Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: Speaker Pelosi’s Taiwan Visit Ignites U.S.-China Tensions

Teresa Chen, Alana Nance
Tuesday, August 9, 2022, 8:01 AM

Shinzo Abe leaves behind an Indo-Pacific legacy; U.S. Navy FONOPS and Pelosi’s Taiwan visit draw China’s ire; unsafe maneuvers a matter of policy for the Chinese military; and more.

The USS Benfold (DDG 65) conducts routine underway operations on July 13, 2022. Source: US Navy Photo

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

Shinzo Abe Leaves Behind Indo-Pacific Legacy

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated on July 8 in Nara, Japan, during a speech at a campaign event. The longest-serving prime minister of Japan, Abe left behind a legacy that includes the revitalization of Japan’s security role in the Asia-Pacific region and the creation of the “Indo-Pacific.”

In the face of an increasingly powerful China and concerning developments in North Korea, Abe worked tirelessly to bolster Japan’s security role in the region. Abe notably converted Japan’s Defense Agency to a Defense Ministry, and implemented institutional changes to enhance the country’s defense capabilities. For example, the Abe administration lifted the long-standing ban on arms exports, and new structures within the Defense Ministry were established to manage arms production and explore the potential of exporting arms. Furthermore, the Abe administration was the first to establish Japan’s National Security Strategy.

Abe also worked to strengthen bilateral relations between India and Japan, creating a significant partnership for the Asia-Pacific region. Since 2005, the two countries have held annual summit meetings. And in 2006, under Abe and then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the two governments upgraded their relationship to a “Special Strategic and Global Partnership.” In 2014, under Abe and current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India and Japan further upgraded the relationship, with the two leaders signing a joint statement called the “Tokyo Declaration for Japan-India Special Strategic and Global Partnership.” In the past two decades, the partnership between the two countries has expanded in multiple sectors, which include political, security, economic, and military arenas. Following Abe’s assasination, Modi declared a day of national mourning, signaling the strength of India-Japan relations.

Abe is also credited with the creation of the “Indo-Pacific” concept. In a landmark speech before the Indian Parliament in 2007, Abe first described the concept of a “broader Asia” at the “confluence of the two seas,” dictating a guiding principle for the concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” now embraced by the United States and its regional allies. To buttress this framework, Abe foresaw a crucial role for the major democracies in the Asia-Pacific region—including Australia, India, and the United States—and patiently shepherded relations to the establishment of the Quad through a number of false starts. In 2007, members of the Quad met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum, but progress was stalled by changes in government and the 2008 global financial crisis. The Quad was revitalized in 2017, and some policy analysts credit this success to joint efforts by Japan and India. Japan was the chair of the first Quad meeting in 2017, and Abe had first suggested resuming the dialogue to then-U.S. President Donald Trump. After that, the Quad partnership was formalized, with meetings occurring regularly. Since President Biden’s inauguration, the Quad has convened in official summits four times and has committed to a number of shared goals, including the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness, the Quad Infrastructure Coordination Group, and the Quad Humanitarian and Disaster Relief Mechanism.

U.S. Conducts Freedom of Navigation Operations in South China Sea, Draws China Criticism

On July 13, the USS Benfold, a U.S. guided-missile destroyer, sailed near the disputed Paracel (Xisha) Islands in the South China Sea. A statement released by the U.S. Navy’s 7th fleet said that the USS Benfold was carrying out a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) and “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the South China Sea, consistent with international law.”

The FONOP drew harsh criticism from Beijing, which stated that its military had “warned away” the U.S. destroyer after it trespassed into Chinese territorial waters. Col. Tian Lijun, spokesperson at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command, said in a statement that the command “tracked, monitored, and warned away the USS Benfold guided missile destroyer which illegally entered Chinese territorial waters of the Xisha Islands … without authorization from the Chinese government” by “organizing naval and air forces.” The PLA also released photos of its operation, including a photo of Chinese forces on board the Xianning—a Type 054A guided-missile frigate—gathering data on the USS Benfold, and a photo of the USS Benfold itself. This was the first time the PLA Southern Theater Command had released such photos, an action that military development analysts have said indicates China’s growing confidence and defense against U.S. military operations.

