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Military Capabilities, Not Commitment, at Stake in Taiwan: Oriana Skylar Mastro Examines Fallout From Pelosi's Visit

Political maneuvers like Speaker Pelosi's visit to Taiwan only anger Beijing but ultimately do not address the key issue of whether the United States has the military capabilities needed to protect Taiwan, argues Center Fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro.
Nancy Pelosi and Tsai Ing-wen
Speaker of the U.S. House Of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), left, poses for photographs with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, right, at the president's office on August 03, 2022 in Taipei, Taiwan. Photo by Handout/Getty Images

This story was last updated on August 10, 2022.

Amid warnings and condemnations from Chinese leadership, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan on August 2, 2022, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the island since 1997. A day after Pelosi's visit, furious China began firing missiles near Taiwan in drills that appear to be a trial run for sealing off the island, and Japan said some missiles landed in its exclusive economic zone. In a series of articles and interviews, Center Fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro examines the implications of Speaker Pelosi's visit, Beijing's response, and what the United States might do to prepare for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. 

Mastro joined CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS to discuss what she calls the "unprecedented scale and complexity" of China's military drills near Taiwan. Over the past 20 years, China has invested in building up not only one of the most advanced and sophisticated militaries but also one that can attack and keep out the United States. So now, explains Mastro, beyond the live-fire and missile tests, the Chinese military exercises also included complex air and naval operations designed to demonstrate China's readiness to take Taiwan when it feels ready to do so. Watch:

According to Mastro, when China makes a move on Taiwan there has to be an element of surprise, so they don't want to do it right now when the United States has increased its focus and operations in the region. But we will probably see additional rounds of Chinese military exercises in the future, she predicts, "and the more they get to do it the more confident they become and the more likely we are to see Beijing initiate force against the island." 

A Question of Capability

China's round of military exercises in response to Speaker Pelosi's Taiwan visit was a bit of a “coming-out party” for Beijing, writes Mastro in an invited commentary for The Economist. After years of investments to build up and modernize the People's Liberation Army, China’s armed forces are now comparable to America’s in quality and quantity, Mastro says. But even with all these improvements, it is unclear whether China could take Taiwan by force. Chinese leaders knew the PLA had to conduct a series of large, realistic exercises to identify issues and hone their capabilities, and Pelosi's visit gave them the pretext to do exactly that. "China needs an element of surprise to be able to take Taiwan before America has time to mobilize adequate forces in the region to defend the island," Mastro notes. "If China’s forces are simulating formations, blockades, attacks, and amphibious landings, it will be harder to decipher when they are preparing for the real thing."

In an interview with BBC World News, Mastro argues that the political maneuvering intended to signal U.S. commitment to Taiwan — whether it comes in the form of Speaker Pelosi's visit or President Biden's statements that "the United States must protect Taiwan" — is ultimately unhelpful and does not address the more serious issue at hand, which is whether the United States has the military capabilities needed to defend Taiwan.

Mastro also suggested that Chinese leadership has benefited from Pelosi's visit, using the occasion for their own political purposes and to test some of their military capabilities to take Taiwan by force.

Watch the full discussion:

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According to Mastro, a noteworthy aspect of Pelosi's visit is that she chose to pursue it despite dissuasion from the Biden administration, signaling to Beijing that the U.S. model is grounded in the separation of powers and that Congress would act independently to pass legislation to supply arms or provide military funding to defend Taiwan.

Chinese Military Projection of Power

In response to Pelosi's visit, China announced military exercises in six regions around Taiwan, pressing its forces closer to the island than ever before. "They’re definitely going to use this as an excuse to do something that helps them prepare for a possible invasion,” Mastro says in a New York Times report. "Under the guise of signaling, they’re trying to basically test their ability to conduct complex maneuvers that are necessary for an amphibious assault on Taiwan.”

Mastro recently outlined the array of weaponry China has amassed for a forceful "unification" with Taiwan, pointing out that China has now the world's largest navy and that its missile force is thought to be capable of targeting ships at sea to neutralize the main U.S. tool of power projection, namely, aircraft carriers, notes a New York Times explainer.

