Beijing’s strong reaction to U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan highlights how the island has become ground zero in major power competition, with U.S.-China relations at their lowest point in decades. Indeed, the Taiwan Strait is now the most plausible locale for a military confrontation between the United States and China. Most alarmingly, Beijing and Washington are prone to misread the signals of the other, especially where Taiwan is concerned. Misinterpreting rhetoric or actions can be extremely dangerous because it can trigger action-reaction cycles that can spiral into unintended escalation and unwanted conflict.

President Joe Biden during a virtual meeting with Xi Jinping, China’s leader, at the White House on Nov. 15, 2021. They have spoken only five times since early 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden during a virtual meeting with Xi Jinping, China’s leader, at the White House on Nov. 15, 2021. They have spoken only five times since early 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Amid heightened tensions, opportunities for misinterpretation are ample — and dangerous. In an interview aired just this weekend, President Biden said — for the fourth time during his presidency — that the U.S. military would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinse invasion of the island. Although White House officials averred that the president’s remarks were consistent with U.S. policy, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Biden’s comments “severely violate the commitment the U.S. made not to support Taiwan independence.”

While both sides recognize that Taiwan has long been the most contentious and sensitive issue in the bilateral relationship, this has not translated into each side being able to clearly decipher the signaling of the other. This is evident from analyzing the signaling of Washington and Beijing during the first months of the Biden administration in early 2021 and an examination of the more recent trip to Taiwan by Speaker Pelosi.

Misreading Biden

Available evidence suggests that many Chinese policymakers and analysts assumed that the Biden administration would pursue a more conciliatory China policy than the prior administration and concurrently would adopt a more accommodating approach vis-à-vis Taiwan. When this did not happen — Beijing interrupted Washington’s early rhetoric and actions regarding Taiwan as anything but accommodating — it came as a major shock.

Indeed, Beijing read initial statements by Biden administration officials as indicating a significant hardening of Washington’s policy toward Taipei. Chinese policymakers and analysts fixated on the term “rock solid,” used on January 23, 2021 by State Department Spokesperson Ned Price to describe the US commitment to Taiwan. They misidentified the statement as the first time the phrase “rock solid” was used (National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne utilized the term on January 20), interpreting it as evidence that Biden administration aimed to deepen the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

Yet, this was the opposite of what the new administration was intending to signal, which was reassurance that U.S. policy toward Taiwan had not changed. U.S. policymakers did not give the same emphasis to the January 23 statement and described the January 20 use of the term as an “articulation of U.S. policy,” with the Biden administration’s Taiwan policy being viewed as being one of continuity.

Along with misinterpreting Washington’s comments on Taiwan, Beijing appeared to see U.S. engagement with the island as a sign that the Biden administration was intent on strengthening U.S. ties to Taiwan. Through this lens, Taiwanese Representative to the United States Bi-khim Hsiao’s presence at Biden’s swearing-in ceremony was seen by some Chinese policymakers and analysts as a departure from past practice and a signal of the administration’s plans to strengthen relations with Taiwan. U.S. experts and policymakers interviewed by the authors saw nothing new in Hsiao’s attendance at the inauguration, pointing out that Taiwan’s representative has attended prior presidential inaugurations. Moreover, the invitation to Hsiao was extended by the Joint Congressional Committee in Inaugural Ceremonies, not by any executive branch entity.

Seeing Congress at Center Stage

While the intricacies of U.S. inauguration protocol may not be fully appreciated by Chinese policymakers and analysts, a widely held assumption in China is that actions by the legislative branch are an extension of executive branch policy. Chinese experts have also expressed the belief that Congress will have increased involvement in U.S. diplomacy and security due to political polarization in the United States as well as the need for congressional support on key items on the Biden administration’s domestic agenda.  In other words, Beijing assumes Congress is working in tandem with the White House to further strengthen Washington’s relationship with Taipei.

This assumption sheds light on why Beijing reacted so strongly to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan. In bilateral communications with Beijing, the White House stressed that it did not have the power to control the speaker’s international travel itinerary. Beijing, however, appeared to focus on Pelosi’s position as speaker of the House and constitutional designation as second in line to succeed the U.S. president (after the vice president). Thus, it appears that in Beijing’s view the visit was seen as a deliberate action by the U.S. government aimed at upgrading U.S.-Taiwan official ties. Despite this view, a visit to Taiwan by the speaker of the House is not without precedent: in 1997, then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich also traveled to the island.

Elevating Tensions

Do these misinterpretations and misunderstandings matter? Yes, they do. The stakes associated with them are high. In the context of the deep mutual mistrust and suspicion currently plaguing U.S.-China relations, the dangers of unintended escalation and specter of military conflict in the Taiwan Strait are all too real. In fact, as the aircraft carrying Speaker Pelosi landed last month in Taipei, Chinese military jets squeezed the median line in the Taiwan Strait headed toward the island. While Beijing’s act of provocation was obvious, its intended signal was not.

Moreover, it is not only Beijing that has difficulty interpreting signals out of Washington; Washington also finds it difficult to read signals coming out of Beijing. China’s Communist Party leaders, for example, regularly insist that Taiwan is a “core interest” over which they are prepared to use military force. Yet, according to a newly released USIP report, it is not always clear to Washington policymakers what Beijing means when a Chinese official uses language such as “If you play with fire, you will set yourself on fire.” While Washington recognizes the inflammatory verbiage is related to Taiwan, it is far from clear what signal Beijing is sending.

Chinese leaders appear to see U.S. actions as part of a well-coordinated effort to qualitatively upgrade Washington’s relationship with Taipei. At the same time, U.S. leaders tend to see Beijing’s increasing scope and frequency in the use of armed coercion as evidence of decision to seek unification by brute military force. Whether these interpretations are accurate is less important than whether each side perceives them to be.

The above analysis underscores the urgent need for clearer signals to be articulated by authoritative actors and then consistently communicated through multiple channels. This of course is easy to say but very difficult to do.

Alison McFarland is a research analyst for the China and North Korea programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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