U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has reiterated that China is a master at manipulating the agenda and changing the narrative of what could have been ultimately a rather uneventful – albeit significant – trip in the name of what China perceives to be its national interest. Beijing has defined this as a U.S. government-produced crisis, and that by allowing Pelosi to visit Taiwan, the U.S. government has endangered international peace and security, as well as the national integrity of China.
What has been conveniently dismissed is that Pelosi was not traveling in the name of the U.S. government, nor necessarily arguing for Taiwanese independence, but more for the support of democracy and human rights. Beijing’s inordinate hankering for Taiwan feeds its secessionist fears, and the current crisis is due to a more substantial and long-term agenda of bringing back Taiwan to China, peacefully or militarily, than simply protesting the visit of Speaker Pelosi.
Why Is Propaganda Spearheading the Debates?
Beijing has essentially taken over the narrative and defined the context in which the trip occurred, similar to the One-China debate that follows the Chinese agenda and definitions – and not necessarily what it means for other states. The Chinese argument that the ongoing exercises around Taiwan are a direct consequence of the visit flagrantly excludes the dangerous and aggressive behavior toward Taiwan that China has conducted in the last few years and the reality that the exercise was pre- planned since long, even if executed after Pelosi’s visit. China has increased pressure on Taiwan significantly under President Xi Jinping. This is clearly visible in the diplomatic arena, where China has been able to minimize Taiwan’s international space and partners, but also in the militarization of the Straits and the Chinese cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns that threatens Taiwan.
By labeling the U.S. and Speaker Pelosi as the aggressive and provocative parts of the equation, Beijing has the pretext to act more assertively if deemed necessary and still retain the possibility to “compromise” on its assertiveness. China’s intention is to project its image as the more moderate actor by showing restraint on what Beijing has defined as a reckless action by the U.S. This is not a message that will sell in the U.S. or in Western Europe. However, among Beijing’s less democratic partners and friends, such as the UAE, Russia, and North Korea, and domestically its projected exposition will hold. China obviously is looking to legitimize its increased pressure tactics (over time) at the global stage, and one way forward is if it creates a perception as a comparatively more moderate actor than the U.S. by refraining from too many reactive measures.
China has been able to change the strategic discourse as international media, academics, etc. have cited and taken the Chinese presentation as a given, or for some at least as more saleable and exciting. Such widespread messaging has not taken into consideration that this trip was within the right of the Speaker and it has been China that has transformed it into a crisis, not the U.S. government or Pelosi. There is little realization that the ball has effectively been passed back to the Chinese propaganda machine. China has defined the narrative as a crisis and started a very aggressive military exercise and has done so skillfully. It has enabled the Communist Party of China (CPC) to declare moderation if they act only with provocations and in self-defense if they act more violently, again for a different audience than Western Europe, Japan, Taiwan or the U.S.
Moreover, this is not the only instance where China has hijacked and enforced a CPC-manufactured discourse: Other examples include the One-China policy (forcing its One China Principle onto the world); the Taiwan Strait waterway (that China claims is under Chinese sovereign rights and jurisdiction and not international waters); the median line of the Taiwan Straits (purportedly, never existed); and the vitriol around the U.S. (as the culprit and instigator of instability in Taiwan). Due to the increased strength of the CPC propaganda machine and improved skill set from China, it is necessary to counter Chinese disinformation by debunking and discrediting sensationalist narratives using fact-based arguments.
The Winning Formula: Scare Tactics or Democratic Solidarity?
Speaker Pelosi’s visit has indeed enabled China to exert a more aggressive behavior against Taiwan; however, as mentioned earlier, this is not a new phenomenon, but a process that has been ongoing for years without the international community taking much interest. In some ways, the intensification of the assertiveness and reckless military exercises by China around Taiwan could be a positive development for Taiwan as it puts light on an ongoing problem. The concern is that as China is improving its ability to invade Taiwan, military spending will go up in the region – causing more instability due to aggressive Chinese exercises, eroding the already declining trust between the actors, and significantly escalating the risks for even small mistakes.
This is of less concern for the CPC, and the message from Beijing is not only directed toward Taiwan and the U.S. Beijing has been able to utilize this trip to convey that China will not give up its sovereignty claims; all foreign leaders visiting Taiwan will be met with a clear warning from Beijing; and China is ready and able to stand up for its own interests, with military means if needed. Domestically, there are also opportunities for Xi as Beijing has defined this as a U.S.-initiated “crisis.” Increasing military pressure on Taiwan is also an internal signal that Xi Jinping is willing to stand up for China’s integrity, and if the intensity of the provocations are scaled down he would come out as a statesman within the CPC and China.
Another concern is that by changing expectations and increasing pressure, China has already benefitted from the escalation of tension around Taiwan. In addition, considering earlier Chinese behavior, the pressure on Taiwan will not go back to the situation before this event; China will only up the ante, possibly escalating the situation into a military conflict that would create unforeseeable consequences, or at a minimum normalize the increased pressure. The reality is that this will make it more difficult for any foreign leader to visit Taiwan in the future, especially for smaller states. China could very well be gaining ground here by exerting more pressure on Taiwan, deterring foreign visits, showcasing its might to the international community, and utilizing its improved ability to blockade and invade Taiwan.
In a situation where international space, direct support, and partners are decreasing for Taiwan, the hijacking of this visit could become an insurmountable challenge for Taiwan. What the democracies in the international community now need to do is to stand up for universal values and increase support for a peaceful solution, as well as for Taiwan’s vibrant democracy, and not get intimidated by China’s increased pressure tactics. The fourth Cross-Straits crisis should rather be an eye opener about the Taiwan situation, than a successful display of scare tactics by Beijing.