Beijing’s cross-strait actions could extend to South China Sea dispute

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan last month dominated headlines for its potential ramification on cross-strait relations. In response, China carried out the largest-ever military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, ushering what analysts called a “new normal”. While the response has been widely criticised as an overreaction, this “new normal” did not occur overnight. Instead, the incident revealed China’s plans across the strait.   

The “new normal” refers to China’s increased provocations against Taiwan. Since September 2020, there has been an increased frequency of incursions by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). For instance, in the first week of September alone, Taiwanese officials have detected 120 PLA military aircrafts and 35 navy vessels around its territory. These numbers are stark compared to the estimated 380 Chinese incursions in the entire 2020.  

Essentially, this “new normal” represents China’s attempt to alter the status quo on the Taiwan Strait. The military incursions aim to erode Taiwan’s territorial control and sanctions hope to suffocate its economy, while a recently published white paper seeks to strengthen Beijing’s legal claim over the island.  

While the drills raised alarm bells internationally, Beijing remained unconcerned as it was primarily targeted at a domestic audience. Within China, nationalism has surged under the banner of Xi Jinping’s national rejuvenation and at the heart of this Chinese dream is reunification with Taiwan. The island is seen as an ungained right from the civil war. Reunification with Taiwan would be to reclaim China’s greatness but more importantly, the Communist Party’s eminence.  

Despite the scale of the military exercises, the Chinese nationals were unimpressed. Prior to Pelosi’s visit, Beijing had warned that “those who play with fire will perish by it” but the few practice rounds hardly came across as perishing.  

Although Beijing’s response seems like an overreaction to outsiders, within China the government has been criticised for doing too little. Beijing was, in fact, exercising restraint over the issue, attempting to strike a balance between nationalism and international peace.    

Abroad, Beijing’s worrisome behaviour in the Taiwan Strait has severely undermined the soft power it worked so hard to cultivate. This matters, especially in Taiwan, if Beijing hopes to win the hearts and minds of the people. But try-hards hardly ever succeed becoming popular.   

Throughout the fiasco, the Taiwanese remained calm, continuing with their lives as normal. While the media did offer regular reporting, it did not emphasise the scale or consequences of the exercises in the way international news did. The drills did not warrant breaking news as Chinese incursions were frequent to the point of normal. But underneath the calm, there was a lingering anxiety.  

In the advent of Pelosi’s visit, Taipei prepared air raid shelters, including updating the database of designated shelters, putting the locations on a smartphone app, and launching a social media and poster campaign to ensure that the people knew how to find the closest shelter. Instead of panicking, the Taiwanese are pursuing a strategy of preparedness. 

For decades, Taiwan has endured China’s bullying, and the threat of invasion only grows more pressing as the latter’s power expands. While Taiwan remains resolute defending its territorial integrity, the “new normal” means living with the increased tensions, uncertainty and threats.  

Cross-strait relations are now at a delicate balance. If conflict breaks out, the ramifications on the global economy will be catastrophic. China will not be spared from this tragedy and conflict is unlikely to happen soon, especially not while Xi remains in power, but the Taiwan question will only grow more urgent as 2049 inches closer. It marks the 100th year anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, the year Xi’s Chinese dream is set to be realised. This leaves less than 27 years before Beijing will act for reunification.  

Despite China’s insistence that this is an internal issue, the regional and global repercussions of the Taiwan question make it an international issue. Beijing’s actions in the strait will have consequences for other territorial disputes, such as the South China Sea.  

Given Malaysia’s territorial disputes with China, Putrajaya cannot afford to stand by idly. Upholding the One China Policy is not synonymous with letting Beijing have its way, but rather about preserving the status quo. In the least, Putrajaya must make a clear stance on what principles to defend and champion, and it should be pursued in the name of peace. Failing to do so would risk the “new normal” extending across the Indo-Pacific. 

This article was also published as “China’s actions in Taiwan Strait may extend to South China Sea disputes” in New Straits Times on 20 September 2022.

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