Mastro also joined WBUR's On Point Radio host Meghna Chakrabarti to examine the fallout from China's military exercises around Taiwan, current Chinese military capabilities, and what a modern war over Taiwan would look like. Listen to the full conversation:

Artificial intelligence and machine learning will play a major role in a Taiwan contingency, and these are significant because they change much of China's perceptions of its capabilities, Mastro explains. First, the Chinese are concerned about the capabilities of their personnel, but if they can use AI-enabled systems and take the person out of the loop, then that makes them more confident in their military capabilities. Moreover, the Chinese notion of "war control" is such in which thinking through enables planning and preparing for every possible outcome and contingency in a war. "Algorithmic warfare is exactly what they have in mind. They think, 'If we have the right systems, we can project and ensure victory ahead of time.' So, from my perspective, AI is really significant because of how much more confidence it would give China in its ability to win a war."

When people talk about whether or not China can or cannot invade Taiwan, they’re actually talking about the level of operational cost that China would have to pay to do it. They could do it.
Oriana Skylar Mastro

Under Xi Jinping, the People's Liberation Army has modernized to a point where "armed reunification" with Taiwan seems increasingly plausible. But experts differ in interpreting China's calculus on Taiwan. "When people talk about whether or not China can or cannot [invade Taiwan], they’re actually talking about something different, the level of operational cost — the loss of ships, casualties — that China would have to pay to do it," Mastro tells the New York Times. "They could do it," she added.

Paths to Deterrence

Mastro also appeared in an interview with NBC Bay Area, explaining the context for the flaring U.S.-China tensions as they pertain to Taiwan. "The issue is that the United States promised not to have official ties with the Taiwan government, and the visit by Speaker Pelosi is understood by the Chinese as an official delegation, meaning the United States is violating its promise."

Pelosi's visit is not the first time the United States has sent an official delegation to Taiwan, and the Chinese follow-up military exercises are not the first sign of Chinese retaliation. What has changed this time around, according to Mastro, is Chinese military capabilities. "China now has a formidable force that could take Taiwan, if it felt like it, and I think that is encouraging a much more aggressive posturing on the part of Beijing," she said.

Mastro emphasized that the U.S. strategy of making symbolic statements of commitment to Taiwan is misguided and does not deter Beijing from aggressive action. "China's uncertainty right now is not about U.S. commitment but is, instead, about U.S. capability [...] I'm sure the Chinese are watching [Pelosi's visit], but the lessons they're learning is not that they should back off Taiwan, but instead that they need to strengthen their position to convince the United States not to engage in these kinds of activities in the future."


For more of Mastro's analysis of the fallout from Pelosi's visit and cross-Strait tensions, visit the links below:

What Are the Issues Between the U.S., China, and Taiwan? Stanford Scholar Explains
Stanford News, August 10, 2022

China ‘Convinced It Needs to Hit Us With Pearl Harbor-style Surprise Attack’ to Win War Over Taiwan, Expert Warns
The U.S. Sun, August 5, 2022

Stanford Experts Cast Grim Predictions for U.S.-China Relations Following Pelosi’s Taiwan Visit
The Stanford Daily, August 5, 2022

China’s War Games May Not Lead to All-out Conflict Against Taiwan... Yet
The Telegraph, August 4, 2022

Chinese Missiles Strike Seas Off Taiwan, and Some Land Near Japan
New York Times, August 3, 2022

Taiwan Lives Under the Threat of a Modernized and Reinforced Chinese Army
Les Echos, August 3, 2022

China’s Military Drills Could Be a Prelude to Something Much Worse in Taiwan
The Telegraph, August 3, 2022

Why Pelosi’s Taiwan Visit Is Raising U.S.-China Tensions
New York Times, August 2, 2022

Pelosi's Taiwan Visit Triggering Potential Military Showdown
VOA Chinese, August 2, 2022

For Taiwan, Pelosi Visit is About Us, China Controlling Risk
CBS Bay Area, July 29, 2022

Xi Jinping's Phone Call with Biden
BBC Chinese, July 28, 2022

Pelosi’s Rumored Taiwan Trip Sparks Uproar
The Dispatch, July 27, 2022

Taiwan Holds Drills Amid Pelosi Visit Concern, China Tension
AP, July 25, 2022

Guam: The Sharpening of the Spear’s Tip
Foreign Policy Focus, July 20, 2022

Expert Voices: Interview with Oriana Skylar Mastro
Center for Advanced China Research, July 18, 2022

Oriana Skylar Mastro

Oriana Skylar Mastro is a Center Fellow at FSI and is based at APARC, where her research focuses on Chinese military and security policy, Asia-Pacific security issues, war termination, nuclear dynamics and coercive diplomacy.
Photo of Oriana Skylar Mastro

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