Escalation of Conflict Feared after Tsai’s Visit to the US
Prof Rajaram Panda

The Taiwan issue again entered a new geopolitical churn when Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen met the US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California on 5 April 2023, provoking Beijing to issue a sharp rebuke. This was the highest-profile meeting of an American official and the self-ruled island’s leader since McCarthy’s predecessor, Nancy Peolsi met Tsai in Taipei in August 2022. The gathering at the meeting also included a bipartisan group of 17 other lawmakers of the Democratic Party. Beijing threatened retaliation. Tsai was in the US after her 10-day trip to Central America that took her to Belize and Guatemala that marked the final leg of her seventh trip to the US since becoming Taiwan’s leader in 2016.

The Chinese embassy in Washington conveyed “deep concern and firm opposition” to the meeting. McCarthy’s remarked that the friendship between the people of Taiwan and America was a matter of profound importance to the free world and critical to maintain economic freedom, peace and regional stability.[1] Beijing’s reactions were on the expected lines. McCarthy used the occasion to reiterate the US commitments made for the defence of Taiwan during the Ronald Reagan presidency through the “six assurances”, the commitments Washington made to Taipei in 1982 to disregard Beijing’s opposition to US arms sales to the island.

When the US formalised diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China, the ‘One-China’ policy included three Joint Communiqués. Earlier, the third component of the policy comprised of the Taiwan Relations Act signed by then-President Jimmy Carter soon after the US switched official diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. The significance of Tsai’s meeting with the House Speaker, the third-ranking US official, on American soil since the US switched diplomatic recognition reflected that both the US and Taiwan have to deal with the unprecedented challenges currently and therefore dialogue and sharing of common views were of utmost importance. While the US acknowledges the “One China” policy after diplomatic switch, it remains Taiwan’s key provider of military and defence assistance and has made legal arrangements for the same.

The joint press statement between Tsai and McCarthy is rather more significant because when in transit during her previous visits, Tsai did not see any high-profile leader. Therefore, the visit exacerbated feelings in Beijing. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province to be eventually united with the mainland and has repeatedly threatened retaliation and use force, if necessary.

As expected, Beijing reacted by launching a joint cruise and patrol operation in the northern and central parts of the Taiwan Strait. The PLA Navy also deployed two destroyers and a frigate to the East China Sea for live-fire drills. Such Chinese response is not uncommon before or after visits by Taiwanese leaders to the US. Beijing staged missile tests and war games near Taiwan after Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui visited the US in 1995, the first such instance after Washington established official relations with the PRC in 1979. This time, the Biden administration termed the visit as “transit” rather than an “official” trip and justified that the visit was consistent with long-standing US practice. It was probably Tsai wanted to seek confirmation of the US commitment to defend and provide military aid if China actually uses force against the island in order to integrate with the mainland. Though the US government is authorised by Congress to support the island’s defence capability, Taiwan failed to secure grants for its security in 2022 while grants were available to Ukraine and Israel. Therefore for Tsai to seek assurance from the Biden administration was not misplaced. As it transpired, McCarthy hailed his conversation with Tsai as “productive”, implying thereby the US stands committed to more timely arms sales to Taiwan, strengthening economic cooperation and promoting shared values on the world stage.

Tsai’s rare visit and meeting with McCarthy was indeed “historic”[2], though it enraged Beijing. For McCarthy, it was the start of his foray into foreign affairs. The Republican leader had focussed more on domestic politics at home and is not known for vast foreign policy experience and therefore lacks international concerns abroad. He is often outspoken, even bellicose, against China, and sent a potentially provocative nod of support to Taiwan with Tsai at the meeting. This surely pleased Tsai as the assurance was seen as a morale booster but provoked Beijing to adopt countermeasures.

The significance of the visit needs to be measured against the backdrop of heightened US focus on China over its actions at home and abroad, particularly China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, territorial disputes with US ally Japan over the Senkaku and its potential aggression in enforcing its claim over the island of Taiwan. Any Chinese military action or threat to take military action against the island can have unintended consequences. The cost could be heavy for the nations, and the numbers could be many, which will be drawn into the conflict as the existing equilibrium would have been dramatically altered with adverse economic and security consequences.

