July 30, 2022 - 10:45am

With warnings of world war forming a dark cloud over the recent Aspen gathering of the American national security elite, it is not surprising that major foreign policy experts and even long-time Taiwan advocates are advising caution when it comes to Nancy Pelosi’s proposed trip to Taiwan. It does not take a Kissingerian realist to grasp that, with the Ukraine War showing signs of escalation, this is no time for the U.S. to risk a major showdown in the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing has made it clear that the visit will have negative consequences and Xi Jinping even warned Joe Biden explicitly on a 28 July phone call not to “play with fire.” A Pelosi visit to the island would be the highest level U.S. visit since 1997. Stable and constructive U.S.-China relations are integral to the future of the planet, whether considering climate change, pandemic response, global economic development prospects, nuclear weapons proliferation, or avoiding catastrophic great power military conflict.  Therefore, political stunts on the sensitive Taiwan question, or what could be termed ‘poking the dragon in the eye,’ should be avoided by responsible Western leaders.

In fact, it is quite unlikely that China would launch an attack against Taiwan in the very near future. The country has been facing serious near-term governance and economic challenges related to the pandemic.  At the same time, the war in Ukraine has been a sobering lesson for China’s leaders regarding the inevitable costs of wars and may suggest ways in which the PLA needs to adapt to modern warfare. The upcoming 20th Party Congress will be absorbing much of the energy of China’s leaders in the coming months. Finally, some key recent breakthroughs for China’s military in long-range strike operations, amphibious warfare, and also anti-submarine warfare, may imply that a few more years are needed for China to prepare in earnest for a Taiwan contingency.

Nevertheless, the trend lines are ominous. Most of China’s attack forces do appear to be already in place, ranging from thousands of cruise missiles and drones to hundreds of new helicopters and large transport aircraft for delivering airborne assaults directly into the island’s vulnerable interior — thus securing the beachheads from behind. Moreover, China’s leaders are well aware that many special weapons shipments to Taiwan are delayed by the massive demands for high-tech arms and munitions emanating from Kyiv. 

There is a considerable danger that as the war continues to escalate in Eastern Europe that Chinese leaders may see an opportunity to resolve the Taiwan issue while the West is distracted and increasingly fatigued by the war in Ukraine. In a hint of what terrible risks could come from a US-China war over Taiwan, it is all too plain that Beijing is rapidly building up its nuclear forces in case such an eventuality comes to pass.

In general, the China threat to the U.S. and even to Taiwan is much over-hyped.  For example, the PLA has not sought to interfere with or block any U.S. Navy transits of the Taiwan Strait that have been occurring with ever greater frequency. Likewise, Chinese military aircraft sorties into the western Pacific are often criticised in the Western media as penetrations of Taiwan air space. That is not at all true, since the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) is so expansive as to cover a major portion of the Chinese coastline — nor do such zones have any legal basis.

Many have fixated, moreover, on the possibility of a Pelosi visit, while ignoring the overall pattern, which has seen Washington steadily denigrate the meaning of the One China Policy. Examples include the relatively new $250 million embassy-like facility constructed by the U.S. in Taipei, accelerating weapons sales, the famous phone call between Donald Trump and Tsai Ying-wen, and a parade of American senators, military leaders, and senior diplomats through Taipei. These actions have all worked toward the end of condemning the historic compromise established by the Shanghai Communique to a death by a thousand cuts. Needless to say, a new law now under consideration on Capitol Hill to update the Taiwan Relations Act, which would officially pronounce Taiwan as a ‘non-NATO ally’ of the United States, fits this same pattern of provocatively ‘poking the dragon’ by Washington.

Asia-Pacific experts are keen to learn the lessons of the ongoing Ukraine War for any conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Foremost among these lessons should be the understanding that the West should not wantonly transgress upon the clear red lines of other great powers.

Lyle Goldstein is Director of Asia Engagement at Defense Priorities. He is also a visiting Professor at Brown University and tweets at @lylegoldstein.