Danger of China’s strategic missteps
By Collins Chong Yew Keat
Pelosi’s trip is used as the needed pretext for Beijing to initiate the greater strategic and bellicose actions in forcing Taiwan’s hands with starker threats and deterrence. The fierce responses are intended to intimidate and to provide direct threat and coercive tactics to force Taipei to face the harsh reality that Beijing will remain fully in control of its fate, and that Washington can only do so much in periodical terms. The largest military drills with firing of missiles and incursions of more than 100 planes are all geared as preparatory drills and tests for potential blockade and invasion, using this platform as the most useful avenue in testing the capacities to execute the full invasion option. Aggressive methods will be deemed as the new status quo, pivoting away from the sustained but controlled pressuring and grey zone tactics used, as can be seen in the decision for the drills to remain in place.
It remains provocative for Beijing to take this countermeasure disproportionately, in responding to the visit. It will only heighten the risks of missteps and miscalculation, which will then be galvanised by Beijing in pinning the blame on Washington as the first provocateur and justifying its moral and sovereign card in future potential fall-out. The six zones assigned are also meant to be a strong message to Taipei that Beijing’s military might and invasion capacity are not confined to the Taiwan Strait alone.
It signals the start of the intention by Beijing to justify its new norms of greater bellicose actions in cutting off Taiwan from the rest of the world,using means of intimidation, coercions and direct deterrence. By using Pelosi’s trip as the persistent pretense, it now gives Beijing freer hands to mount a more comprehensive and greater options on the table to exert considerable force and other cards in strengthening control and grip over Taipei.
Greater options on the table remain on Xi’s hands after his leadership consolidation, where a full scale island invasion or greater assertive moves in the region in the future will be justified by Beijing, in tracing the roots of the causes to this ,among others, and will pin blame on the Americans as the provocateurs.
The dangerous and new tactical game played by Beijing risks greater backfiring, with Washington and the containment team now having higher moral card in justifying their counter-responses and in cementing their ironclad commitment in defending the international law and norms established, besides raising greater realisation and support in the framework and cause of defending the ideals of rules-based order and democracy in opposing autocracy and the mantra of might is right.
Beijing has justified its actions as needed based on the provocations by the US and accusing Washington with the intent to change the status quo and in using the Taiwan card in its containment and encirclement of China. Beijing has also furiously and steadfastly asserted that it was the US which has been undermining the international adherence to national sovereignty and territorial integrity by instigating the Taiwan card, notwithstanding the fact that the People’s Republic of China has always maintained that Taiwan remains an inseparable part of the PRC and that it has always been the ultimate red line.
Counter-responses present a different reality for China. Beijing has continuously undermined the rules-based order through its sustained provocative and dangerous actions in the region and beyond, disregarding the genuine concerns and rights of the affected states in protecting their national sovereignty and territorial integrity. All actions that are deemed to threaten the strategies and interests of Beijing are seen as the containment efforts from the West,and framed as anti China narratives. From incursions to other states’ EEZ to downright coercive tactics in claiming territories, the states on this end of the pressure and threats by Beijing remain persistently under-equipped to defend their own national sovereignty and territorial integrity. By capitalising on this systemic imbalance in power parity, Beijing continues to up the ante and to widen the gap by galvanising other tactical tool of using economic interdependence and risky capital ties to further push the impacted states to the level of subdued responses through this divide and conquer strategy.
These also include increasing depth in measures of influencing other states’ internal affairs through various channels from media influence to political interference as has been accused by Canberra and Taipei and other states, as well as espionage in various forms including cyber in providing Beijing with critical advantage in its long term strategies of both soft and hard power projections. Great success has been attained, with dominant sways and prevailing anti-West narratives in higher levels of platforms and openings in painting the picture of US-China rivalry. From targeting specific demographic groups to influential institutions, the range of measures provide a critical advantage in its long term strategies of both soft and hard power projections. Great success has been attained, with dominant sways and prevailing anti-West narratives in higher levels of platforms and openings in painting the picture of US-China rivalry.
