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Expert Interview

Heightened Tensions in the Taiwan Strait — An Interview with Oriana Skylar Mastro

By Elissa Bozhkov, 2022 MIA Graduate, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy and Katy Norris, MPP Student, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy

Following Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan and subsequent Chinese live-fire drills, uncertainty remains surrounding Taiwan’s future and the U.S. position on Taiwan. On Aug. 5, 2022, we sat down with Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on China’s military and strategic thinking who serves as a Center Fellow at the Stanford University Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. We discussed the recent developments in Taiwan, U.S. and Chinese military capabilities, and the evolving state of Chinese-Russian cooperation in light of Taiwan.

Regarding Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan, what kind of message did the visit deliver to Chinese leadership, and how might that shift U.S.-China relations? 

The issue is that the message itself — that the U.S. is unambiguously committed to Taiwan’s defense — is problematic and should not be delivered. When the U.S. serves up this message, we lose the moral high ground and cause Beijing to question whether the U.S. is committed to the One China Policy. President Biden continues to make statements that the U.S. is committed to the One China Policy, but actions like Pelosi’s visit call U.S. support into question. 

Because of this muddled messaging, there are a lot of individuals in Beijing who believe that the U.S. position is changing — that it is moving closer to supporting Taiwan’s independence. As a result, China feels that they must respond to every small development in Taiwan. If they don’t, these small steps may add up and this might lead them to losing Taiwan. This is an impermissible scenario for Beijing.

In response to Pelosi’s visit, China is conducting live-fire military drills in the Taiwan Strait. What should we watch for in these drills, and what can we learn from them? 

I know we focus on the live-fire drills as a signal, but we need to remember that they are also a combat rehearsal. In previous work, I’ve argued that the number one thing preventing China from attacking Taiwan is that the Chinese feel the need to be more prepared by conducting more complex and realistic exercises. These drills are exactly the type of exercise that gets the Chinese one step closer to feeling confident in their capabilities. In terms of capacity, the drills were a success for the Chinese. For example, they closed off areas for live-fire missile drills, and the missiles landed where they were intended to. Now the Chinese can feel confident in their weapons’ accuracy and their ability to coordinate drills successfully. This has important implications for their readiness to execute actions across the Taiwan Strait.

How do rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait compare to previous crises in the straits? 

During the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, there was much less concern over its potential escalation because China did not have the range of options they do today. The U.S. likes to think that they successfully deterred the Chinese, but China had a very limited toolbox back then. What’s more, the U.S. is not flaunting its power like it used to. From the Chinese perspective, it's quite telling that in this recent round of tension the U.S. aircraft carrier fled back to Japanese ports, unlike in the last crisis when President Clinton deployed carriers into the Strait.

What about U.S. military capabilities? How have they changed since the last crisis?

In terms of U.S. capabilities, our ability to project power relies on a certain infrastructure. No one can reach out and catch us the way China can — China knows what U.S. infrastructure looks like and has thought about how they can best undermine it. We’ve realized it's a problem for the past twenty years, but we haven’t really done anything about it.

What lessons is China taking away from the U.S. response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and how may that impact their decision-making regarding Taiwan in the future?

This may be a minority opinion, but I don’t think the Chinese are taking away major lessons. China thought that they would need to move fast and quickly to win. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine confirmed that. 

They’ve also seen Russia struggle with command and control logistics and identified that as a key component they need to take Taiwan. Given this, it's possible they're more cautious. They might take more time, but their fundamental thinking hasn't changed. 

On that note, what do you see as the biggest dangers of comparing Russia’s invasion in Ukraine to China’s approach to Taiwan? 

It's more problematic to assume China and Russia are very similar simply because they are both authoritarian countries. The Chinese military is much more capable, the Chinese economy is much larger, and the world’s dependence on China is greater. When looking at Russia and Ukraine, China is actually more like Ukraine, and the U.S. actually has more in common with Russia because both countries are declining hegemonic powers. 

Our mistake is, when we see Russia performing poorly, we don’t think that maybe the U.S. will perform poorly too. My view is that since we overestimated Russian military capabilities, the threat now is that we may be underestimating Chinese capabilities. 

If the Taiwan crisis continues to escalate, how do you see Russian-Chinese cooperation developing? 

I am primarily concerned with Russia serving as a strategic rear to China. There is no evidence to suggest that they will directly work together in conducting military operations. Russia is in a position to support China with oil and they’re in a position to supply ammunition, which is problematic for U.S. strategic planning. Additionally, they can close off their air space to the U.S., which could complicate our operations. There’s a lot they can do at the margins that would be very problematic, even short of direct involvement. 

With Russia and China continuing to operate in a gray zone of deniability, what do you think the U.S. should do to anticipate future scenarios and prepare its position on Taiwan? 

As it stands, we allow the Chinese to tell us what their actions mean instead of doing our own interpretations. This is a mistake. We don’t have to wait for China’s explanations. Twenty years ago in the South China Sea, the U.S. didn’t care if it was a fishing ship and not a naval ship, they would interpret it as an attack. That kind of behavior removes the incentive for China or Russia to act in the gray zone or at a low intensity. If China thinks an action is low intensity, but we take it as a serious threat, it becomes riskier for them to engage. We need to make our deterrent threats more credible.

One week after Pelosi concluded her contentious visit to Taiwan, China announced that it had completed its military drills near Taiwan. However, friction between the U.S. and China continues. As Mastro pointed out, the U.S. struggles to effectively communicate with China, particularly in regard to its stance on the “One China” policy and the behaviors China interprets as belligerent. In the wake of her visit, Pelosi denied that the U.S. military warned her against the visit, while President Biden claimed just the opposite. On Aug. 14, 2022 a second visit from U.S. officials began, with a group of U.S. senators visiting Taiwan to reaffirm U.S. support for the island. With China becoming a much more formidable military power than it was 20 years ago, escalating tensions in the Taiwan Strait may be riskier than ever before.