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Beijing’s Diplomacy of Anger at Taiwan: How the Chinese Art of War Avoids Red Lines

15 Dec 2023
By Professor Antonina Luszczykiewicz and Professor Patrick Mendis 
Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in early August 2022 to meet with President Tsai Ing-wen at the presidential office of the Republic of China. The photo shows Pelosi and Tsai talking in the corridor of the Presidential Palace, taken by Presidential. Source: Photographer Wang Yu Ching /

China draws lessons from the past mistakes, cooling down tensions with the United States just one month before the Taiwan presidential elections in January 2024. For Taiwan, however, China’s military exercises inch closer.

On the sidelines of the APEC Summit in November 2023, President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden held talks in San Francisco, agreeing to resume military-to-military communications. These had been suspended by China in August 2022 in response to the Taiwan visit of the-then Speaker of House Nancy Pelosi.

The San Francisco summit, for now, seems to have moderately stabilised Sino-American relations. More importantly, China’s “wolf warrior” confrontational attitude has eased. Clearly, Beijing’s measured tone is a striking contrast to its angry and vehement performance of the previous months. Since Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, China has commenced military drills circulating the island and firing missiles.

China’s Indignation

The government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims that there is only “one China.” Beijing perceives itself as the sole legitimate government with Taiwan an “inalienable part” of the PRC. The so-called “reunification” is one of the key projects, and the most “sensitive” issue, to the Communist Party of China (CPC). Beijing sees the Taiwan status as a matter of China’s “internal affairs” and is exasperated by the “interference” of the United States or any other state that allegedly supports Taiwan’s independence.

Against this backdrop, President Xi warned his American counterpart in November 2022 that the Taiwan question is “the very core of China’s core interests” and “the first red line that must not be crossed in China-US relations.” But where this red line lies and how China would react if it is crossed seems rather elusive.

Many observers considered that Pelosi’s visit—as the third highest elected leader in the US government—meant the crossing of that red line. Such perceptions, coupled with heightened emotions, were quite common in China. For example, Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the propaganda outlet Global Times, called on social media for the shooting down of Pelosi’s aircraft.

Statements by the Chinese government revealed similarly veiled threats, with Xi reportedly admonishing Biden over a phone call that “those who play with fire will perish by it.” Chinese spokesman Zhao Lijian of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Pelosi’s visit would lead to “very serious developments and consequences” as the People’s Liberation Army “will never sit idly by.” However, when the spokesman was questioned about the exact measures that China was going to take in case Pelosi landed in Taiwan, he gave a rather evasive answer: “let us wait and see.”

These comments demonstrate that the CPC leadership sought to navigate carefully between drawing a red line and heading for an open conflict with Washington.

Problems with Red Lines

In August 2012, President Barack Obama drew the infamous “red line” for the Bashar al-Assad regime of Syria, without providing details for a response should Assad use chemical weapons. Without specific evidence, the media interpreted Obama’s rather vague remarks as intervention.

When the Syrian forces dropped sarin nerve gas on the suburbs of Damascus in August 2013—killing 1,400 civilians—Obama’s reluctance to act against Assad was not only widely criticized but also seen as diminishing US credibility. President Obama risked further damage when he tried to justify his position: “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”

This example illustrates the many challenges of drawing red lines and the ease with which national credibility can be tested. For Chinese leaders, the Syrian example provided many lessons, and has likely influenced a cautious shift in its strategy not to “lose face,” especially when the CPC consciously caters to win over the domestic population and gain greater credibility in the eyes of the international community.

Unlike the Washington debacle in Syria, Beijing did not stand idly after Pelosi’s Taiwan visit; China carried out previously unannounced and unprecedented military drills. It was an effective kind of military response within China’s psychological warfare while moving strategic plans closer to eventual military invasion. This response was perhaps not as tough and resolute as some nationalists expected; Beijing nonetheless strengthened its credibility.

Are Emotions Rational?

It would be naïve not to expect an angry reaction from China when its core issues are challenged. Beijing has purposefully chosen anger as both a political weapon and cognitive warfare instrument to signal that it will not tolerate any “interferences.”

Such performative anger regarding Taiwan is not new. Many examples exist, including Beijing’s behavior during the so-called third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-96, when China flexed its muscles by conducting missile tests. At that time, Taiwan was preparing for the first democratic presidential elections in March 1996.

In both cases, China’s strategy was non-confrontational. Just like the missiles fired in 1995-96 were not intended to hit Taiwan or the two US aircraft carrier battle groups positioned near the island, so were the more recent military drills designed to avoid open confrontation with the United States in 2022.

Indeed, Beijing has strategically and consciously been navigating its diplomacy of anger so that China would not trap itself into a potentially catastrophic and unwinnable war with the United States. Thus, it demonstrates that China acts rationally—not emotionally.

Does Less Aggression Equal with More Power?

In China’s Art of War, performative anger has a place in the use of strategic decision-making. After Beijing’s vehement indignation at Pelosi’s visit, now comes the moment when—in absence of American actions that Beijing perceives as “provocations” directed at China—tensions may gradually subside. It is not coincidental that China is cooling the temperature down a little over one month prior to the presidential elections in Taiwan, which will be held in mid-January 2024.

By sending the last set of missiles shortly before the election day in 1996, Beijing tried to put pressure on Taiwanese society and impose a grave sense of fear to prevent the appointment of President Lee Teng-hui. It ultimately failed, and the CPC has learned that lashing out does not make Taiwan more pro-Beijing. On the contrary, the Taiwanese electorate tends to vote for a firmer stance against China than a conciliatory one when pressured—as the first presidential elections are believed to have demonstrated.

For the time being, China seems to be showing its less combative face, hoping the Taiwanese people to vote for candidates who are seen by Beijing as more favorable. At the same time, China’s non-action might be seen by some both domestically and internationally as a sign of weakness or silent compliance. The remaining four weeks, of course, is eternity in politics; anything can still happen. Surely, China keeps all the options on the table, adhering to the advice of famous war strategist Sun Tzu: “The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent.”

Dr Antonina Luszczykiewicz, a former Fulbright senior scholar at Indiana University in Bloomington, is an assistant professor at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland

Dr Patrick Mendis, a former American diplomat and military professor in the NATO and Indo-Pacific Commands during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, is a distinguished visiting professor of transatlantic relations at the University of Warsaw in Poland.

The views expressed in this analysis do not represent the official positions of their current or past affiliations nor governments. This article has been supported by a grant from the Faculty of International and Political Studies under the Strategic Program Excellence Initiative at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.