Prospects of US-China tensions rise after Speaker Pelosi’s Taiwan visit

Mayank Chhaya –

Mayank Chayya

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s in-your-face visit to Taipei in defiance of Beijing’s inevitable bellicosity over it has set the stage for a period of tense bilateral relations between the United States and China.

The visit comes in the run-up to the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) 20th National Congress where President Xi Jinping will seek an unprecedented third term as General Secretary. Although he is all but assured of a third term after he himself removed the term limits for the position of the General Secretary in 2018, he has no option but to strike a tough posture against Pelosi’s visit out of domestic political compulsions.

Pelosi kept the purpose of her visit sharply unambiguous after her arrival today, saying it was a sign of 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,” she said striking all the discordant notes that China is loath to hear.

As expected, China’s Foreign Ministry condemned the trip, saying it “seriously undermines China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, seriously undermines the political foundation of Sino-U.S. relations and sends a seriously wrong signal to the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces.”

During a recent two-hour phone call between Xi and U.S. President Joe Biden, the former said allowing the Speaker’s visit was “playing with fire”. In a sense that fire would come in the form of military drills by China with live ammunition just 80 miles from Taiwan. The Chinese Air Force is expected to send fighter jets near Taiwan as part of the same muscle-flexing exercise.

The Biden Administration has tried to play down the visit arguing that as a co-equal branch of the government U.S. Congress takes its own decisions such as the Speaker’s visit. The fact that it is for the first time in 25 years that number 3 in the U.S. power pecking order is visiting Taiwan has been noted by China. The last such visit was by then Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997.

John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said yesterday, “There is no reason for Beijing to turn a potential visit consistent with longstanding U.S. policy into some sort of crisis or conflict, or use it as a pretext to increase aggressive military activity in or around the Taiwan Strait.”

It is not clear whether a few weeks before his likely re-election for a third term as the party General Secretary Xi would risk an actual military action against Taiwan. Bets are that he would not, especially at a time when both the global and Chinese economies are facing serious headwinds in the aftermath of the COVID 19 pandemic. However, there is clear expectation among China watchers that Xi may breathe down Taiwan’s neck in a menacing manner without a precipitous action.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February this year and the overall helplessness of America and its NATO allies to do anything to thwart it, there are those who believe that Beijing might feel emboldened. China has generally supported Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war so far. Of course, realities of Ukraine and Taiwan are very different in so much as it involves a significant U.S. response for any attack on the latter. Since Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the U.S. is hamstrung from getting militarily involved. That is not the case with Taiwan.

On his part, Biden has said repeatedly that American troops would defend the self-governing island of Taiwan if China attacked it militarily. At the same time though he has also said “one China policy” remains in place that assumes a neither-here-nor-there position. While Washington does not accept or reject China’s longstanding claim over Taiwan, it also does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country.

While Biden’s path of least resistance by not leaning on Pelosi to drop the visit may be calibrated, it still risks aggravating long-term relations between the two countries. There are those who see this approach as symptomatic of incoherence in U.S. policy vis-à-vis China and Taiwan.

Beijing has long claimed sovereignty over Taiwan and has chosen to see the presence of a top U.S. figure like Pelosi on the island as an affront. It is a difficult balance for Xi to project himself as muscular domestically over Taiwan even while being circumspect internationally for what any provocative military action might mean.

Pelosi’s meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and other top officials will be watched closely by China.