Chinese state media was quick to blame U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on August 2 as the catalyst for escalating tensions between the U.S. and China. Some U.S. commentators also criticized the visit as being a symptom of Joe Biden’s administration’s “incoherent approach to China.”
However, putting all the blame on Pelosi fails to paint the full picture of Beijing’s assertive policy in the region. Pelosi’s visit does not fully explain why China would risk damaging its already faltering reputation with countries such as Japan, which had 5 Chinese ballistic missiles land within its exclusive economic zone, and the ASEAN countries, which underscored self-restraint and non-militarization in their recent Joint Communiqué. It also does not shed light on why China would pretend that it sent a warship into Taiwan’s waters when it actually had not.
China’s view of national security is intimately tied to its control over its domestic narrative. We can better understand China’s aggressive policy not by looking externally, but by examining how it is helping the Chinese government to bolster internal support. China’s reaction is the symptom of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s current policy of escalation—a policy that Xi relies on to avoid domestic backlash.
National Security as a “People’s War”
Prior to Pelosi’s visit, tensions between China and Taiwan have been ongoing for months. In October 2021, headlines warned that the number of Chinese aircraft intrusions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) had reached record-breaking numbers. A little under a year later, ADIZ incursions have only become more persistent. Just as such incursions have become the new norm, some worry that shows of force will only escalate. Since Pelosi’s visit, a new record of 68 PLA Air Force military aircraft flew into Taiwan’s ADIZ, accompanied by 13 naval vessels and 11 ballistic missiles to herald what may be a new military status quo in the Taiwan Strait.
Some have speculated that China’s increased aggression is part of Xi’s bid to secure his position ahead of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress in November 2022. However, it is unlikely that Xi has to fight for his third term. Instead, the driver of China’s aggression is the rampant nationalism all over Chinese social media and official diplomatic channels. Since the beginning of his time as General Secretary, Xi’s greatest fear, as with all authoritarian rulers, has been internal unrest. He observed the effects of such unrest in the examples of “color revolutions” in the former Soviet Union or the Arab Spring in the Middle East, but most so during the 2019 Hong Kong protests.
To Xi, national security is a “people’s war”—a war against domestic unrest that Xi has chosen to fight by spreading rampant nationalism and channeling anger outwards. This was always Xi’s mentality, demonstrated by his ongoing references to China’s “century of humiliation” and narratives on the necessity to revive China as a global great power. However, the need to encourage nationalism among the population has increased in recent years as the CCP faced public criticism, including for the government’s cover-up of COVID-19, starvation caused by unreasonably harsh lockdowns, and most recently, thousands of people unable to access their bank accounts. For the Party, exposing problems that can be traced back to poor governance threatens China’s national security. Xi likely feels he has no choice but to assume an aggressive posture with volatile issues such as Taiwan, as much as it would harm China to go to war, because it distracts from internal problems.
What Xi’s Policy Means for Taiwan
The world has watched this play out in the weeks following Pelosi’s visit. China’s timely release of its 2022 white paper on Taiwan on August 10, coinciding with its military force demonstrations, shows that an escalation was calculated independently of Pelosi’s visit, as the white paper was likely in development for some time. The white paper’s release also demonstrates that China’s escalation is not only military but also political. The white paper that China released in 2000 clearly stated the rights that Taiwan would retain post-unification. Those statements are absent in China’s newest white paper, which instead makes Taiwan’s sovereignty post-unification conditional to “China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests” being “guaranteed.” It also abandons the notion that China and Taiwan could negotiate as equals, taking out the word for equality (平等) before the word for negotiate（谈判）.
The focus of U.S. policy should be to bolster Taiwan’s legitimacy as an independent actor so that Taiwan no longer lives in fear of becoming another Hong Kong. The recently-proposed Taiwan Policy Act, which suggests including Taiwan in international organizations and declares Taiwan “a Major Non-NATO Ally,” will help Taiwan regain its negotiating power and force Beijing to take a more accommodating position. It will also allow the U.S. Department of Defense to have contingency plans in place once it is set in legislation that the defense of Taiwan is indeed a priority for the United States.
Ultimately, although China’s white paper says that “use of force would be the last resort taken under compelling circumstances,” China’s fate is in its own hands. Xi and his current policies are seemingly and incrementally shaping the “compelling circumstances” under which China would use force, threatening to spark war with flames that he himself kindled for the sake of legacy.
Alice Cho is a research assistant at the Project 2049 Institute and a contributor to Foreign Policy Rising. She has contributed to publications such as the National Interest and Real Clear Defense on Indo-Pacific security issues and U.S.-Chinese relations. She is also a Master’s candidate at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program.