In response to China’s claims, the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet called the PLA Southern Theater Command’s statement “false” and the “latest in a long string of PRC actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense of its Southeastern Asian neighbors in the South China Sea.” The U.S. Navy also reaffirmed that the USS Benfold’s operation reflected the United States’ “commitment to uphold freedom of navigation and lawful uses of the sea as a principle.” Following the USS Benfold’s FONOP near the Paracels, the U.S. Navy announced on July 19 that the U.S. destroyer “conducted a routine Taiwan Strait transit … through international waters in accordance with international law.” It is not clear if China monitored the USS Benfold again.

In a separate statement on July 13, the U.S. Navy announced that the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group was operating in the South China Sea for the first time during its 2022 deployment. The carrier strike group includes the Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), the Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5, embarked staffs of Task Force 70 and Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 15, the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam (CG 54), and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins (DDG 76). During its time in the South China Sea, the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group will conduct maritime security operations, which include flight operations with fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, maritime strike exercises, and coordinated tactical training between surface and air units. These operations will be carried out “in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

Speaker Pelosi Visits Taiwan, Stoking U.S.-China Tensions

On Aug. 2, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan during her tour of Asia. Her ongoing trip included stops in regional allies such as Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore. Pelosi, an outspoken critic of China, is the first sitting U.S. House speaker and highest-level American official to go to Taiwan since 1997, when Newt Gingrich visited the island. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan comes after warnings from U.S. officials.

Pelosi’s travel was not publicly confirmed ahead of her visit, and the topic was the source of recent increased tensions between the United States and China. Taiwan reportedly featured prominently during a July 28 call between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping,  In a conversation lasting more than two hours, Biden reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to the “One China” policy, but asserted that Washington opposed any unilateral change to the current situation. Xi sharply warned the United States against official exchanges with Taiwan, telling President Biden that “those who play with fire will perish by it.” Following the call, Taiwan thanked President Biden for his support and said it would continue to strengthen its security partnership with the United States. In a press conference the next day, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reasserted Beijing’s stance, stating:

The Chinese side has repeatedly made clear to the U.S. side our serious concern over Speaker Pelosi’s potential visit to Taiwan and our firm opposition to the visit. If the U.S. side challenges China’s red line, it will be met with resolute countermeasures. The U.S. must bear all consequences arising thereof.

Upon arrival in Taiwan, Pelosi issued a short statement, expressing that:

[the] Congressional delegation’s visit to Taiwan honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant Democracy. … America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.

Pelosi also published an op-ed further explaining her reasons. While in Taiwan, Pelosi met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and visited Taiwan’s legislature. Pelosi was also scheduled to attend a banquet at Taipei Guest House and to visit Taiwan’s National Human Rights Museum.

Pelosi’s visit comes ahead of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) this fall, where Xi is expected to be confirmed to an unprecedented third term. Leading up to this meeting, Chinese scholars and policy analysts have stated that Xi will project strength, especially on the topic of Taiwan. As reported in last month’s Water Wars, China has been firm in its position on Taiwan in recent international conferences. Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe said: “Let me make this clear, if anyone dares to secede Taiwan from China, we would not hesitate to fight, we will fight at all costs and we will fight to the very end, this is the only choice for China.” Furthermore, in June, China’s Foreign Ministry declared that the country “has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait,” aggressively confronting the position of the United States and other nations that consider the strait as international waters. (The U.S. Navy regularly sends a warship through the area.) Additionally, Chinese military activity around Taiwan has increased recently, with U.S. officials noting that the Chinese military’s behavior in the Asia-Pacific was becoming “significantly more and noticeably more aggressive.” In light of this, the U.S. State Department approved the potential sale of military technical assistance to Taiwan in July. This sale is estimated to be worth $108 million.

Pelosi’s visit drew harsh criticism from Beijing, which repeatedly warned of “strong countermeasures” and “consequences” should Pelosi travel to Taiwan. Just before Pelosi’s arrival in Taiwan, three official Taiwanese government websites experienced cyberattacks. In addition, Beijing formally announced that the PLA would carry out live-fire military drills from Aug. 4 to Aug. 7, and warned ships and aircraft against trespassing. The announcement also listed coordinates in which the activity would take place, three of which overlapped with areas that Taiwan claims as territorial waters. Less than 24 hours after Pelosi’s visit, the PLA launched at least 11 missiles, striking seas encircling Taiwan. The targets are the closest ever to the island. Also, the Japanese government announced that five Chinese ballistic missiles had fallen into its exclusive economic zone—an unprecedented action.