In recent times, China has succeeded in luring many small and poor countries, latest being Honduras[3], to switch diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China, by providing aid on liberal terms and even bribing the political leaders of those countries with cash. Therefore, with declining diplomatic support and a weakened party, Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy was a high-stake one.[4] It was reported that McCarthy had expressed his desire to visit Taiwan himself in order to be seen as tough with China like Nancy Pelosi but Tsai dissuaded him in order not to provoke China. Instead she preferred to meet McCarthy to potentially dampen the Chinese reaction. That decision was a compromise as it was intended to avoid inflaming tensions with Beijing while underscoring support for Taiwan. Tsai’s visit came at a time when her leadership and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suffered setbacks, with massive defeats in local elections in November 2022 and Tsai probably hoped to resurrect her political fortune by visiting the US and meet with the Speaker.

Ma Ying-jeou visits China

Tsai’s trip to the Central America and the US coincided with the visit of Ma Ying-jeou, former Taiwanese President and member of opposition party Kuomintang (KMT), to China, making him the first Taiwanese President to visit China since 1949. During his 12-day visit, Ma tried to placate China by commenting that “people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are Chinese people”. This contrasted with Tsai’s position when she tried to rally support of the US and Western allies.

At the end of his landmark visit to China, Ma observed that Taiwan has the choice of ‘peace and war’.[5] Since 1949, no serving island leader has visited China. Ma was President from 2008 to 2016 as the head of a KMT government. The party, now in opposition, favours close ties with China, which claims the island as its own. With Tsai continuing to defy China, Beijing has been stepping up its political and military pressure to get democratically governed Taiwan to accept Chinese sovereignty. Tsai and her government reject that and say only the island’s people can decide their future.

Tsai’s DPP criticised Ma’s trip. Tsai rejects Ma’s argument that Taiwan and China could engage under the principle that both are part of a single China though each can have its own interpretation of the term. For outside analysts, that is a dangerous proposition, like sending the lamb for slaughter. If Taiwan ever makes such an offer, China will lose no time to gobble up the island. The KMT defends its contacts with China, saying that its intentions are noble and that it is trying to reduce tension. It wants to sell that argument when the next presidential election takes place in January 2024.

China’s Bellicose Response

Soon after Tsai’s US visit and her meeting with McCarthy, China’s war game started. China launched three days of military drills in Taiwan Strait and issued a stern warning to the island administration.[6] Chinese fighter jets performing mid-air refuelling manoeuvre at an unspecified location were covered in the media.

Tsai’s response was equally swift. She immediately denounced the drills, pledging to work with the US and like-minded countries in the face of “continuous authoritarian expansionism”. In the war games, China sent planes, ships and personnel into “the maritime areas and air space of the Taiwan Strait, off the northern and southern coast of the island and to the island’s east. The task force organised patrols and advances around Taiwan, shaping an all-round encirclement and deterrence posture. In a show of its military strength, China deployed long-range rocket artillery, naval destroyers, missile boats, air force fighters, bombers, jammers and refuellers. China claimed not to escalate any conflict but remain steadfast, rational and serious to react and defend its territory and sovereignty.

China claimed that the live-fire drills serve as a stern warning against the collusion between separatist forces seeking “Taiwan independence” and external forces and against their provocative activities. What Beijing intended through these operations was to safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Taiwan defence ministry detected 9 Chinese warships and 71 military aircraft around the island and also crossing into Taiwan’s south-western air defence identification zone (ADIZ). The defence ministry accused the CCP for deliberately creating tensions in the Taiwan Straits, which has a negative impact on the security and economic development of the international community. The drills came as the French President Emmanuel Macron and EU Chief Ursula von der Leyen who were in Beijing were about to depart. Though Marcon’s subsequent statements about his meeting with Xi Jinping created some flutter in Europe[7], that aspect has been kept out of this essay.

Beijing has repeatedly said it would never yield. Earlier too when McCarthy’s predecessor Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022, China deployed warships, missiles and fighter jets around Taiwan in protest. After 3 days of military drills around Taiwan that ran until 10 April 2023, and military simulated precision strikes against Taiwan, and blockading the island, the Chinese military claimed to have “successfully completed” the exercises and “comprehensively tested” the capabilities of multiple units under actual combat conditions.[8] Taiwan defence ministry claimed to have spotted 12 Chinese ships and 91 military aircraft around the island, including carrier-based J-15 fighters flown from the carrier Shandong. The US is closely watching China’s actions in the Taiwan Straits and says that these undermine peace and stability in the region. Beijing justifies the exercises as its preparedness to “solve the Taiwan issue once and for all” if “provocation intensifies”. It ought to be kept in mind that the exercises underline Beijing’s nationalist credentials to its domestic audience and score political points at home.

