the passing of an ‘Anti-secession law’ in 2005, publicly China took the line that ‘time was on its side’ and carried on talking.
This led to bilateral agreements on regular direct flights, on tourism, and on shipping. The election in Taiwan in 2008 of Ma Ying-jeou as president, considered by China as friendlier than his predecessors, led to these agreements being implemented quickly, and was followed by a much broader trade agreement (the Economic Co-operation and Framework Agreement) in 2010. Ma was comfortably re-elected in 2012 for a second term. China’s strategy seemed to be working.
Then in 2012, Xi Jinping succeeded Hu Jintao as China’s leader, replacing Hu’s consensual approach to governance with a more populist and autocratic style. For Xi, it was no longer enough that ‘time was on [China’s] side.’ He pressed Ma to move further and faster towards integration, with disastrous results. Ma’s attempt in early 2014 to fast track an agreement on trade in services led to student-led mass protests and eventually the agreement was withdrawn. Then in late 2015, when Ma was a lame-duck president with only a few months left in office, Xi met him in Singapore, the first time that the leaders of China and Taiwan had met face to face. Such a meeting should have been hailed as a breakthrough and Xi doubtless wanted it to be seen as such, but the timing was terrible. With presidential elections again due in Taiwan, it was widely dismissed on the island as another cynical attempt by China to influence the outcome.
Predictably, perhaps, the Taiwanese electorate chose the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen as president, rather than the more China-friendly candidate of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). To make the outcome worse for Xi, anecdotal evidence suggests that in meeting Ma he had over-ruled the advice of his own officials. China has never forgiven Tsai for her victory, even though she has gone to considerable lengths to emphasise her commitment to the status quo and desire for good relations. Since she took office, China has ended government-level contacts, persuaded at least eight of the few countries which still recognised Taiwan to switch their recognition and forced international companies to describe Taiwan on their websites as a ‘province of China,’ while pouring money into the Taiwanese media to influence its standpoints.
For a while, the strategy seemed to be working. In mid-2019, ahead of the January 2020 elections, the KMT’s candidate was showing a strong lead in opinion polls, only for it to disappear as concern grew over the handling by China of protests in Hong Kong. Tsai was re-elected comfortably with an increased majority.
In this context, for Xi Jinping Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is a humiliation and therefore impossible to downplay or ignore. Not only has it undermined his efforts to ‘punish’ Tsai by isolating her internationally, but it has also achieved the rare feat of uniting Taiwan’s normally divided legislature in support. His petulant reaction seems likely only to encourage more international backing for Taiwan and reinforce demands for formal independence.