China-Taiwan: What we learned from Beijing’s drills around the island

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US politician Nancy Pelosi’s visit has set off fresh tensions between self-ruled Taiwan and China, which claims the island as part of its territory. BBC correspondents weigh in on the significance of China’s main response – its live-fire military drills around the island – and how the two sides see them.

The new normal

The hardliners in the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party would probably be quite happy with where Nancy Pelosi’s visit has left them.

Pelosi gave them a window and they used it.

A series of more extreme military measures around Taiwan have now been thrust into the realm of “acceptability”.

These moves – including firing missiles over the island – have become “acceptable” not because the international community approves of them but because they have happened, and Beijing has got away with it.

Each time the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) flies fighter jets closer – or in greater numbers – across the Taiwan Strait, this becomes the new standard.

What’s more, the very idea that mainland China might one day attack Taiwan to seize the territory by force is now being considered a likely possibility by many more Chinese people.

Again, this is seen as a win for those who want it to happen.

Other, more peaceful strategies for achieving what China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi described as Taiwan’s “return to the motherland” are not being discussed currently – or certainly not in any detail.

A side benefit of this grand, live-fire show by the PLA has also been to accelerate the belief globally that China’s military rise is unstoppable – this may possibly intimidate South East Asian neighbours which have rival claims to the South China Sea.

These vast military exercises would have taken some planning. It is hard to imagine that the generals conceived of them, all of a sudden, when it was leaked that Ms Pelosi was planning visit Taiwan.

What seems more likely is that they had the plans ready and pulled them out of the drawer because the opportunity presented itself. As one laughing nationalist in Beijing put it when he was interviewed in the street last week, “Thanks comrade Pelosi”!

It would be dangerous though if the Chinese government became too caught up in its own belligerent rhetoric and started convincing itself that seizing and holding Taiwan could be relatively easy – rather than a tough, bloody, catastrophic event. Some analysts even think that these war games have assisted the Taiwanese and US military in preparing defence strategies to ward off any attack from the mainland.

But the exercises were not enough for President Xi Jinping’s government. On Friday night the foreign ministry announced that China was suspending cooperation with the US on cross-border crime, including narcotics, and maritime safety; and that all high-level US-China military dialogue were to be paused.

American media has also reported that calls from the US Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin, and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have gone unanswered from the Chinese side.

Crucially, Beijing has suspended climate change cooperation with Washington. The world’s largest carbon emitters are not talking.

Tensions have certainly increased following Pelosi’s visit, but Xi’s government seems to like it that way – at least for now.

A war of words

Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, Taiwan

For the last few days, much of the attention has been on the military fireworks going on around Taiwan. But equally important are the words from Beijing that have accompanied the drills.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has pointed to a small group of Taiwanese politicians whom he has labelled the “Taiwan separatist forces”.

At the top of this list is Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. She has been singled out for special opprobrium. Minister Wang called her an “unworthy descendant of the Chinese nation” – in other words, a traitor.

The aim is to try and separate the mass of Taiwanese people, who Beijing says are not the enemy, from the small “clique” it claims is trying to tear Taiwan away from the motherland.

The problem for Beijing is this version of Taiwan is completely at odds with reality. Recent polls show an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese oppose any sort of unification with China, and a large and growing majority consider themselves “Taiwanese” and not “Chinese”.

According to Wang Yi – this is because Tsai Ing-wen’s government has been going “all out to promote de-Sinicisation” and trying to create “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan”.

That is why we’ve heard the Chinese ambassador to France saying that after Taiwan is “reunified” with China, Taiwanese people “will need re-education”. According to him, they have been “brainwashed” into believing they are not Chinese.

Again, this is completely at odds with reality. Taiwan is an open society where people are free to read what they want, think what they want, and vote for who they like.

The question now is: what impact will all of this have?

Beijing’s objective is to frighten the Taiwanese in to voting against President Tsai’s party in the next election in 2024. They would like to see the more-China friendly KMT (Kuomintang) back in power. China is also making direct threats to Taiwanese business leaders, many of whom have large investments in the Chinese mainland. They’re being told they need to “choose the right side”.

Beijing has tried these sorts of tactics before, and they have not been very successful. A lot of Taiwanese businesses will be hurt by Beijing’s sanctions, particularly its fruit farmers. The tourist industry is already being hurt by China’s embargo on mainland tourists coming to Taiwan.

But if the evidence of the last few days is anything to go by, Taiwanese attitudes towards Beijing look set to harden further.

(BBC News)

By Stephen McDonell, Beijing