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Brief #122: Tensions over Taiwan put China’s crisis management capability to the test

The current crisis over Taiwan looks set to be worse than the last one. In 1995, China fired missiles after the US allowed Lee Teng-hui, then the president of Taiwan, to speak at Cornell University, Lee’s alma mater. The US responded by sending two carrier strike groups into the strait, knowing that Beijing could not pose a threat to its navy. The standoff ended when then-US President Bill Clinton publicly affirmed the “three no’s” policy: no support for Taiwan’s independence, no support for “two Chinas,” and no support for Taiwan’s membership in international organisations that require statehood. China boasted about defending its territory. The US claimed it had upheld its military commitment to Taiwan. Both sides declared victory.

Much has changed since 1995/6. The US is no longer a global hegemon, China is no longer biding its time, and bilateral relations have sunk to historic lows. Risks of miscalculations and escalations abound as both sides are unwilling to step back: cancelling Nancy Pelosi’s visit would have made the Democrats look soft on China. But the stakes are even higher for the Chinese Communist Party: failing to punish moves by Taiwan towards independence or those that aid it undermines its claim of defending China’s sovereignty and hence legitimacy at home.

Events unfolding so far show that Beijing may not have the situation entirely under control. Start with its dubious information management. In the days leading up to Pelosi’s visit, China’s defence ministry threatened that the military “would never sit idly by” and “would take strong and resolute measures” – a statement that the foreign ministry echoed.

In reality, China cannot afford to start a war given that the 20th Party Congress is approaching. But instead of playing down the crisis, the state propaganda played with fire by stoking nationalism, which lifted people’s expectations of a tough response and made it harder for Beijing to back down. Not surprisingly, when Pelosi eventually touched down in Taiwan on August 2, angry comments accusing the government of not living up to its rhetoric crashed Weibo.

Nationalists have yet to get in the way of policymaking in Beijing, as China’s censorship system can stifle most criticism. Moreover, an alternative narrative has emerged that emphasises government inaction as part of a grand reunification strategy that only the political leadership understands. “The smartest people in China are studying when to invade, how to invade. Commoners like myself should just sit back and wait,” writes one netizen. Beijing might have dodged a bullet this time. Still, as anti-Western propaganda and wolf warrior rhetoric continues to feed nationalism, Beijing may soon struggle to tether a beast of its own making.

China’s other headache in the Taiwan crisis is the possibility of military accidents. Even before Pelosi’s visit, China has been sending a record number of warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone and pursuing dangerous intercepts of foreign aircraft in the East and South China seas. As China beefs up its military presence in the region, an unintended collision or miscalculation could escalate into a broader conflict.

Historically, China’s national security institutions were ill-equipped to handle military accidents owing to siloed communications among bureaucracies. For example, the State Council lacks the authority to command the Central Military Commission (CMC) because they hold the equivalent rank. That means coordination between the national government and the military is difficult without explicit direction from the Politburo Standing Committee. The former National Security Leading Small Group (NSLSG) and the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (FALSG) were supposed to break down inter-agency barriers and speed up national security decision-making. Yet they only included the defence minister, a civilian official, and not the CMC vice-chairman, who oversees military operations.

As a result, China’s foreign and military policymaking largely remained in their respective silos. The Hainan Island incident of 2001 was a case in point. The collision, which killed a Chinese pilot and forced 24 American crew to land in Hainan, happened at a sensitive time when the Chinese government was negotiating China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation and bidding for the 2008 Olympics. According to a US official, American diplomats had lodged complaints about Chinese interceptions months before the accident, but the foreign ministry seemed unaware of the military’s activities. Even after the collision, the foreign ministry was out of reach for 12 hours before responding to the US ambassador’s meeting request.

Worse, despite evidence suggesting the Chinese pilot was responsible for flying too close, the Chinese military charged that the EP-3 had “suddenly veered” and collided with the Chinese plane – an impossible move given that the EP-3 was larger and slower. Since no other bureaucracy could verify the information provided, the government adopted the military’s version of events and demanded a formal apology, which made it virtually impossible to reconcile the different US and Chinese accounts of the collision and delayed the resolution of the crisis.

The current administration inherited the same set of institutions that are bogged down by bureaucratic interests. Although the old NSLSG was replaced by the Central National Security Commission (CNSC) in 2013, which has greater military representation and allows for better cross-agency communications on paper, the body has yet to be tested during an external conflict. Policy coordination remains thorny, and patriots today are unlikely to accept a US apology. Resolving an accident will be more challenging this time.

By Bruce Shen