Things changed this week for Taiwan. When news of a highly controversial visit by the US speaker Nancy Pelosi drew threats of reprisals from Beijing, most citizens shrugged. China’s government frequently fulminates over foreign visits to Taiwan, which it claims is a Chinese province it will soon retake, and with which it tries to stop any international cooperation. Its regular promises of countermeasures rarely exceed some People’s Liberation Army jets flying in and out of Taiwan’s large air defence identification zone (ADIZ).
But analysts warned that this time looked different. Beijing’s protests were louder, and more threatening, and gave little room for either them or the US to retreat without losing credibility. This time, it would have to follow through with something bigger, they said.
Shortly after Pelosi arrived, Beijing announced military drills in six sea areas surrounding the main island of Taiwan, starting the morning after her departure and running to Sunday. The plan was unprecedented in how close the zones were to Taiwan, including some that overlapped Taiwan’s territorial waters stretching 7 miles (12km) out from its coastline.
Pelosi addressed parliament and met with the president, senior ministers, dignitaries and officials on Wednesday before flying out that afternoon.
Thursday morning began with reports of multiple warplane incursions into the ADIZ, and cyber-attacks targeting the websites of the president’s office, and the ministries of foreign affairs and defence. Signboards at railway stations and in-store screens at the ubiquitous 7-11 stores were also hacked, to display messages calling Pelosi a warmonger in the simplified Chinese text used in China.
It then escalated dramatically. The PLA fired almost a dozen Dongfeng ballistic missiles on Thursday, and made dozens of incursions over the highly symbolic median line. Japan said at least five missiles landed within its exclusive economic zone, and some had flown over Taiwan’s main island, just south of Taipei.
Taiwan sent navy vessels to the median line to drive away the PLA, scrambled jets and deployed land-based missile systems to monitor the situation. The president, Tsai Ing-wen, called for international condemnation.
The US, Japan, Australia, the EU, the G7, and Asean were among the foreign governments or multilateral groups to condemn hostilities or call for calm. The US accused China of choosing to overreact, while its secretary of state, Antony Blinken, told Asean China’s reaction was “flagrantly provocative”.
Beijing only doubled down. It accused its critics of being evil, of interfering with internal affairs, and declared its response to be just and right. Chinese military officials lauded their tactics as demonstrating the sort of major blockade it would one day use against Taiwan for real. Its ambassador to France told a reporter Taiwan’s people would be “re-educated”, alarming those familiar with China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. It announced sanctions against Pelosi and her direct relatives, before suspending or cancelling multiple cooperation mechanisms and dialogues with the US.
The ministry of foreign affairs also pledged “more countermeasures”.
‘This happens frequently’
But amid the round-the-clock global coverage, there was still a distinct lack of panic among Taiwanese. Reporters roamed coastal spots near the drill zones, looking for quotes but finding few in fear. In the capital, Taipei, people ate their lunches in city restaurants as warships steamed across wall-mounted television screens. Online, people shared memes and joked about an anti-US protester photographed outside Pelosi’s hotel, holding a sign made with pieced-together printed papers that was evidently supposed to say “Warmonger Pelosi” but instead read “ongerwarm osiPel”.
Social media commenters brushed it all off as not real military action. “The CCP has no real ability and can only put on some performances,” said one.
On the popular holiday island of Xiaoliuqiu, just miles from the edge of the largest zone to Taiwan’s south, some tourism operators reported cancellations, but others said people actually went to the island in the apparent hope of catching some of the action.
Ms Lee, a tour boat employee, told the Guardian they had more passengers than usual for a Thursday. “These people thought they could see it once they got to Xiaoliuqiu, but they couldn’t,” she said, blaming their confusion on the media. The passengers weren’t scared and neither was she.
“The mainland does this very often. Whenever any country‘s leaders visit Taiwan, the mainland will start drills in the outer sea area around Taiwan. This happens frequently.”
Inside Taiwan, there is real gratitude towards Pelosi, despite the potentially dangerous fallout. Outside the airport on Wednesday, young Timothy Lee said she had “risked her life” to visit and show Taiwan support. Lee Ming-che, a Taiwanese activist who was recently released from a Chinese jail after five years, was one of three former political prisoners to meet Pelosi. He told the Guardian her visit showed young people they should keep defending human rights.
“She is an 82-year-old and not giving up,” Lee said. “She has not given up and Taiwan should not give up.”
Managing the fallout
Beijing says it wants unification by peaceful means, and that the Taiwanese people would be supportive were it not for “extremist” propaganda by the governing Democratic Progressive party. The data doesn’t back this up, and now, with years of PLA incursions, these highly aggressive drills, and Chinese officials talking about “re-education” of the Taiwanese population, it’s hard to see unification being happily accepted. Opinions vary across Taiwan, and are influenced by family, history, and geography, but even the KMT (Kuomintang party), historically favourable to friendly ties with China, has condemned the drills as “belligerent acts” that should be “condemned by the entire civilised world”.
There are major fears that with so many PLA, Taiwanese, Japanese and US warplanes and navy ships in the region, there is a high risk of an accident escalating into real conflict.
“What’s even more concerning is I’m not sure there are existing crisis management mechanisms [including communication] in place to manage the fallout if an incident were to occur,” said Amanda Hsiao, the senior China analyst with the Crisis Group.
Most of the drills are scheduled to end on Sunday, with one zone active throughout Monday. Should they conclude without this happening, next week will be the start of a new normal for Taiwan and China.
“As long as there is no response and no accident, Beijing will feel as though it has demonstrated its displeasure and potentially deterred future high level visits of this kind,” said a Lowy Institute analyst, Natasha Kassam.
Hsiao said it is likely that China will start focusing on “regularising” the median line incursions, diluting the significance of that once-respected unofficial border in the same way it has extended itself in the South China Sea.
Kassam also thinks China will likely be emboldened now to operate much closer to Taiwan than it was before. But she said this week may also have backfired on it. “China’s aggression in the wake of Speaker Pelosi’s visit has shifted the status quo to some extent but it’s also drawn more international attention.”