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Taiwan Strait: What to expect in 2023

William Yang in Taipei
December 28, 2022

US-China strategic competition, a potential visit by the possible US House speaker, and increased military activity are likely to impact dynamics in the region.

Chinese fighter jets from the Eastern Theater Command conducting joint combat training exercises around the Taiwan island
On Monday, Taiwan said the PLA sent 71 military aircraft into Taiwan's ADIZ for a period of 24 hours and 43 of the aircraft reportedly crossed the median lineImage: Gong Yulong/Xinhua/AP Photo/picture alliance

The year 2022 has been a turbulent one for the Taiwan Strait, as China increases military pressure on Taipei following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit in August.  

At the time, China staged a weeklong military exercise around the island, in which Beijing tried to "demonstrate their capability of imposing a blockade around Taiwan," according to some experts.

The drills were part of China's attempt to create a new normal across the Taiwan Strait, as the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has since been repeatedly dispatching naval vessels and military aircraft across the median line of the Taiwan Strait, an unofficial demarcation between China and Taiwan that the former does not recognize.

"The real change is China's maintenance of military presence around the median line of the Taiwan Strait," said Amanda Hsiao, a senior China analyst at the think tank International Crisis Group (ICG).

Da-Jung Li, a professor of international relations and strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan, said that Pelosi's trip further increased security pressure on Taipei.

"The pressure from Chinese military aircraft and naval vessels is much stronger than before," he said, pointing out that Taiwan's room for maneuver has shrunk in the face of growing military pressure from Beijing.

"Additionally, China hasn't stopped sending military aircraft into Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). While those exercises haven't happened at the same frequency, they are sometimes at a greater scale, which creates huge pressure on Taiwan," he added.

Increasing the risk of conflict

With the increased military presence around the Taiwan Strait, Hsiao said, the likelihood of the Chinese and Taiwanese militaries encountering each other has also increased.

"When the Chinese are crossing the median line, the Taiwanese are responding, and maybe pushing them back across the median line," she noted.

"These interactions simply increase the risks of an unintended collision and in the current political environment, any sort of small incident has a greater risk of escalating into something larger. Taiwan and China don't have the means of communication for how to de-conflict in an incident or a major crisis." 

Despite a raft of challenges China currently faces, including the ongoing COVID health crisis and the economic slowdown, Taiwan will continue to remain high on Beijing's agenda.

"China will wait for an external event to increase pressure on Taiwan, as that's how they normally operate," Hsiao told DW.

On Monday, Taiwan said the PLA sent 71 military aircraft into Taiwan's ADIZ for a period of 24 hours and 43 of the aircraft reportedly crossed the median line.

According to the PLA's Eastern Theater Command, the "strike drill" was part of its reaction to "provocations and collusion" between the US and China.

The largest incursion to date took place after US President Joe Biden signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law on December 23, which authorized $10 billion (€9.4 billion) in military aid to Taiwan.

The Chinese government expressed strong opposition to the measure, describing the provisions related to military support for Taiwan as a serious violation of Beijing's "One China" principle.

Responding to the Chinese incursions, the White House said on Monday that the US is concerned about China's military activities near Taiwan.

Washington vowed to continue to "assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability in line with our long-standing commitments and consistent with our one-China policy."

US-China competition compounds tensions

Li from Tamkang University said US-China strategic competition is adding to tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

"The US sees many of Beijing's actions as more aggressive and seemingly destructive to the status quo. But in China's view, the US has been attempting to empty the substance of its One China Policy in recent years," he pointed out.

Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping sent constructive signals after their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, saying that they want to maintain a stable relationship between the two powers.

Hsiao said it means that neither side wants the competition to spiral into a conflict.

"Competition is a given going forward and Taiwan remains one of the key pieces of that competition," she noted. "That's not going to change."

Potential speaker visit a possible risk factor

One possible event that could spike tensions in 2023 is a potential visit to Taiwan by the possible US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who had promised to visit the democratic island if he became the new US House speaker.

"At a minimum, China would have to respond at the same level as they did after Pelosi's visit," Hsiao said.

Taiwanese firms concerned about business with China

"It's also possible that they might feel they have to respond more strongly," she noted, adding that it would depend on the timing of such a visit.

"If the visit happens very close to the end of 2023, Taiwan's 2024 presidential election would just be around the corner and that's going to be potentially a source of restraint on how China chooses to respond," she said.

"If they overreact, that will only feed the domestic narrative in Taiwan in a direction that's not helpful for China. There are a number of considerations and timing has a lot to do with the strength of China's response," she added.

Li pointed out that there are a number of "unpredictable variables" that will impact the situation in the Taiwan Strait next year.

They include "China's behavior in the Taiwan Strait, how issues related to Taiwan will be framed in the US domestic politics, and Taiwan's presidential election in early 2024, which typically focus on cross-Strait relations and Taiwan's relationship with the United States."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru