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Southeast Asia

Taiwan visit of Nancy Pelosi heightens US-China tensions

Print edition : Aug 27, 2022 T+T-

Taiwan visit of Nancy Pelosi heightens US-China tensions

Nancy Pelosi after receiving the Order of Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon, Taiwan’s highest civilian honour, from country’s President Tsai Ing-wen, at the President’s office on August 3 in Taipei. 

Nancy Pelosi after receiving the Order of Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon, Taiwan’s highest civilian honour, from country’s President Tsai Ing-wen, at the President’s office on August 3 in Taipei.  | Photo Credit: Chien Chih-Hung/Office of The President via Getty Images

The visit appears to signal an end to the “one China” policy of the US.  

The recent Taiwan visit of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, not surprisingly, triggered a strong reaction from the Chinese government. It ordered the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to conduct “live fire” exercises in the Taiwan Strait for an unprecedented five days in a row. Air and maritime traffic were disrupted.

China had been warning for months that the visit of such a high-ranking American official would be detrimental to bilateral ties and a serious breach of the “one China” policy that the US had adhered to for decades. The House Speaker is second in the line of succession to the President after the Vice President. Pelosi is also a leading light in the Democratic Party, which controls both Houses of legislature in the US.

In 1997, Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House, visited Taiwan. But at the time, relations between the two countries were good, and the US government was under the control of the Democrats. Gingrich had first visited China and then Japan before making a three-hour stopover in Taiwan. Unlike Gingrich, Pelosi stayed overnight in Taiwan and had high-profile meetings with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and leading anti-China politicians and dissidents from the mainland and Hong Kong. The visit also took place at a time of heightened tensions between the US and China over a host of issues, including the war in Ukraine.

Today, there is consensus among Democrats and Republicans that the US’ primary enemy is China. “The nature of bilateral relationship between China and the US has changed and the Taiwan issue has been used as an outpost and a pawn in Washington’s efforts to contain China,” said Wang Yong, a professor at Peking University, writing in South China Morning Post.

The US and China only established full diplomatic relations after the former recognised Taiwan as an integral part of the latter. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter granted China full diplomatic recognition while acknowledging the one China policy of the Chinese government. After recognising the People’s Republic of China, the US severed formal diplomatic ties with the government in Taiwan. However, in the same year Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which allowed the US to retain its existing military and economic relationship with the Taiwanese government. The Chinese Communist Party has always stressed that peaceful reunification with Taiwan is among its highest national priorities. After the establishment of diplomatic relations, the Taiwan issue was put on the back burner as the US was more interested in dismantling the Soviet Union and expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Highlights
  • Nancy Pelosi met President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan and leading Hong Kong dissidents in Taipei.
  • China had warned the US that her visit would have consequences.
  • As soon as Pelosi left, the PLA conducted its biggest military exercises ever.
  • Taiwan is completely surrounded by the PLA.
  • PLA showed its ability to block the Taiwan Strait, a major shipping route.
  • The US Congress is on the verge of passing the Taiwan Policy Act, which will commit the US to supporting Taiwan militarily.
  • This will end the US’ four-decade-long “one China” policy.

The Taiwan issue came in handy when it became evident that China was peacefully emerging as the next superpower. The anti-China move started during US President Barack Obama’s second term with “the military pivot” to the East. The US began serious efforts to rope countries such as India into a military alliance against China. While on the campaign trail, Donald Trump threatened to dump the one China policy. After being sworn in as President, he took the unprecedented step of talking to the Taiwanese President before making a call to his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.

The Biden administration has continued with almost all of Donald Trump’s harsh foreign policy initiatives.
The Biden administration has continued with almost all of Donald Trump’s harsh foreign policy initiatives. | Photo Credit: David Dee Delgado

Trump was, however, quick to reiterate that the US remained committed to the policy. But in the last years of his term, he started a virtual new cold war with China and made it clear that his administration would prioritise competition instead of cooperation with China. Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which allowed highly placed officials from the State, Commerce, and Defence departments to travel openly to Taiwan. Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, announced in 2020 that the “era of cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party was over”.

The Biden administration has continued with almost all of Trump’s harsh foreign policy initiatives, including the economic blockades of Cuba and Iran. On China, President Joe Biden went a step further than Trump and invited the Taiwanese chief representative (the de facto ambassador) in Washington to be present for his inauguration. Taiwan’s ruling party, the Democratic Progress Party, described this “as a new breakthrough in 42 years”. It is inconceivable that Pelosi would have undertaken the trip to Taiwan without the tacit approval of the US President.

Pelosi was originally scheduled to visit Taiwan in April but had to reschedule the visit after contracting COVID-19. In a last-ditch effort, Xi personally highlighted Beijing’s deep concerns about the Pelosi visit in a two-hour-long telephone conversation with Biden. Xi warned Biden that “those who play with fire will perish by it”, asked the US to abide by the one China principle, and emphasised that China firmly opposed Taiwanese independence and outside interference.

Aircraft of the Eastern Theatre Command of the PLA during a joint combat training exercise around the Taiwan on August 7.
Aircraft of the Eastern Theatre Command of the PLA during a joint combat training exercise around the Taiwan on August 7. | Photo Credit: Li Bingyu/Xinhua via AP

The warning was not heeded. The day after Pelosi left Taiwan, the PLA launched one of the biggest military exercises it has ever conducted. More than 100 military warplanes were sent on a range of reconnaissance and support missions. The aircraft included the newly inducted mid-air oil tanker, the Y-20U, and the advanced stealth fighter, the J-20. More than 20 destroyers were sent in to block access to maritime vessels heading in the direction of Taiwan. The Taiwanese military confirmed that the PLA launched 11 Dongfeng missiles. Taiwan was completely surrounded by the PLA.

‘Dress rehearsal’ for an invasion

Many Western military analysts described the exercises as “a dress rehearsal” for or a prelude to a full-fledged invasion. The PLA showed that it had the capacity to subdue the US-backed Taiwanese forces at short notice if it wanted to. A blockade of the island could upend global trade. Around half of the world’s container fleet passes through the Taiwan straits. A blockade would be devastating for the US tech industry as it is dependent on advanced microchips made by the TSMC company based on the island.

This screen grab from a video by the PLA Eastern Theatre Command shows a missile being fired during a military exercise in China on August 4.
This screen grab from a video by the PLA Eastern Theatre Command shows a missile being fired during a military exercise in China on August 4. | Photo Credit: AFP/PLA EASTERN THEATRE COMMAND/ESN

And for the first time two missiles from the mainland flew over Taiwanese territory. One of the missiles landed within Japan’s exclusive economic zone. It could have been a message to Japan. The right-wing Japanese government has been encouraging Taiwanese independence. “All the missiles hit the targets accurately, testing the precision strike and area denial capabilities,” said a PLA statement after the exercises ended.

The US seems intent on luring China into a “proxy war” over Taiwan just as it did with Russia over Ukraine. Since Biden took over the presidency, the US Navy has been sending a warship through the Taiwan Strait on a monthly basis, knowing full well that it infuriates China. There is already a limited American military presence on the island, and the US has been providing sophisticated weaponry to the Taiwanese armed forces for over a decade and a half.

Also read:U.S. policy on Asia focussed on its attempt to weaken China

After the PLA military exercises got over, the White House announced that the US would “conduct air and maritime transits through the Taiwan Straits in the next few weeks”. Congress is on the verge of passing the Taiwan Policy Act with overwhelming bipartisan support. The Bill will designate Taiwan as “a major non-NATO ally” and commit the US to supporting Taiwan militarily in the event of war; this ends four decades of the US’ “strategic ambiguity” on the subject. The bill aims to provide $4.5 billion in additional military aid to Taiwan.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on August 3.
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on August 3. | Photo Credit: Kok Ky/Cambodia’s Government Cabinet/Reuters

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who was in Cambodia in early August to attend the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said ASEAN should denounce the Pelosi visit. “The provocative behaviour of the US is not accidental but a meticulously planned farce,” Wang said after a meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. “The US ‘plot of using Taiwan to contain China’ will never succeed, and it will never change the historical trend of Taiwan’s inevitable return to the motherland.”

In a joint statement, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers warned against “provocative action” over the Taiwan issue. The situation “could lead to miscalculation, serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences among major powers”, it said. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry said that there was no change in its one China policy. The international community, barring a handful of small countries, continues to adhere to the policy, but with the US slowly but surely shifting its stance, many countries prefer to remain silent.

The Indian government is no exception. India was among the first countries to recognise the one China policy. But after Prime Minister Narendra Modi first came to power, his government made an effort to dilute India’s long-standing policy on the issue. Taiwan’s chief representative in India was invited for Modi’s first swearing-in ceremony. Parliamentary delegations from Taiwan started making frequent visits to the country. After 2017, the BJP government took China’s sensitivities into account and parliamentary delegations and other high-level visits from Taiwan became rare. However, two Cabinet Ministers from the Indian government registered their virtual presence at the swearing-in ceremony of the Taiwanese President in May this year.

Sun Weidong, Chinese Ambassador to India.
Sun Weidong, Chinese Ambassador to India. | Photo Credit: K. PICHUMANI

Since Modi took over, there was also no official mention of the one China policy in official communiques. After the Chinese embassy had taken note of India’s prolonged silence over the Pelosi visit and its aftermath and asked for clarifications, the Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson said that India continued to adhere to its traditional one China policy but remained opposed to any unilateral change in the status quo over Taiwan. “India’s relevant policies are well known and consistent. They don’t require reiteration,” the spokesperson said.

Also read:The way forward in India-China relations

China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, told the Indian media that the policy constituted the foundation of the relationship between the two countries. “It is hoped that the Indian side can adhere to an independent foreign policy, understand and support China’s just position,” he said.

Chinese ship at Hambantota

Sun’s comments came in the wake of a minor controversy: the docking of a Chinese research ship in the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota for “replenishments” and “refuelling”. The US and Indian governments had objected to the visit of the ship, claiming that it was a spy vessel. The arm-twisting of the beleaguered Sri Lankan government seemed to have succeeded when it announced that it had asked China to defer the ship’s visit. China reacted with fury, indirectly blaming India and the US for the Sri Lankan government’s decision.

A Chinese research and survey vessel arriving at Hambantota port in Sri Lanka August 16.
A Chinese research and survey vessel arriving at Hambantota port in Sri Lanka August 16. | Photo Credit: ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP

But within days Colombo had a rethink and allowed the ship into its waters from August 16 to 22. While initially granting permission to the Chinese ship, the Sri Lankan authorities had said that it was routine for commercial and naval ships to visit Sri Lanka from different countries, including India and the US. According to reports in the American media, both India and the US conveyed to Sri Lanka that allowing the ship to berth at Hambantota would be viewed as giving China special treatment at a time when Sri Lanka was seeking a bailout from the IMF.

The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry justified its flip-flop by stating that it was the government’s intention all the time “to safeguard the legitimate interests of all countries in keeping with its international obligations”. India has been providing substantial help to Sri Lanka in its hour of need as has China, which has agreed to restructure its infrastructure loans to Sri Lanka. This is vital for Sri Lanka if it is to reach an agreement with the IMF. Small countries in the region are unwittingly getting caught up in the ongoing conflict between a declining superpower and an emerging one.