In a separate statement on Aug. 2, Col. Shi Yi, spokesperson for the PLA Eastern Theater Command, announced that the PLA would conduct “a series of joint military operations around the Taiwan Island from the evening of August 2.” The operations include naval-air joint drills in the northern, southwestern, and southeastern waters and airspace off of Taiwan, long-range combat fire live shooting in the Taiwan Strait, and conventional missile firepower test launching in the waters near eastern Taiwan. On Aug. 4, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry stated that multiple PLA aircraft and vessels briefly crossed the median line, which is the halfway point between the island and mainland China. In response, Taiwan scrambled jets and deployed missile systems to track their movement. The Chinese Foreign Ministry explained that these measures were necessary to “resolutely safeguard state sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

In response to Beijing’s military announcements, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry stated that China’s military drills violated international law, invaded Taiwan’s territorial area, and appeared to simulate an attack on the island. The ministry stated that the island would firmly defend its security and will respond appropriately. Washington also summoned Qin Gang, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, to condemn China’s “irresponsible” response to Pelosi’s trip.

China’s Foreign Ministry announced countermeasures against the United States on Aug. 5. These countermeasures include the cancellation of formal dialogues between U.S. and Chinese military officials, and the suspension of U.S.-China cooperation on the repatriation of illegal immigrants, criminal investigations, transnational crime, counternarcotics, and climate change. China stated that these countermeasures were imposed because Pelosi had acted “in disregard of China’s strong opposition and serious representations” by visiting Taiwan.

Political analysts have said that these countermeasures—especially those halting dialogues related to the military—target important “guardrails,” which stabilize relations between the United States and China. Zeno Leoni, a defense expert at King’s College London, stated that with such guardrails threatened, “the two most powerful states are now unable to talk to one another—in a productive way.”

Solomon Islands-China Pact Reignites Diplomatic Engagement With Pacific Islands

On July 13, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare met separately with the prime ministers of New Zealand and Australia in Fiji for the first time since the Solomon Islands finalized a controversial security pact with China. Sogavare’s meeting with recently elected Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese seems to have been amiable despite recent tension over the China agreement. The agreement became a major election issue for Australia and may have contributed to Albanese’s victory over former Prime Minister Scott Morrison earlier this summer. Albanese’s party had branded the finalization of the Solomon Islands-China pact as “the worst Australian foreign policy blunder in the Pacific since the end of World War II.” Detailed terms of the pact have not been disclosed, but Sogavare has given assurances that it does not allow China to establish a military base in the Solomon Islands, which is a major security concern for Australia. Rather, he claims that the Solomon Islands-China security pact aims to fill “inadequacies” in the existing security arrangement between the Solomon Islands and Australia.

Last November, violent protests broke out over multiple days in the Solomon Islands capital of Honiara. The rioters—dissatisfied with the Solomon Islands’s diplomatic switch from Taiwan to China and incensed by other domestic priorities of Sogavare’s government—demanded his resignation and set fire to the parliament building and Honaira’s Chinatown. Most of the protesters were from the island of Malaita, the Solomon Islands’s most populous province. The premier of Malaita province, Daniel Suidani, strongly opposes Sogavare’s decision to withdraw diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. He also rejects Chinese infrastructure projects within his province and opposes the recent security pact with China. Notably, Suidani continues to engage with Taiwan, despite the central government’s formal stance in favor of Beijing. Suidani denies a role in the riots, but criticizes Sogavare’s government for being unresponsive to popular concerns. “If you continue to ignore the wants of the people,” he said, “then you should expect something to happen.” To assist local police with suppressing the riots, Australia deployed peacekeeping forces to the Solomon Islands but were unable to end the violence before at least three people had been killed in fires in Chinatown.

Although Sogavare maintains that Australia is still the Solomon Islands’s “security partner of choice” in the wake of last November’s civil unrest and anti-Chinese violence, he insists that his government will call upon China to fill future gaps in Australia’s ability to provide adequate security support. Sogavare affirmed that, “[i]f there is any gap, we will not allow our country to go down the drain. If there is a gap, we will call on support from China.” Following his meeting with Sogavare, Albanese said he is “very confident” that there will not be a Chinese base in the Solomon Islands. Despite these claims, the United States and its allies still have cause for skepticism.

