In early August, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan provoked protests from top Chinese diplomats, with sharp words around the time. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that U.S. politicians who “play with fire” on the Taiwan issue will “come to no good end.” Zhao Lijian, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, indicated that “there will be serious consequences if she insists on making the visit.” Meanwhile, another Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, labeled the visit as “a grave political provocation to upgrade U.S. official exchanges with Taiwan.”
Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was prompted by major concerns about changes in China’s treatment of Hong Kong and Taiwan and was intended to restrain China from invading Taiwan as Western countries confront Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The growing Chinese threat to Taiwan required Pelosi to demonstrate U.S. commitment to Taiwan and specifically the U.S. Congress’ commitment.
Nevertheless, China has shown more outrage than necessary, escalating tensions through diplomatic protests and military exercises surrounding Taiwan. Does Beijing understand the political consequences of its actions in Taiwan?
The Chinese government aims to unify China by annexing Taiwan under its One China principle and the Anti-Secession Law. The Taiwanese government’s attitude toward this One China principle has been hardening every year since the inauguration of the Tsai administration in 2016. In particular, the developments in Hong Kong – which was given over to Beijing’s control in 1997 under the same “One Country, Two Systems” formula proposed for Taiwan – significantly changed the policy attitude of the Taiwanese government.
To counter massive pro-democracy protests in 2019, China broke its 1984 promise to retain civil liberties in Hong Kong under “One Country, Two Systems” for at least 50 years. In 2020, the National Security Law was enacted to control freedom of speech and to reform the election system so that only “patriots” could run for office. Freedom in Hong Kong was no longer guaranteed.
It was obvious that Taiwan would be the next target.
Chinese diplomats have been claiming Taiwan as the untouchable territory of China. In early 2020, they started using loud, aggressive, and provocative language – so-called wolf warrior diplomacy – to counter the United States’ strong commitment to Taiwan. For instance, Chinese spokespeople harshly opposed U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and U.S. support for Taiwan’s participation in the world community.
China’s growing threat has hardened Taiwan’s policy attitude toward One Country, Two Systems. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said in her 2021 National Day address that, while hoping for “an easing of cross-strait relations,” her administration “will continue to bolster national defense and demonstrate our determination to defend ourselves to ensure that nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us.”
She added, “This is because the path that China has laid out offers neither a free and democratic way of life for Taiwan, nor sovereignty for our 23 million people.”
Opposing Tsai’s insistence on Taiwan’s sovereignty, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Spokesperson Ma Xiaoguang maintained that her address attempted to “advocate Taiwan’s independence and indicate two-state theory.”
China has continued to lodge protests against Taiwan even though the continued threat from China has hardened Taiwan’s attitude. China’s latest diplomatic protest against Taiwan will only add fuel to the fire.
The Impact of China’s Diplomatic Protest on Taiwanese Public Opinion
In international relations, we can observe a rally phenomenon in which external threats, such as military action or economic sanctions, induce patriotic feelings among the people of the target country and increase support for national leaders and foreign policies. Unlike military action or economic sanctions, diplomatic protests do not physically harm the people of the target country. However, security policy is such a salient issue that even negative words can sufficiently trigger patriotism among the target country’s citizens.
Our recently published article in International Studies Quarterly examines how diplomatic protests shape public opinion in Taiwan with an online survey experiment. A Taiwanese company, smilepoll.tw, conducted the survey from February 12 to March 13, 2019, and collected 2,314 responses. The respondents read a fictitious newspaper article in which foreign countries, including China, Japan, and South Korea, protested Taiwan’s purchase of U.S. weapons. They then answered questions about their support levels for Tsai Ing-wen and Tsai’s stance on security policy, as well as their policy preferences on the size of the military budget.
We found that only diplomatic protests from China and South Korea, which had political issues with Taiwan, triggered the rally effect, bolstering support for Tsai. The results also could not rule out the possibility that those protests would strengthen support for her security policies and increase calls for hard-line policies, such as increasing military budgets.
With these findings in mind, China’s strong protests against Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan could generate a political backlash in Taiwan and lead to the political consequences of Taiwan’s adoption of a hard-line foreign policy.
China’s Assertive Actions Against Pelosi’s Visit Will Boomerang
Chinese politicians and media used harsh language to try to prevent Pelosi from visiting Taiwan. Chinese President Xi Jinping told U.S. President Joe Biden, “whoever plays with fire will get burned.” Hu Xijin, the famous former editor of the Global Times, tweeted a provocative message that Chinese fighter jets could “forcibly dispel Pelosi’s plane.” Through this strong messaging, Chinese leaders attempted to build solidarity among the Chinese public by blocking Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
However, Pelosi’s arrival in Taiwan in spite of these very public warnings generated discontent among the Chinese people, whose anger turned toward Xi Jinping. This situation was unfavorable for Xi, who is seeking a third term in office at the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress this autumn. To appease public anger, China imposed economic sanctions on Taiwan’s products and staged military drills close to Taiwan. China’s military exercises simulated a blockade of Taiwan and sent at least 11 missiles into the island’s vicinity.
Most Taiwanese were not panicked or threatened by the military exercises. Their calmness may result from China’s increasing military flybys near Taiwan since 2020. However, China’s assertive diplomatic rhetoric and military action are likely to boomerang. China’s continuing diplomatic suppression and military threats will boost patriotic feelings in Taiwan, enhancing political support for the president and government’s defense policy and increasing calls for a more hard-line policy against China.
By lodging diplomatic protests against Taiwan, China will increase the tension in cross-strait relations and be stuck in a downward spiral.