View from Taiwan: Life goes on as tensions escalate following Pelosi visit

Foreign Affairs

Taiwan experts and officials have refrained from calling the recent tensions a "crisis." “There's apparently an overreaction by the foreign media and also by policy experts in the U.S.," one Taipei-based political scientist said. "In Taiwan, people just don't see it as a very severe crisis right now.”

Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

In case you haven’t been paying attention: In the past week, after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, China conducted live-fire drills as close as 20 kilometers off Taiwan’s shores, flew missiles over Taiwan, and simulated an attack. Numerous People’s Liberation Army (PLA) warships and aircraft crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait. On Monday, China said that the PLA will continue its military drills initially intended to last only four days, as Taiwan begins its own live-fire drills in the southern county of Pingtung.

Yet on the ground, Taiwan couldn’t have felt more normal this weekend, even as drills took place just off its coasts — close enough for Taiwanese tourists on the island of Little Liuqiu to get a glimpse. On Saturday, my neighborhood in New Taipei City held an environmental protection event as city council candidates shook residents’ hands and distributed paper fans and tissue packets with their faces on them.

The scene was a striking reminder of the vibrant democracy that would be lost if the PRC fulfills what it believes is its destiny to claim Taiwan. But it also showed the striking disconnect between how Taiwanese are reacting to the situation and how the past week has been portrayed by international media and analysts.

After 70 years of invasion threats from China, most Taiwanese people are unintimidated by what they see as routine but escalating threats. This is not the first time the median line has been crossed. After all, mainland incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ reached a record number last year. News stories in Taiwan about China’s recent escalations are outnumbered by local news about celebrities or the approaching elections.

At the same time, an app showing locations of Taipei air raid shelters became the most downloaded in Taiwan at the urging of the city government. “We don’t know what the other side thinks, whether they will really use force to punish,” a Taiwanese friend, who didn’t want to be named, told me. “But this is a long-standing problem. I hope we can coexist peacefully.”

While both local and international media have dubbed China’s retaliatory actions against Pelosi’s visit the “Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis,” Taiwanese officials and experts living in Taiwan have been reluctant to do so.

“There’s apparently an overreaction by the foreign media and also by policy experts in the U.S. In Taiwan, people just don’t see it as a very severe crisis right now,” said Fang-Yu Chen, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taipei.

Events in recent weeks put China’s growing ambitions on display, but such actions would have occurred eventually regardless of Pelosi’s visit, Chen said. “China is trying to change the status quo all the time. So to me, there’s no so-called status quo because it is already changing.”

Several other experts in Taiwan echoed Chen’s sentiment. Lev Nachman, an assistant professor of political science at National Chengchi University, wrote in an op-ed in Foreign Policy on Saturday that current escalations “are not bringing the situation to the brink of war, as previous crises had.”

“I don’t think calling this the ‘Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis’ is appropriate yet. But that’s not to say that this isn’t an escalation, it definitely is,” Nachman told SupChina.

Taiwan has repeatedly condemned Beijing’s actions and demanded that the Chinese government “halt its provocative actions,” saying that escalating military threats undermine “both the status quo across the Taiwan Strait and regional security.”

“We are calm and will not act in haste. We are rational and will not act to provoke. But we will absolutely not back down,” President Tsai Ing-wen said on Thursday. Officials have not called the situation a crisis and have refrained from releasing information about China’s ballistic missile tests.

Since Pelosi’s visit on August 2, China has pursued a series of retaliatory measures beyond just military actions that will directly impact the people of Taiwan. Thousands of Taiwanese food imports have been banned and exports of natural sand to Taiwan have halted.

Over the past week, government agencies have raced to mitigate cyber attacks on their websites and debunk fake news stories. Yu Chihhao, co-director of the Taiwan-based Information Operations Research Group (IORG), said the organization noticed “an unusually high volume of articles and posts from both CCP official outlets and Weibo during 8/1-3 relating to Pelosi’s Taiwan visit. Some of the highest we’ve seen.” But further analysis on the posts’ contents and narratives are still ongoing.

Neither import bans nor information warfare are new tactics, experts note; the ongoing threat also “provides Taiwan an opportunity to prepare and improve the resilience toward such cyber operations,” said Crystal Tu, an assistant research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research.

China’s actions are also likely to damage China’s image among other democracies and prompt more high-level visits from other countries, experts say. Taiwan’s foreign ministry has called on other countries to stand with Taiwan after G7 and ASEAN countries released statements of support for the self-governed island.

“When you have an outside country threaten you, it tends to unify a country based on a common threat,” said Guermantes Lailari, a current Taiwan Fellow at National Chengchi University and former U.S. Air Force Foreign Area Officer. “Outside of Taiwan, people and countries are connecting with Taiwan. Pelosi’s visit helped put Taiwan on the map. What China is doing is a mistake on their part, making China look like Russia’s actions against Ukraine, and it’s helping Taiwan.”