Concerns in Southeast Asia

If Beijing finally decides to cross the red line by escalating hostilities in the Taiwan Strait, the members of the ASEAN grouping shall face critical dilemma. This is because ASEAN is fragmented on its position on Taiwan and some of its members might be reluctant to annoy China for fear of facing China’s wrath, severely impacting their economic relations. The 2023 State of Southeast Asia survey sheds lights on the dilemmas that Southeast Asian countries would face in the event of a conflict in the Strait. The latest State of Southeast Asia survey report, published by the ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, found that China is viewed as the most influential economic power, by nearly 60 per cent of respondents.[9]

The members of the ASEAN grouping are aware that they are not insulated from the fallout of a Taiwan conflict as such an event would destabilise the region. Taiwan is deeply integrated into the regional supply chains and is a ship-making giant. Any cross-strait conflict between China and Taiwan shall inevitably spill-over, derailing economic growth and imperilling regional stability. This vulnerability could have compelling reason for the ASEAN bloc to remain neutral when the conflict breaks out.

Three members of the bloc – Brunei, Cambodia and Laos – seen already into the Chinese orbit, may emerge as the leaders in the peg of the neutrality stance. Other members would opt for diplomatic measures to resolve the issue of reunification through peaceful means. Singapore is opposed to any unilateral moves to change the status quo. However, such a stance could have other dynamics and therefore the issue is complicated.

The Philippines would be the most likely outlier as it would facilitate military support for Taiwan if a conflict breaks out. It may be recalled that on 2 February 2023, Manila gave the US access to four new bases, besides the existing five under their 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows for joint training, pre-positioning of equipment and building of facilities like runaways. Therefore, Manila could be a critical cog in the US strategy to deal with China if Taiwan is attacked.

Singapore too hosts US Navy’s Logistics Group Western Pacific, which provides logistics and sustainment to the Seventh Fleet. If a conflict breaks out in the Taiwan Strait, Singapore shall have to grant access to the US forces. If it does not do so, it could adversely impact its longstanding bilateral relationship with Washington, even at the risk of creating domestic turmoil for angering Beijing. So, its dilemma shall continue. If a potential conflict is averted, it would be welcomed by all stakeholders. But if it does break out, the ASEAN group shall be willy-nilly drawn into it. The ASEAN bloc shall have no control to determine or avert to either of the two possibilities.

Japan’s Dilemma

Like the ASEAN bloc, Japan too shall face critical dilemma. Like with other Asian countries with which China has territorial disputes, its claim for the Japanese controlled Senkaku islands also adds to the fragility of the security of the region. In the wake of the latest Taiwan issue and China’s war games, Japanese and Chinese officials met in Tokyo on 10 April to discuss maritime concerns in the East China Sea.[10] Even when Hong Liang, the chief of the Chinese delegation was having in-depth conversation with his Japanese counterpart, Takehiro Funakoshi, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno underlined the peace and security in the Taiwan Strait as it is important not only to Japan’s security but also for the stability of the international community. Liang’s meeting with Funakoshi was significant as in November 2022 he had criticised Tokyo for commenting on China’s activity in the Taiwan Strait. Thus it transpires that if China indeed executes its threat and attempts to annex the island nation with the mainland, the region’s security matrix would have dramatically altered. It is difficult to hazard a guess as to what the future of Asia would be if that happens.

Endnotes :

[1]Bochen Hanand Robert Delaney, “US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy meets Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in California”, 6 April 2023,
[2] “For US House Speaker McCarthy and Taiwan's President Tsai, visit marks historic first”, 5 April 2023,
[3]Rajaram Panda, “Beijing Scores”, The Statesman, 8 April 2023.
[4]Trisha Craig, “For Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, provoking China by meeting US Speaker McCarthy is worth the risk”, 6 April 2023,
[5]Taiwan faces choice of 'peace and war', ex-president says after China trip”, 7 April 2023,
[6] “China launches three days of military drills in Taiwan Strait”, 8 April 2023,
[7] For details, see Kuni Miyake, “French leader adds unneeded tension to the ‘One China’ policy”, The Japan Times, 14 April 2023,
[8]The Times of India, 11 April 2023.
[9]Chew Hui Min, “China seen as most influential power in Southeast Asia: ASEAN Studies Centre”, 13 February 2023,
[10] “Japan, China meet to discuss maritime concerns as Beijing simulates attack on Taiwan”, 10 April 2023,

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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