China hit back at US House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s landmark touchdown in Taiwan late Tuesday with an unprecedented range of actions against the self-ruled island it considers its own.
Within minutes of her arrival, the People’s Liberation Army announced provocative drills and missile launches encircling Taiwan. That was swiftly followed by economic sanctions on Taiwanese agricultural goods and imports of Chinese sand.
Pelosi’s trip presents President Xi Jinping with a dilemma just months before a twice-a-decade leadership congress later this year. His response must be hard enough to satisfy a nationalist public hyped-up by bellicose commentators, but avoid further destabilizing relations with the US and doing more damage to China’s already-faltering economy.
“For Xi Jinping, this is a really critical window between now and the 20th Party Congress,” Jude Blanchette, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said on Bloomberg Television. “He really can’t afford to be seen as weak. That’s why there’s significant concern about where this could go.”
Here are the ways China has already responded and what it could still do:
1. Missile Tests, Drills Encircling Taiwan
Beijing announced six exclusion zones encircling Taiwan to facilitate live-fire military drills from Thursday to Sunday. Some of the areas cross into the island’s territorial waters, threatening to disrupt airline traffic and shipping in the Taiwan Strait — one of the world’s busiest trade routes.
2. China Drills Surround Taiwan
Early Wednesday, state broadcaster China Central Television said the country had launched joint navy and air force exercises around Taiwan. The operations will include “regular-guided fire testing in the eastern waters” — or missiles — off Taiwan, the PLA said.
China sent 21 warplanes into Taiwan’s southwestern air defense identification zone Tuesday, according to the island’s Defense Ministry. The daily record is 56 PLA planes on Oct. 4, which coincided with nearby US-led military exercises.
China could yet do more. The Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper said Tuesday that the PLA could strike Taiwanese military targets and quoted an expert suggesting China exercise “control” over Taiwan’s airspace and adjacent seas.
3. Sand, Fish and Tech
Before Pelosi landed, China banned food imports from more than 100 Taiwanese suppliers. On Wednesday morning, China’s Ministry of Commerce halted natural sand exports to Taiwan, without elaborating, and customs officials added boycotts to some fish and fruit imports.
Separately, Chinese organizations, companies and individuals were banned Wednesday from dealing with Taiwan companies including Speedtech Energy and Hyweb Technology, China’s state-run CCTV reported.
China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade of $328.3 billion last year, giving Beijing a strategic advantage. Still, China must tread carefully as it needs Taiwan for semiconductors.
3. Criminalizing Separatists
China vowed to hold diehard Taiwan “separatists” accountable and impose criminal punishments on them, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, citing an unidentified spokesperson from the Communist Party’s Taiwan Affairs Office. It didn’t name anyone, and it’s unclear how the measure will be enforced.
4. Diplomatic Protest
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng summoned US Ambassador Nicholas Burns on Tuesday evening for a tongue lashing upon Pelosi’s arrival, telling the envoy that his country “must pay for mistakes,” according to a CCTV post on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.
China’s US Ambassador Qin Gang, who took up his post last year, could still be recalled — he’ll need to return to China soon for the upcoming congress, giving Beijing a convenient opening. Last year, China recalled its ambassador to Lithuania after a spat over Taiwan, and in 1995 Beijing withdrew its then-US Ambassador Li Daoyu after Taiwan’s then-President Lee visited the US.
Speaking on CNN late Tuesday, Qin called Pelosi’s trip “completely wrong.” “It is a major event upgrading substantive relations between the US and Taiwan,” he added.
Taiwan faced cyberattacks late Tuesday, with the presidential office saying it suffered a 20-minute barrage in the early evening hours that was 200 times worse than usual. The Taiwanese Foreign Ministry’s website also appeared to face periodic disruptions.
6. Seize an Island
China’s most provocative response would be to seize one of Taiwan’s smaller outlying islands, although this is highly unlikely and there’s no indication the PLA is preparing to do so.
But China has attacked the islands before. Early in the Cold War, the PLA bombarded Taiwan’s Kinmen Islands, located just off southeastern China’s coastline, drawing major US military support for Taipei. In 2012, China occupied the Scarborough Shoal, a coral reef the Philippines claimed as its own, in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
The US would view any seizure as a major escalation that could test the limits of Biden’s military commitment to Taiwan. The US could also add more sanctions on China, a move would alarm neighboring countries in Asia — many of which also have territorial disputes with Beijing.