There is a huge geopolitical storm hovering around the Taiwan Strait in the wake of US Congress Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan along with some of her colleagues. The storm is clearly the creation of China that has been warning the United States against Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan that it considers to be part of China.
As of now Taiwan is theoretically part of the Chinese mainland. In reality, Taiwan has existed as a de facto democratic political entity with a government, people, territory and military — and exercises sovereignty over the people and territory of the country. China has been claiming sovereignty over Taiwan since 1949 and that means for more than 70 years!
But Taiwanese people do not want to be part of China and prefer self-rule. An island country of 23 million people, a little less than the size of Australia in demography, is economically vibrant, technologically advanced, politically stable and socially progressive. Not many countries in the world recognise Taiwan as an independent sovereign country mostly because of China’s persistent diplomacy, offer of economic rewards and occasional threats of punishment.
If astute American diplomat Henry Kissinger had not persuaded president Richard Nixon to promote Sino-American détente in the early 1970s, the US perhaps would by now have fully recognised Taiwan as an independent country, Taiwan would have continued to occupy the permanent seat in the UN Security Council and post-1970s history of East Asia would have had a different trajectory.
But then the US did nurture China as a strategic partner to counter Soviet expansionism, signed communiqués with China and recognised Taiwan as part of China. The US Congress passed a Taiwan Relations Act in 1979 and made certain provisions that did not make Taiwan fully part of China! As per the ACT, the US supported the idea of peaceful reunification of China through negotiations, opposed annexation of Taiwan by use of military force, allowed supply of defensive weapons to Taiwan to enable the island to defend itself against any kind of military coercion.
In the last four decades, the world observed a miracle of gargantuan Chinese economic growth and robust military capabilities. The world also simultaneously observed Taiwan emerge as an Asian tiger in the field of economic growth, a democratic polity and technologically an advanced and innovative society. The world of diplomacy saw the Americans periodically supplying high-tech weapons and military equipment to Taiwan and China systematically protesting against it. When the Taiwanese leaders used to visit the US, Beijing used to protest. But the visits went along.
More recently, American State Department officials, Congressmen and Senators and European parliamentarians began visiting Taipei to express their support at the time of China either flexing its military muscles or issuing open threats to Taiwan. Frightful Taiwanese were not united in demanding independence openly for fear of Chinese retaliation. However, the Democratic Progressive Party, currently governing the country, champions the cause of Taiwanese independence.
The US White House supports the principle of “one China but”, does not back the idea of an independent Taiwan, the US Congress does not contest the principle of “one China”, but champions democracy and human rights. In the current scenario, the White House did not endorse House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan but did not oppose it either. When House Speaker Newt Gingrich landed in Taiwan in 1997 soon after the eruption of the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis with firing numerous missiles by China, no one feared a military confrontation between China and Taiwan. But Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has created a geopolitical storm and speculations about Chinese military actions.
China’s aggressive behaviour and sabre rattle can be explained in terms of the following facts: A) Nancy Pelosi is third in the line of succession in the US Government and her visit would make it sort of official trip to Taiwan. B) Current President of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen belongs to the Democratic Progressive Party, a pro-independence political party. C) Nancy herself is considered anti-China by Beijing. D) China of 2022 is materially different from the China of 1997 and is an aspiring superpower. E) Chinese President Xi Jinping has openly vowed to unify China and considers his dream of realising a “rejuvenated China” would not be complete without “national unification”.
Why is the Biden Administration tacitly backing Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan? First of all, Democratic President Joe Biden eyes on the November mid-term Congressional poll and seeks to stand up to the repeated Chinese threats to avoid the image of a weak president.
Second, the Biden Administration has put substantial efforts to preserve and promote the US interests in the Indo-Pacific and cannot buckle under the Chinese pressure that is so open and offensive. It would send wrong signals to US allies and partners in the region.
Third, China having its way in preventing high profile visits to Taiwan amidst the Russian invasion of Ukraine would further embolden Russia-China partnership against the US-led efforts to punish Russia. Fourth, in the backdrop of economic downturn and energy crisis in Europe, Chinese psychological victory and Russia’s resilience would make the Trans-Atlantic ties frail and feeble.
The storm that has begun to loom over the Taiwan Strait is because of the 20th Party Congress in October this year, mid-term Congressional elections in the US in November 2022 and national elections in Taiwan next year. But the issue is non-serious in view of the following reasons: this is not the first time a speaker of the US House of Representatives visiting Taiwan; the visit would in no way signify independence of Taiwan; both President Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have stood by the US policy of supporting the principle of “One China”.
The storm is actually created by China and Beijing resorted to sabre rattle to project Xi Jinping as a strong leader before the 20th Party Congress. The storm can actually inflict damage, if Xi feels humiliated and tries to escalate tension to the military level. Chinese cyberattack on the President of Taiwan’s official webpage; sanction on imports from Taiwan, holding military drills and even flying aircraft sorties and deploying ships can be understood. Anything beyond that will be a lose-lose outcome for both China and Taiwan.
Chinese destruction of Taiwan will be like killing the hen that can lay the golden eggs. In any case, killing the hen will not be painless for the killer. Taiwan and China are close trade and investment partners and maintaining the status quo will be in the interest of China, Taiwan and the region at large.
This article was first published in FirstPost as US-China tension over Taiwan: Has Beijing bitten more than it can chew? on 3 August 2022.
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About the Author
Chintamani Mahapatra, Editor, ‘Indian Foreign Affairs Journal’; founder and Honorary Chairperson of Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies; and formerly Professor of American Studies, School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.