By Richard Javad Heydarian
Weeks after US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan, there is no sign that a new period of Sino-American tensions will abate anytime soon. Rather, both superpower sides have upped the ante, embarking on a daring game of chicken in the heart of the Indo-Pacific.
In a clear show of support for both Taiwan and the US House Speaker, a bipartisan delegation of American legislators led by Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts arrived in Taiwan this week.
The US lawmakers met top officials in Taipei, including President Tsai Ing-wen, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu and legislators from the Taiwanese national assembly, according to Washington’s de facto embassy on the self-ruling island.
Following the latest round of high-level US visits to Taiwan, an outraged China threatened to “take resolute and strong measures”, announcing a new round of military drills around the island. The Asian powerhouse has also imposed a new series of sanctions targeting top Taiwanese officials, mostly from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
In response, the Pentagon is set to deploy its own warships to the area in order to stave off what the US sees as an “intensified pressure campaign” from Beijing.
Kurt Campbell, the Indo-Pacific czar in the White House, has also said “an ambitious road map for trade negotiations” with Taiwan would be announced “in the coming days”, underscoring America’s commitment to expanding strategic engagement with the self-ruling island.
The rapid expansion in Chinese and American military activities in the region, including in the hotly-disputed South China Sea, has spooked Southeast Asian nations, which have desperately sought to avoid another major conflict in their backyard.
Worried by rising tensions between the two superpowers, Singapore’s prime minister-in-waiting Lawrence Wong has warned that the two superpowers could “sleepwalk into conflict” if they continue on their current trajectory.
During his week-long visit to Taiwan, Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ed Markey has been accompanied by colleagues from across the political spectrum, including Representatives John Garamendi and Alan Lowenthal of California, Don Beyer of Virginia, and Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen of American Samoa.
The unannounced trip caught many by surprise, underscoring bipartisan consensus in Washington in favor of a tougher stance against China.
Taiwanese President Tsai wasted no time in portraying China as an aggressive power akin to Russia, telling the visiting US delegation, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year has shown the threat that authoritarian nations pose to the global order.”
Senator Markey, a staunch supporter of Taiwan in recent years, tried to reassure his hosts that Washington has a “moral obligation to do everything we can to prevent an unnecessary conflict and Taiwan has demonstrated incredible restraint and discretion during challenging times.”
“Consistent with our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States must continue to support Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the international community and help Taiwan withstand cross-Strait coercion. We must continue to work together to avoid conflict and miscalculation in the Taiwan Strait,” the US lawmaker added.
Last week, the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) of the Communist Party announced the imposition of new punitive measures, including barring a number of leading legislators in Taiwan from visiting mainland China and restricting “[t]heir affiliated companies and financial sponsors” from “gain[ing] profits” from any potential business transactions with Beijing.
“For a period of time, a small number of Taiwan independence die-hards have tried their best to collude with external forces to carry out ‘independence’ provocations, deliberately inciting cross-strait confrontation and wantonly undermining the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait. They performed extremely poorly during Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan,” the TAO spokesman said, warning those on the sanctions list would be “held accountable for life.”
Almost all the sanctioned legislators, with the exception of Chen Jiau-hua, New Power Party legislator and chairwoman, hail from President Tsai’s ruling party. Earlier China had already imposed sanctions on Taiwanese Foreign Minister Wu, Premier Su Tseng-chang and legislative president You Si-kun.
Moreover, China has also announced new drills around Taiwan following its recent wargames in the area which saw the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fire missiles into Taiwanese waters, deploy fighter jets and warships across the de facto line separating the two sides in the Taiwan Straits and showcase its multi-domain offensive capabilities,
“China will take resolute and strong measures to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Monday (August 15) shortly after the visit of the US delegation to Taiwan.
“A handful of US politicians, in collusion with the separatist forces of Taiwan independence, are trying to challenge the ‘One China’ principle, which is out of their depth and doomed to failure.”
Separately, China’s Defense Ministry warned that the new exercises were intended to be a “resolute response and solemn deterrent against collusion and provocation between the US and Taiwan.”
In response, Washington has accused China of exploiting Pelosi’s visit as a pretext to launch a new campaign of intimidation against Taiwan. Campbell has criticized China’s latest moves, maintaining the Asian superpower “overreacted, and its actions continue to be provocative, destabilizing and unprecedented.”
The US Indo-Pacific czar, who was also the architect of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” policy, announced that the US would deploy its own set of warships and warplanes to the area in the coming weeks in order defend regional allies and stand in solidarity with Taiwan.
Ahead of Pelosi’s visit, the US had already deployed four US warships, including the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, to the area in order to demonstrate its naval prowess and keep China’s military activities in check.
Throughout the month, the two superpowers have been embroiled in high-stakes, cutting-edge shadow boxing across regional waters. Reports suggest that the US and China were locked in an electronic warfare and reconnaissance showdown in the wake of Pelosi’s visit, testing each other’s ability to conduct full-scale operations in the event of a contingency.
Chinese State broadcaster CCTV reported the PLA deployed naval and air force assets to conduct “full tracking and surveillance” against the US Air Force transporting Pelosi and her delegation from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei earlier this month.
“The PLA deployed some electronic warfare aircraft such as the J-16D and warships to try to locate Pelosi’s aircraft, but were not successful,” a China-based source told the South China Morning Post.
“Almost all the PLA electronic warfare equipment couldn’t work properly because they were all jammed by electronic interference by the American aircraft strike group sent by the Pentagon to escort her,” the source claimed.
With tensions between the two superpowers reaching new heights, major think tanks in the US are reportedly conducting various war games with a new sense of urgency.
In early August, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) conducted a massive conventional warfare simulation, which showed that any actual conflict over Taiwan could cost the US as many as two aircraft carriers, 20 warships, and 500 aircraft with thousands of lives lost in what would certainly be a bloody and messy conflict unseen since the end of World War II.
An earlier simulation by the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, which included the possibility of nuclear warfare, arrived at broadly similar yet even more devastating conclusions.
The escalating superpower tensions have deeply alarmed regional states, especially in Southeast Asia. In an interview on Monday with Bloomberg, Singapore’s incoming premier Lawrence Wong described the situation as “very worrying.”
“We are starting to see a series of decisions being taken by both countries that will lead us into more and more dangerous territory,” said Wong, who currently serves as deputy prime minister and finance minister.
“As they say, no one deliberately wants to go into battle but we sleepwalk into conflict,” Wong added. “And that’s the biggest problem and danger.”
Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @richeydarian