It's Not Just Pelosi. Why Are the U.S. and China Clashing Over Taiwan Now? | Opinion

Taiwan has always been a potential flashpoint between the United States and the People's Republic of China, but as Beijing kicks off live-fire exercises following Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's departure from the island, it is worth considering what has changed between the U.S. and China. What is bringing matters to such an acrimonious and dangerous boil?

As always, the answer isn't simple. Internal dynamics are playing a key part and warrant attention before they are allowed to precipitate a worse crisis. The war in Ukraine may also be playing a significant role. While this round of saber-rattling is unlikely to erupt immediately in war, it will likely bring with it increased economic disruption and pressurize an already-tense relationship at a particularly inopportune time, as global markets stagger, inflation surges upward, and COVID continues to ravage the globe.

Beijing has long held the view that a violent invasion of Taiwan is within their rights to "reunify" the island with mainland China, despite Taiwan never having been under control of the Chinese Communist Party government or part of the People's Republic of China. But even Beijing recognizes that an invasion, no matter how successful, would result in serious consequences for its government and its citizens, and so an uneasy status quo has endured, wherein Taiwan is allowed to maintain its independence in all but name while Beijing's promised reunification remains a theoretical prospect, whether by force or by osmosis.

Tiawain exercises
A woman uses her mobile phone as she walks in front of a large screen showing a news broadcast about China's military exercises encircling Taiwan, in Beijing on August 4, 2022. NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

Russia's invasion of Ukraine, however, has provided Beijing with a free look at the costs of extraterritorial aggression. Beijing has doubtlessly observed Moscow's brutal campaign against neighboring Ukraine with great interest, watching as governments around the world joined in condemnation of Moscow and armed the underdog government in Kyiv. But is also sure to have noticed that the largest economies in Europe remain captive customers to Moscow's energy exports.

Watching sanctions batter the Russian economy, but not strangle it entirely, might be an encouraging sign for the government in Beijing, which boasts more economic power than Moscow could ever dream of. Moscow is a major energy exporter, but Beijing is the top trade partner of a majority of the world, with considerably more heft and leverage than Russian President Vladimir Putin's government.

Ukraine's security guarantee, provided in the Budapest Memorandum, has proven to be more a suggestion than a guarantee, which might also lead Beijing to believe that foreign commitments to Taiwan, intentionally ambiguous to begin with, could be similarly interpreted, if push came to shove. Western governments' understandable reticence to confront a nuclear-armed Moscow in Ukraine may be signalling Beijing that they, too, could declare their own "special operation" in Taiwan without fear of direct intervention. Recognition of this fact undoubtedly plays a role in Washington's increasingly vociferous support for Taiwan; messaging which, somewhat ironically, results in increasingly belligerent behavior from Beijing as the regime demonstrates that it remains uncowed by Washington's power.

Aside from the war in Ukraine, the present crisis is more a matter of timing and atmospherics than it is reflective of any observable change in more tangible bilateral factors such as the balance of military power. While Beijing's military is gaining on, and in some areas exceeding, American military capabilities, by Beijing's own estimation it remains questionable whether the People's Liberation Army could prevail in a conflict against U.S. forces.

The American and Chinese economies, despite considerable rhetoric surrounding decoupling and continued sanctions, remain tightly linked and interdependent. It seems, rather, that this is a crisis driven predominately by domestic politics on both sides of the Pacific. Being seen as "tough on China" is now the litmus test for Washington politicians, and railing against a foreign enemy is far easier than dealing with issues like gun violence and political dysfunction at home.

In Beijing, economic upheaval in the form of parallel banking and real estate crises have the government under pressure as the Chinese Communist Party prepares for its 20th Party Congress. Seeking his third term as China's leader, Xi Jinping wants to look strong domestically vis-à-vis Taiwan, as well as in his contest against the United States. But the average Chinese citizen does not want war either, leaving Xi a razor's edge to navigate.

All of this combines to produce a particularly fraught period for U.S.-China relations. Neither the U.S. nor the Chinese populations want a war, but belligerent leaders could produce one if this bilateral antagonism continues unabated.

Still, this crisis does not need to lead to escalation and should instead be taken as a canary in the coal mine. Too much depends on the U.S.-China relationship and it needs to be stabilized, if not cordial. Constant provocation is not productive policy and at this stage it seems that neither side has a credible vision for a path forward, which should concern us all.

Blake Herzinger is a civilian Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist and former advisor to the U.S. Pacific Fleet

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.