Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

China’s Military Exercises Aren’t a Crisis—Yet

Analysts have been keen to make comparisons to tensions in 1996.

By , a political scientist and assistant professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan.
A Chinese military vessel sails off Pingtan Island, one of China's closest points to Taiwan, on Aug. 5.
A Chinese military vessel sails off Pingtan Island, one of China's closest points to Taiwan, on Aug. 5.
A Chinese military vessel sails off Pingtan Island, one of China's closest points to Taiwan, on Aug. 5. Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has prompted a furious reaction from China, including large-scale military exercises and, for the first time, shooting multiple missiles over the island. The moves have prompted some scholars and analysts to declare this the “Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis.” Taiwan has seen many moments of tension, the most critical recent example being the 1995-1996 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, prompted by the visit of then-President Lee Teng-hui to the United States.

But it is premature to call this the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis. Key features of the military exercises mean that this is not an existential moment worthy of such a solemn title.

To be sure, what exactly “crisis” means is unclear, and how different analysts and experts are defining it varies. Before we conclude it is a crisis, I would ask us to first articulate: What are the necessary conditions for a crisis? How do we know when something is a crisis or just a scary escalation? There is potential harm in declaring something a major historical event before we have even lived through it. As fellow political scientist Eric Hundman tweeted this week, “Sure is something to watch, in real time, so many analysts realize that the boundaries of what defines a ‘crisis’ are blurry, contested, and often only agreed upon well after the fact.”

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has prompted a furious reaction from China, including large-scale military exercises and, for the first time, shooting multiple missiles over the island. The moves have prompted some scholars and analysts to declare this the “Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis.” Taiwan has seen many moments of tension, the most critical recent example being the 1995-1996 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, prompted by the visit of then-President Lee Teng-hui to the United States.

But it is premature to call this the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis. Key features of the military exercises mean that this is not an existential moment worthy of such a solemn title.

To be sure, what exactly “crisis” means is unclear, and how different analysts and experts are defining it varies. Before we conclude it is a crisis, I would ask us to first articulate: What are the necessary conditions for a crisis? How do we know when something is a crisis or just a scary escalation? There is potential harm in declaring something a major historical event before we have even lived through it. As fellow political scientist Eric Hundman tweeted this week, “Sure is something to watch, in real time, so many analysts realize that the boundaries of what defines a ‘crisis’ are blurry, contested, and often only agreed upon well after the fact.”

But several factors should prompt us to stay calm about the drills. First of all, this week’s actions were predictable. While the jury is still out on whether the benefits of Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan outweigh the costs, most experts predicted that China would retaliate using some sort of increased military threat. Most predicted that China would not simply respond using typical People’s Liberation Army (PLA) jets flying into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), but that we would likely see some sort of weapons test or serious show of military strength. Our predictions were correct. Even though these drills are an escalation from what we typically see from China, they are still within the wheelhouse of what we know to be in China’s arsenal.

China also announced the drills ahead of time—if only by 48 hours or so. By announcing in advance where these drills would take place, it gave Taiwan time to physically and mentally prepare. When the drills began, no one was surprised, because we knew they were going to happen. It is also worth emphasizing that these are military drills, not acts of war. China is not trying to ambush Taiwan; it is trying to intimidate Taiwan. Drills are not conducted with the intention of engaging in combat, but to make Taiwan feel that military invasion is credible.

These military drills are also not going to last beyond another week—and are not a nonstop affair. Even during the first day of testing, reports remarked at how quickly the drills ended, despite the claim that they were going to be an ongoing test throughout the day. Knowing that there is a definitive end in a matter of days should make these tests not feel existential, but instead a very short-term moment of the PLA wanting to flex its military capability. If China wanted an escalating crisis that put continual pressure on Taiwan, I do not think we here in Taiwan would have the luxury of knowing when it would end, nor would the end be so soon.

Taiwan has also stayed remarkably calm. As plenty of Taiwanese voices have pointed out by now, there is major cognitive dissonance between how people in Taiwan are reacting to these drills and how the rest of the world is reacting to these drills. People in Taiwan are not upset with the Taiwanese government, nor Pelosi. No mass backlash is happening; nor is there any panic. People spent Thursday and will continue to spend the following days living their lives as normal. If this is a crisis, it is not felt like one to Taiwanese people, who are the ones who will live with the immediate repercussions.

The drills are also not being met with escalation from either Taipei or Washington. President Tsai Ing-wen has stated that Taiwan will act in self-defense but will not escalate or retaliate. The United States has also not shown any sign of responding with military demonstrations or escalation in response to China’s military drills. Instead, Taiwan and the United States are letting China have its moment to try to intimidate and will simply let it do so. There is no desire from Taiwan or the United States to provoke or escalate the situation further.

Most of our points of comparison for today’s events come from the 1995-1996 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, but our insistence on seeing today through the lens of 1996 is perhaps pushing us to make today’s world fit into the events of a quarter century ago. I instead suggest we consider a more contemporary crisis, the 2017 North Korean missile crisis. Part of what made 2017 such a scary moment was the unpredictability, the unclear communication from North Korea, and the constant escalation between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump. Both sides were antagonistic. The missiles in question included potential nuclear warfare. No clear end date to the crisis was in sight.

This week’s short-term, predictable, known, and measured military drills from China are scary. They are a clear escalation in military intimidation from that country. But they are not at the level of existential and are not bringing the situation to the brink of war, as previous crises had. The PLA would love those in Taiwan and abroad (namely the United States) to declare this the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis, since this would reflect that its goal of making us fearful and intimidated had worked.

There is a real risk of accidental escalation caused by human error. Part of the worry that many of us have had over the years with the increased number and frequency of PLA jets entering Taiwan’s ADIZ is the potential risk that someone will act irrationally or out of order and that it could snowball into an actual military conflict. With drills happening so close to Taiwan, the risk of error or misreading is higher, though reduced by the time-limited and clearly defined scope of the exercises.

While I recognize that the following days may prove me wrong, for now we don’t need the rhetorically charged term of Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis to describe what is happening today. It may make for a catchy headline, but analysts have the language and tools to be more conceptually precise and accurate—and to echo the calm approach of the Taiwanese public themselves.

Lev Nachman is a political scientist and assistant professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan.

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