The finalization of the Solomon Islands-China pact was a diplomatic wake-up call for the United States and Australia. In a virtual address to Pacific leaders in July, Vice President Kamala Harris acknowledged the existence of a diplomatic void between the United States and Pacific Island nations in recent years and committed to reengagement with the region. A State Department delegation including Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and U.S. Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy will visit Honiara next month to meet with Solomon Islands government officials and commemorate the 80th anniversary of the World War II Battle of Guadalcanal. While the United States hopes that the visit will highlight the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Honiara, the return of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the “enduring relationship between the two nations[,]” the Chinese state-run media outlet Global Times criticized the visit as an attempt to “eliminate the positive influence and practical help China has provided to the South Pacific” and to “bully Pacific countries with colonialist mentality.” The Global Times further alleged that the United States aims to increase the divide between China and Australia and undermine China’s attempts at regional cooperation.

Unsafe Maneuvers a Matter of Policy for Chinese Military

In the past year, the United States has noted an increase in Chinese “provocations” against other nations operating in the South China Sea, including unsafe intercepts of ships and aircraft. Reuters reports that there have been dozens of such incidents involving the PLA during the first half of 2022, reflecting a “sharp increase over the past five years.” Such incidents include the February “lasing” of an Australian P-8 maritime patrol aircraft by two PLA Navy vessels operating within Australia’s exclusive economic zone, the Chinese Coast Guard’s close maneuvering resulting in near-collision with a Philippine vessel towing a survey cable in the disputed Scarborough Shoal (Chinese: Huángyán Dǎo; Philippines: Panatag Shoal), and the PLA Air Force’s June “chaffing” of another Australian P-8 by a Chinese J-16 fighter jet and close maneuvering with Canadian surveillance aircraft, which forced the Canadian aircraft to change course to avoid collision. Condemnations of China’s aggressive and provocative actions in the South China Sea generally result in counter-accusations by Beijing. Following the chaffing incident in June, Albanese condemned the unsafe maneuver employed against the Australian aircraft, which had been exercising freedom of overflight in accordance with international law at the time of the incident. In response to Albanese’s criticism, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Tan Kefei alleged that the Australian aircraft had been “approaching Chinese airspace” near a disputed archipelago in the South China Sea and that the Chinese aircraft responded with “professional, safe, reasonable and legal measures.” Tan added:

We sternly warn Australia to immediately stop similarly dangerous and provocative acts, and strictly control its naval and air force missions; otherwise, it will have to bear all serious consequences from its actions.

According to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, “words or actions that create tension and provoke confrontation in the region” must be strongly opposed.

The statements made by China’s Foreign Ministry spokesmen highlight an apparent contradiction between Beijing’s rhetoric and the actions of its military with regard to the stability of the South China Sea. Some analysts believe that this mismatch is by design. In a keynote address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) South China Sea Conference on July 26, Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, claimed that the increasing frequency of unsafe PLA intercepts of ships and aircraft operating lawfully in the South China Sea “looks like a pattern and a policy” dictated by Beijing, and not merely a series of coincidental decisions made by individual PLA service members. In Ratner’s view, this behavior “represents one of the most significant threats to peace and stability in the region today,” and “if the PLA continues this pattern of behavior, it is only a matter of time before there is a major incident or accident in the region.”

China asserts territorial claims throughout the South China Sea that do not conform to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). During the CSIS South China Sea Conference, U.S. State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asia Jung Pak called Beijing’s claims “expansive and unlawful,” and alleged that the PLA’s aggressive actions in support of such claims “contribute to regional instability, damage the economies of other claimant states, undermine the existing maritime order, and threaten the rights and interests of all nations that rely on or operate in this vital waterway.” Ratner asserts that through these provocative actions, Beijing is “systematically testing the limits of our collective resolve and advancing a new status quo in the South China Sea that flies in the face of our shared commitment to respect for sovereignty, peaceful resolution of disputes, and adherence to international law.”

The United States has called on Beijing to abide by international law and end its “provocative” behavior in the region. Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed last month that the United States will defend treaty partners like the Philippines in accordance with mutual defense commitments if their forces are attacked in the South China Sea. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian responded by claiming that “certain individual major foreign powers” were the true threat to regional peace due to efforts to maintain hegemony and build up military forces in the region. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi cautioned southeast Asian countries to “jointly resist the involvement of external powers” in regional disputes, maintaining that the South China Sea is not a “fighting arena” for great powers. Wang also warned members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to avoid being used as “chess pieces” by global powers.

