How far will China’s Aggression Go?

By Joseph DeTrani, Former Special Envoy for Six-Party Talks with North Korea

Ambassador DeTrani served as the U.S. Representative to the Korea Energy Development Organization (KEDO), as well as former CIA director of East Asia Operations. He also served as Associate Director of National Intelligence and Mission Manager for North Korea and the Director of the National Counter Proliferation Center, ODNI.  He currently serves on the Board of Managers at Sandia National Laboratories.

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — China’s reaction to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was even more aggressive than anticipated. Fighter jets crossing the median line and flying into Taiwan’s airspace, naval vessels encircling the island, live ammunition drills and missiles flying over Taiwan and impacting waters adjacent to Taiwan, an embargo of products from Taiwan, sanctions on Speaker Pelosi and her family and a suspension of talks with the United States on issues of mutual concern, like counternarcotics and climate change. 

These were some of the actions taken by China which literally, has implemented a blockade of Taiwan. Hopefully, this extreme reaction to Pelosi’s recent trip will abate and China will refrain from launching ballistic missiles that fly over Taiwan, jet fighter aircraft that enter Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and naval vessels encroaching into Taiwan’s territorial waters, while lifting the embargo on products from Taiwan.  Returning to the status quo between China and Taiwan, while both proceed to a peaceful resolution of issues that have impeded progress toward reunification, should be the desired goal.

China’s likely justification for its extreme reaction to the Pelosi visit could be a perception that the U.S. changed its established policy on Taiwan and was moving away from a one China policy, despite President Joe Biden’s repeated affirmation of a one China policy.

While mindful of China’s perception of events in the U.S. regarding Taiwan, it’s equally important that China understand why the U.S. and Taiwan are concerned that China is no longer supportive of the status quo and a peaceful path to reunification. Indeed, a concern that China’s leadership has decided to eventually use its military for reunification purposes.

Given this real concern, it’s understandable that Taiwan is working to upgrade its military capabilities and increase the percentage of its GDP for its national defense, while the U.S. provides Taiwan with the military weaponry necessary for defensive purposes.  The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979  clearly states: “…the decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means and to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by  boycotts or embargoes, a threat to peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”

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It’s not only China’s recent aggressive behavior in the Taiwan Strait and encroachment into Taiwan’s air and sea spaces, but China’s recent policy toward Hong Kong that has unsettled the international community. The 1997 Basic Law agreement with the United Kingdom, reverting Hong Kong to China that guaranteed for fifty years – until 2047 – Hong Kong would be a Special Administrative Region, retaining its own economic and governing system and the rule of law and other freedoms, was decided by China’s supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, in his 1984 agreement with the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.  Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to abandon this agreement and in 2020, to establish a National Security Law was a shock to the international community and to Taiwan in particular.  This not only discarded the Basic Law agreement, but it also abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s “One Country Two Systems” policy for dealing with Hong Kong, an approach that could have resonated with Taiwan. 

Indeed, there was a sense, certainly during the presidencies of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, that a “One Country Two Systems” policy would be applied to Taiwan, with interest in Taiwan in such a system.  It was during this period that there was – and continues to be – considerable Taiwan investment and manufacturing in China and an open border that permitted flights between China and Taiwan and considerable tourism.

During the ten years of Xi Jinping’s presidency starting in 2013, China has pursued an assertive foreign policy agenda, not only with its wolf warrior diplomats, but also in its actions in the South and East China seas and its approach toward Taiwan.

With the upcoming 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress scheduled for the Fall of 2022, Xi Jinping will secure a third term as the party’s Secretary General and President, another decision that overturned Deng Xiaoping’s policy of term limits – and collective leadership.

Given the myriad of domestic issues affecting China, with COVID-19 lockdowns, real estate foreclosures, outstanding loans affecting banks and other financial institutions, high unemployment and a stressed manufacturing sector and export constraints, with dismal GDP growth projections , this logically is a time for Xi Jinping to focus on the economy and ensuring that trade (over $600 billion) and relations with the United Sates and the European Union are not adversely affected by aggression toward Taiwan, and the possibility of intentional or accidental war.

Maintaining the status quo with Taiwan and working to restore a dialogue and relationship with the Democratic Progressive Party, headed by President Tsai Ing-wen, as China had with Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-Jeou, would be a prudent approach to eventual reconciliation and an eventual peaceful reunification of Taiwan with China.

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