To widespread relief, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's plane landed in Taipei without incident on Aug. 2. Fears that the Chinese military might interfere with her flight, triggering a dangerous confrontation with the United States, did not materialize.
The challenge facing the US, however, has only just begun. In response to Pelosi's visit, the Chinese military announced a three-day military exercise in six areas close to Taiwan. Although this round of drills won't start until noon on Aug. 4 —after Pelosi's scheduled departure — it marks an unprecedented escalation of China's military tactics in the Taiwan Strait. Even a casual look at the areas designated as off-limits reveals that they simulate a naval blockade.
The drills are a reminder that China has many different ways short of war to pressure Taiwan and undermine US support for the island. In coming years, countering such "gray-zone" tactics will likely represent the toughest challenge the US faces in its effort to maintain Taiwan's security.
Especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Western media in particular has focused too heavily on the threat of a Normandy-style, amphibious invasion of Taiwan. In fact, such an assault is unlikely in the next five to seven years; the costs and risks of failure are simply too high for China.
Instead, until China acquires the full range of capabilities to ensure a successful military campaign against Taiwan, it is more likely to resort to increasingly aggressive gray-zone tactics in pursuit of its strategic goal — to deter international support for Taiwan and achieve reunification through peaceful means if possible.
Besides demonstrating Chinese resolve, such tactics can impose real economic costs on Taiwan by raising the risk premia for doing business with the island. If Taiwan is perceived to be an increasingly unsafe place with which to trade, foreign countries and businesses will seek alternatives. Indeed, concerns about continued access to advanced chips, a sector Taiwan dominates, motivated the US Congress to pass recent legislation shoring up the domestic semiconductor industry.
For Chinese leaders, the most attractive aspect of gray-zone tactics is their flexibility. Unlike overt acts of war, they give China the option to escalate while avoiding a direct confrontation with the US military.
The exercises China is about to conduct are a sobering illustration. Substantively, they are dangerous, provocative and disruptive. Technically, however, they do not amount to an act of war that demands a US response. In all likelihood, the relative brevity of the drills is designed as a warning. In a more drastic future scenario, China may decide to hold a multi-week naval exercise around Taiwan that effectively closes off its sea lines of communications.
More dangerous tactics could involve sending military planes and ships so close to Taiwan's territorial waters and airspace that Taiwan has to scramble jets to intercept them, raising the risk of an accidental exchange of fire. The ensuing tensions could result in panic and temporary closure of Taiwan's airspace.
Gray-zone warfare is not risk-free for China. Deployed mainly as instruments of psychological warfare, such tactics tend to generate decreasing returns as their intended targets adapt. If adopted recklessly, they could quickly escalate to a war the Chinese military is not ready to wage.
Still, knowing that China is likely to resort to gray-zone strategies should force the US to rethink its support for Taiwan's defense. Simply building up the island into a defensive "porcupine" that is too hard for China to digest — while certainly worth doing — will not be enough to ensure its security.
One option obviously is for the US to push back forcefully even against actions short of war. US aircraft carriers could be deployed close to Taiwan as deterrent each time China escalates.
This strategy might calm panic on the island, as the dispatch of two US carrier battle groups to the area did during an earlier episode of Chinese saber-rattling in 1996. It could also risk an accidental conflict, however, especially if the US decides to enter zones marked by China for live-fire drills.
The better option is to engage in preemptive diplomacy to prevent a future crisis. This will require pragmatism and restraint from all sides — the US, China and Taiwan. Given the dangerous and delicate nature of the Taiwan issue, all the parties involved must understand that this is the only course, however difficult it may be politically.
For all the tensions surrounding Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, it will have served some purpose if it spurs the US and China to revive dialogue and look for ways to avoid a similar crisis in the future. The alternative is too bleak to contemplate.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.