Tourists look on as a Chinese military helicopter flies past Pingtan island, one of mainland China’s closest point from Taiwan, in Fujian province on August 4, 2022, ahead of massive military drills off Taiwan following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the self-ruled island. -AFP file pic

United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan last month dominated headlines for its potential ramification on cross-strait relations.

In response, China carried out the largest-ever military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, ushering in what analysts called a “new normal”.

While the response has been criticised as an overreaction, this “new normal” did not occur overnight. Instead, the incident revealed China’s plans for the strait. The “new normal” refers to China’s increased provocations against Taiwan.

Since September 2020, there has been increased incursions by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In the first week of September, Taiwanese officials detected 120 PLA military aircraft and 35 navy vessels around its territory.

These numbers are stark compared with the estimated 380 Chinese incursions in the entire 2020.

Essentially, this “new normal” represents China’s attempt to alter the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.

The military incursions aim to erode Taiwan’s territorial control and sanctions hope to suffocate its economy, while a recently published white paper seeks to strengthen Beijing’s legal claim to the island.

While the drills raised alarm bells internationally, Beijing remained unconcerned as it was targeted at a domestic audience.

In China, nationalism has surged under the banner of Xi Jinping’s national rejuvenation and at the heart of this is reunification with Taiwan.

The island is seen as an ungained right from the civil war.

Reunification would be to reclaim China’s greatness, but more importantly, the Communist Party’s eminence.

Despite the scale of the military exercises, Chinese nationals were unimpressed. Prior to Pelosi’s visit, Beijing had warned that “those who play with fire will perish by it”, but a few practice rounds hardly came across as perishing.

Although Beijing’s response seems like an overreaction to outsiders, within China the government has been criticised for doing too little.

Beijing was, in fact, exercising restraint over the issue, attempting to strike a balance between nationalism and international peace.

Abroad, Beijing’s worrisome behaviour in the Taiwan Strait undermined the soft power it worked so hard to cultivate.

This matters, especially in Taiwan, if Beijing hopes to win the hearts and minds of the people. But try-hards hardly ever succeed in becoming popular.

Throughout the fiasco, Taiwanese remained calm, continuing with their lives.

While the media did offer regular reporting, it did not emphasise the scale or consequences of the exercises in the way international news did.

The drills did not warrant breaking news as Chinese incursions were frequent to the point of normal. But underneath the calm, there was a lingering anxiety.

For Pelosi’s visit, Taipei prepared air raid shelters, including updating a database of shelters and putting the locations on a smartphone app, and launching a social media and poster campaign to ensure the people knew how to find the closest shelter.

Instead of panicking, Taiwanese are pursuing a strategy of preparedness.

For decades, Taiwan has endured China’s bullying, and the threat of invasion only grows more pressing as the latter’s power expands.

While Taiwan remains resolute in defending its territorial integrity, the “new normal” means living with the increased tensions, uncertainty and threats.

Cross-strait relations are at a delicate balance.

If conflict breaks out, the ramifications on the global economy would be catastrophic.

China will not be spared from this tragedy and conflict is unlikely to happen soon, especially not while Xi remains in power, but the Taiwan question will only grow more urgent as 2049 inches closer.

It marks the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, the year Xi’s Chinese dream is set to be realised. This leaves less than 27 years before Beijing will act for reunification.

Despite China’s insistence that this is an internal issue, the regional and global repercussions of the Taiwan question make it an international issue.

Beijing’s actions in the strait will have consequences on other territorial disputes, such as the South China Sea.

Given Malaysia’s territorial disputes with China, Kuala Lumpur cannot afford to stand by idly. Upholding the One China Policy is not synonymous with letting Beijing have its way, but rather about preserving the status quo.

Kuala Lumpur must make a stance on what principles to defend and champion, and it should be pursued in the name of peace. Failing to do so would risk the “new normal” extending across the Indo-Pacific.