Washington has also repeatedly assured Beijing that it has no intention to change the status quo and will stick to the agreed policy, a point further reinforced by Taiwanese President Tsai-ing wen herself together with Pelosi during their joint press conference in Taipei, further reinforced by the constant and consistent same message from the White House. For Beijing to act dangerously in response to this trip will then be seen as an act of unnecessary escalation and confrontation with provocations to change the stakes at play.
The missiles fired during these drills last weekend also fell on the EEZ of Japan, prompting strong diplomatic responses and rebuke from Tokyo and Washington as well as other concerned parties. The targeting of Japan’s EEZ also sends a two-pronged message; underlining the ability and readiness for China to push Japan into the game over Taiwan with its target capacity and as an indirect threat and deterrence to Tokyo in keeping out of its internal affairs in dealing with Taiwan.
Taiwan has been under the constant pressure tactics by Beijing for decades, with increasing intensity since Xi’s ascension to power in 2013. For Beijing to resort to the same approach of using coercive means to isolate and to tie up the hands of Taiwan, and to seek to cut off Taiwan’s international participation, will only yield greater resilience and hardened perceptions and sentiments of the Taiwanese people against Beijing’s tactics. All efforts to change the political inclination and perspectives of the Taiwanese populace with greater soft power incursions and interference in social and political affairs of Taipei will be futile with the overwhelming hard-hitting pressuring and grey zones tactics imposed. The escalation in tensions since the visit has been wisely and strategically responded by Taipei, with a mixture of unyielding commitment to its resolve in standing up to its long held stand of defending its rights and unwavering drive to protection of democracy and self-determination of its own future, as well as the craft of strategic patience and ambiguity where it still holds on the status quo and agreed past policy.
By remaining calm and patient in its approach, Taipei remains wise not to fall into the trap of Beijing in baiting it to act aggressively in defending the encroachment and the provocations through the military drills that are primarily driven to instigate Taiwan to make the missteps of early engagement and forceful postures. Should that happen and should Taipei make the miscalculations in responses, this will be seized upon by Beijing as the timely pretext for it to enter into its calculated game of a greater military counter-moves and aggression, while scrutinising the next moves by Taipei. Further acts of forceful defending and potential downing of Chinese jets or first strikes by Taipei will then invite a full-blown invasion or blockade, providing Beijing with the needed and right amount of moral and sovereign justifications to this move and pointing to the Taiwanese as the ones who are first breaking the conventional norms and policy. In painting themselves as the victim and the ones that are left with no other option but to prevent that unilateral move, correct the wrongs, bring peace to the island and the region, and defend the PRC’s ultimate sovereignty, an all out invasion will finally be validated in justifying their move.
Taiwan’s waiting game while strengthening its porcupine strategy and the total defence approach of the Overall Defense Concept (ODC) in cultivating the most out of the asymmetric conflict will further boost the island’s precision advantage and elements of surprise capacity. In a resource-constrained reality in standing up to PLA’s sheer military volume, the ODC will provide the stability in Taipei’s defence strategy of deterring and avoiding conflicts as the first barrier, and if it fails, to win the war and deny the PLA’s aim of an eventual takeover. The no-strike first concept will also provide greater grounds for Taipei in a more prepared and anticipated defensive resilience and path in defeating early first incursions. It will invite Beijing to a risky and unproven posture and venture into the conflict with early strategic missteps and losing sustaining morale.
Other players have been practising restraint in avoiding escalation and worsening tensions in this saga, resorting to diplomatic engagement and playing their part in toning down the risks of miscalculations from the intense pressuring and sabre-rattling methods by Beijing. Tokyo and Washington have been wise and strategic in not to stir further tensions and miscalculations in their responses, and China is compelled to play its part as a matured player in the region. Beijing should be wise enough in realising the impact of its moves and reorienting its strategies of using these hard-hitting responses to Pelosi’s visit as its tactical and strategic advantage in the medium range game, which will risk greater backfiring.
Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than 9 years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds and analytical articles for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.