 China’s rhetoric and aggressive actions indicate that it views the South China Sea as its territory, in conflict with international law and the U.S. commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Earlier this year, U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander Adm. John Aquilino reported that China had completed militarization of three artificial islands within the hotly contested Spratly Island chain (Chinese: Nánshā Qúndǎo; Filipino: Kalayaan Islands; Vietnamese: Quần đảo Trường Sa). China has stationed permanent flight squadrons, search and rescue personnel, and administrative staff on these islands. China’s Xinhua state news agency described the deployment of permanent personnel to the Spratly Islands as “a concrete step for China to better provide public goods to the international community and actively fulfill its international responsibilities and obligations.” However, an article by Shi Chunlin, a professor at the Dalian Maritime University, illuminates a somewhat less altruistic motive aimed at strengthening China’s control over the South China Sea region. Shi writes that enhanced Chinese search and rescue capabilities in the region would strengthen its “substantial presence in the disputed waters and enhance China’s dominance over South China Sea affairs.”


 CSIS held its 12th Annual South China Sea Conference on July 26. During the conference, Ely Ratner gave a keynote speech in which he highlighted Beijing’s recently intensified efforts to “assert control over its maritime periphery and to deconstruct core elements of the rules-based order.” As noted above, Ratner claimed that unsafe intercepts and coercive tactics employed by the PLA against ships and aircraft operating lawfully in the South China Sea represents “one of the most significant threats to peace and stability in the region.” He further asserts that these are not individual provocations, but a “pattern and a policy” dictated by Beijing with the goal of systematically testing the limits of collective international resolve to respect sovereignty, resolve disputes peacefully, and adhere to international law. Ratner states that the U.S. Defense Department’s priorities in response to this challenge are to build the asymmetric self-defense capabilities of partner nations, develop a “combat-credible” U.S.-forward presence in the region, maintain capable alliances and partnerships, and address gray zone actions that run counter to international law by providing multinational training with the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Heritage Foundation released a report by Brent Sadler, a senior research fellow for naval warfare and advanced technology in the Center for National Defense, in which he argues that in order to deter China’s rapid naval advancement—particularly in light of advancements in long-range weapons—the United States must develop a “dispersed, yet highly integrated” fleet with disaggregated capabilities across a balanced range of large, small, and unmanned platforms. He emphasizes the need for resilient communications and effective command and control over a geographically dispersed naval force to enable faster decision-making by operational commanders. Sadler recommends that Congress and the U.S. Navy take urgent action within this decade to ensure that the nation is ready for a “long war” with China, including conducting a national inventory to assess potential locations for new public and private shipyards; incorporating an integrated approach into the long-range shipbuilding plan that sustains the fleet’s aggregate firepower; proposing a plan to “de-risk” development of the next-generation destroyer; and expanding unmanned-fleet-platform experimentation.

War on the Rocks published an article by Dustin Walker in which he contrasted the $30 billion in U.S.-dedicated funding that has proved to be “absolutely vital” to the European Deterrence Initiative with a similar effort to deter conflict in the Indo-Pacific that receives no dedicated funding. Walker argues that Congress should transform the Pacific Deterrence Initiative into a dedicated appropriations account “separate from and in addition to the budgets of the military services.” In light of China’s rapidly growing military capability, he argues, the current “speed, scope, and scale” of change in the Defense Department is inadequate to effectively deter conflict in the Indo-Pacific.

The Asia & the Pacific Policy Society at Australian National University published an article by Mahbi Maulaya that criticizes China’s unilateral summer fishing ban throughout seas in East and Southeast Asia. China justifies the ban by invoking the legitimate issue of fishery sustainability. However, Maulaya alleges that China is leveraging environmental policy “as a tool to project power in the contested South China Sea,” particularly because it employs its “militarized” coast guard to enforce the ban against other claimant states in the region. Vietnam and the Philippines have protested the unilateral ban as a violation of their sovereignty and territorial jurisdiction, but China has placed itself in a “win-win scenario” in which it is able to construct a narrative that presents the protesting countries as lacking concern for fishery sustainability and placing their national interests above environmental issues. Maulaya notes that China’s decision to impose the ban unilaterally may ultimately harm sustainability efforts by dissuading countries from joining environmental initiatives out of concern that their acquiescence would embolden China’s authoritative actions in the future. He also warns that policymakers should be wary of the possibility that governments may use environmental issues as “political instruments.”

Teresa Chen is a J.D. student at Harvard Law School. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs from Yale University.
Alana Nance is a J.D. student at Harvard Law School. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Chinese from the U.S. Naval Academy and served as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Subscribe to Lawfare