China’s Taiwan Saber-Rattling Is the New Normal

China has slashed military-to-military talks and climate dialogues after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , an intern at Foreign Policy.
Chinese military helicopters fly past Pingtan island.
Chinese military helicopters fly past Pingtan island.
Chinese military helicopters fly past Pingtan island, one of mainland China’s closest points from Taiwan, in Fujian province, China, on Aug. 4, ahead of massive military drills off Taiwan following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the self-ruled island. Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

China’s decision to drastically curb diplomacy with the United States in the wake of the top U.S. lawmaker’s visit to Taiwan—including nixing crisis communications channels that the Biden administration had worked assiduously to prop up—is an increasing sign that the relationship is set to hit a new low, experts and former senior U.S. officials told Foreign Policy

On Friday, as 49 Chinese aircraft crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait—a new record for daily air incursions—less than 36 hours after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi left Taiwan and just one day after unleashing a barrage of ballistic missiles that cut off the island from two sides, Chinese officials laid out eight responses that appeared to set a dismal new normal for the relationship. They include cutting off talks between military theater commands, working meetings between the ministries of defense, and maritime security talks. Also taken off the table were climate talks and illegal migrant repatriations. 

Experts who spoke to Foreign Policy said the moves indicated that China was trying to set a new normal in the relationship that would not be defined by new guardrails, which Chinese officials have mostly scoffed at while slowly raising the military temperature over Taiwan.

China’s decision to drastically curb diplomacy with the United States in the wake of the top U.S. lawmaker’s visit to Taiwan—including nixing crisis communications channels that the Biden administration had worked assiduously to prop up—is an increasing sign that the relationship is set to hit a new low, experts and former senior U.S. officials told Foreign Policy

On Friday, as 49 Chinese aircraft crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait—a new record for daily air incursions—less than 36 hours after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi left Taiwan and just one day after unleashing a barrage of ballistic missiles that cut off the island from two sides, Chinese officials laid out eight responses that appeared to set a dismal new normal for the relationship. They include cutting off talks between military theater commands, working meetings between the ministries of defense, and maritime security talks. Also taken off the table were climate talks and illegal migrant repatriations. 

Experts who spoke to Foreign Policy said the moves indicated that China was trying to set a new normal in the relationship that would not be defined by new guardrails, which Chinese officials have mostly scoffed at while slowly raising the military temperature over Taiwan.

“It’s just another stark reminder that this is a conflict that’s not out there in the future or some abstract thing that may or may not happen,” said Lyle Morris, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation and a former U.S. Defense Department official who worked on crisis communication efforts with China. “The potential for a conflict is much higher than we all thought, at least the timeline.”

In talks with Chinese officials, including between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the United States had increasingly pushed for more detailed lines of communication, including between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his rough counterpart, Gen. Wei Fenghe (officials have debated how closely matched the two officials are given Wei’s relatively low ranking in China’s order of succession), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, and top regional commanders.

Biden administration officials condemned the move to cut off channels of communication on Friday. “These lines of communication are important for helping to reduce miscalculation and misperception,” Biden administration national security spokesperson John Kirby said at a press briefing. By cutting off the climate dialogue specifically, Kirby said, China is “not just punishing themselves with this act. They’re punishing the world.” Kirby expressed confidence that senior military officials can still speak at high levels despite some of the channels being suspended. 

China’s announcement on Friday is likely to throw a further damper on the possibility of talks. In recent diplomatic exchanges, Chinese officials have shot back that they are pushing for “crisis prevention” instead of guardrails, which means China wants the United States to do nothing in the Taiwan Strait that would upset Beijing in the first place, according to people familiar with China’s position. On Thursday, the frosty relationship was made clear as Biden administration officials called in China’s ambassador to the United States to issue a stern warning over China’s stepped-up exercises. 

And although Pelosi’s visit wasn’t unprecedented, marking the second trip by a U.S. speaker in the last 25 years, China’s foreign ministry insisted it was a “gross interference in China’s internal affairs,” according to a ministerial spokesperson. U.S. officials repeatedly warned Pelosi that the timing of the visit, coinciding with the 95th anniversary of the founding of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), would likely be seen as provocative by Beijing. 

China’s Friday announcement showed that the fallout from the new status quo in relations with the West is likely to be wide ranging. The latest move by China, which alone produces nearly 30 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, threatens to derail global climate cooperation at a time when agricultural and energy systems are on the brink of collapse and climate change impacts are intensifying globally. Just last week ,soaring temperatures pushed the country’s electricity usage to hit a record high and led to widespread blackouts.

“We’re not going back where we were before the visit, at least anytime soon,” said Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former National Security Council and Defense Department official. “There’s going to be a lot more military activities around Taiwan, probably more to the east and closer than we are used to seeing.”

But the live-fire tests that surrounded the island and vast air incursions over the median line is a sign to experts that China is now focused on trying to show that the Taiwan Strait is no longer contested. Although China lost two missiles during test firings near the island during the eight-month Taiwan Strait crisis between 1996 and 1997—sparking a major defense modernization push—Beijing has encountered no such problems this time. Pelosi’s aircraft was forced to take a three-hour detour to get to the island this week, and the missile firings have already disrupted shipping traffic in the region, showing the growing reach of China’s military—even as the Pentagon thinks it is still below the level of capability needed to invade the island. 

“What they are designed to do is to test, in a very real-world situation, whether Beijing can actually blockade Taiwan,” said Craig Singleton, a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former U.S. diplomat. “They have put into effect an operational plan, and this was an opportunity for them to test it. The PLA right now is figuring out how much gas and food are being consumed and how stable the communications systems are while everyone else is counting missiles.”

China is also in the middle of a major leadership shake-up that could see the tempo of the saber-rattling increase even further. The Chinese Communist Party’s 20th leadership congress, set to take place in November, will likely see Xi take an unprecedented third term as China’s leader and give him authority to select a new premier, state councilor, and foreign minister, which experts expect to be hard-liners on Taiwan. “It’s fair to assume that they’re going to go with people who are more aligned with Xi Jinping,” said a former U.S. official speaking on background on condition of anonymity. “That’s the ultimate thing: It’s about loyalty, not about their personal views.” 

China’s stepped-up military exercises and the lack of well-defined guardrails have some experts worried. “You’re one miscalculation away from what could turn into quite a serious crisis if one of those missiles that overflew Taiwan hit something by mistake,” Singleton said.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Anusha Rathi is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @anusharathi_

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