What 3 past Taiwan Strait crises can teach us about U.S.-China tensions today Both the U.S. and China stepped up military activity in the region ahead of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's Taiwan visit. Here's what is different now from crises in the Taiwan Strait decades ago.

What 3 past Taiwan Strait crises can teach us about U.S.-China tensions today

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ASMA KHALID, HOST:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has wrapped up her visit to Taiwan. It was a trip that escalated U.S. tensions with China. In Beijing, the foreign ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador to make a formal complaint. China also announced military drills, which Taiwan's defense minister said amounted to a shipping blockade. But these dynamics are not new for the relationship involving a self-governed democracy and an island, which China claims as its own. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: China is not happy about Pelosi's visit. It's been holding military drills all this week near Taiwan. And the fear is that a miscalculation could escalate into a full conflict with the island and, perhaps, even the U.S. But this is not the first time there's been military tension in the Taiwan Strait, the strip of water separating Taiwan and China. In the 1950s, they fought over several small islands in the strait. And from 1995 to '96, China even test-fired missiles towards Taiwan.

SUSAN SHIRK: We had concerns that Beijing would grab a small island or do something else rash. But in the end, they never did.

FENG: Susan Shirk was appointed deputy assistant secretary of state the year after what's now called the third Taiwan Strait crisis. She worked to bring the temperature down after the U.S. had sent a naval show of force in support of Taiwan during the crisis.

SHIRK: If China hadn't de-escalated, if they had responded by, let's say, attacking or harassing the carrier battle group, that would have been very dangerous.

FENG: Instead, the U.S. and China made up through high-level diplomacy. And in 1997, then Chinese President Jiang Zemin even visited America. But the Taiwan crisis the year before was a major wake-up call for China. It realized it was no match for the might of the U.S. military.

MICHAEL SWAINE: And what they drew from that was not, oh, boy - we got to make sure we don't get humiliated again. Let's behave ourselves.

FENG: This is Michael Swaine, director of the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

SWAINE: It's, we need to have the appropriate amount of power and influence so that we don't sit in a passive position or in a disadvantageous position in dealing with the United States.

FENG: Fast-forward to 2022. What's different now is China's military is much more powerful. And U.S.-China relations are much worse.

SWAINE: You know, you've got this kind of mutually reinforcing dynamic going on between the two sides, where they assume the worst of the other and they don't believe what they're saying.

FENG: And unlike during the last Taiwan Strait crisis, China and the U.S. do not have interlocutors who know each other well and can meet each other in person. So all eyes are now on China, which is trying to do two things - project power and strength, but also avoid a war.

SWAINE: You have to really be able to convey resolve that you mean business over this, but not do so in a way that actually provokes conflict. Now, how do you split that hair?

FENG: Like the U.S., China also has a lot on its plate. It's dealing with a troubled economy and big political meetings in October that determine who runs the country next. And China wants nothing, such as a war, to mess up these plans.

SHELLEY RIGGER: And it is desperate to prevent such a crisis from occurring.

FENG: Shelley Rigger is professor of East Asian politics at Davidson College in North Carolina. And she warns now is a more dangerous time with China - or the PRC - than in 1997, the last time a House speaker visited Taiwan.

RIGGER: The PRCs willingness to push harder and its ability to push harder has increased a lot since 1997.

FENG: And Taiwan has become an ever more critical geopolitical pawn between the U.S. and China as well. But it's a dangerous game to play. China and the U.S. want to avoid a conflict, knowing the costs could be devastating. Yet neither country wants to back down either.

Emily Feng, NPR News.

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