CONSERVATIVES loathe Nancy Pelosi, but in visiting Taiwan in defiance of Joe Biden and Chinese threats of military retaliation, the US House Speaker showed bravery and a resolve which gave substance to Western assurances of support for the beleaguered island.
Pelosi wearing a pink suit in Taiwan may not have the same historic resonance as Richard Nixon in Peking in 1972. But her démarche served its purpose if any imminent danger of Taiwan becoming an Asian Ukraine has been alleviated.
Undeterred by a telephone warning to Biden by President Xi last week that ‘those who live by fire will perish from it’, Pelosi said after talks with President Tsai Ing-wen: ‘Our delegation came here to send an unequivocal message: America stands with Taiwan.’
If Ukraine is the yardstick, actual bravery rather than brave words is a commodity in short supply in the West. Ukraine today looks increasingly left in the lurch despite Nato promises to help it defeat Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
Pelosi’s visit and declaration cannot guarantee Taiwan immunity from attack but she sent a clear message to Beijing that its threats have no automatic bar over American foreign policy.
Biden himself pledged to fight for Taiwan last winter at the height of the West’s enthusiasm for the defence of Ukraine but the White House quickly dismissed his words as a confused old man’s gaffe. The US has no treaty obligation to defend Taiwan.
In contrast, Pelosi, who at 82 is two years older than Biden, is still a sharp-elbowed political warrior who knew exactly what she was doing and was steelier than the State Department mandarins who make a fetish of never offending Beijing, which regards Taiwan as part of China.
Xi’s government has felt obliged to make good on its promise to respond to the visit by preparing live fire drills which would involve the use of long-range weapons and conventional missiles hitting the seas around Taiwan, which lies 90 miles off the mainland. Hopefully this will close the matter for both sides without causing material damage.
Why Pelosi chose apparently to snub Biden so publicly over such a sensitive policy issue is not yet clear. According to the media, he didn’t want her to include Taiwan in her Asian tour in case it sabotaged the administration’s efforts to persuade the Chinese not to send Putin weapons to use in Ukraine.
One possibility is that the White House danced a two-step to re-assert its weakened position on Taiwan after Biden’s earlier gaffe with the President saying don’t go to appease the Chinese and distance the White House from responsibility, while privately approving Pelosi’s gesture for an international audience.
Whatever the intention was, executing it was a public blow to Biden’s already fragile prestige while raising Pelosi’s as a defender of American values. Democrats, increasingly anxious about Biden’s floor-level popularity with voters ahead of the midterm elections and keen to limit the House’s losses, may have thought the risk was worth it.
The official Chinese media is making a meal of the affront anyway. The Global Times, a Beijing tabloid owned by the Communist Party, said Pelosi’s visit could speed up (forced) re-unification and end the tacit ceasefire between the two sides with military incursions into Taiwanese air space and water. The People’s Liberation Army hit military targets in Taiwan during the Taiwan Straits crisis in 1995-96.
The paper reported that the Chinese had options other than military attack and cited their ‘strategic patience’ in dealing with the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong when Beijing abstained from any heavy-handed external intervention.
It quoted an unnamed international relations expert in Beijing as saying that ‘China will teach the US a lesson again, as it will use US mistakes to comprehensively change the Taiwan Straits situation, just as it did in Hong Kong in recent years’. In other words, revenge will be eaten cold at some time in the future.
So far, the Pelosi visit has not had the dire outcome predicted by the US media, which made a big deal of the possibility that China could launch an immediate attack on Taiwan, forcing Biden to decide whether or not to help the Taiwanese defend themselves at unpredictable cost.
Apart from the logistical difficulty of aiding an ally thousands of miles away, the US would find itself in conflict with both of its superpower rivals at a time when its own military is dealing with the fall-out from a woke makeover and difficulty in finding enough recruits to maintain manpower.
Biden himself told reporters before Pelosi landed in Taipei: ‘The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now.’ True or not, the Chinese claim they have the hypersonic missile capacity to sink US aircraft carriers which would be in the van of any conflict in the South China Sea.
Beijing has been committed since 1949 to the reunification of China and Taiwan but has been deterred by the 90 miles of sea its forces would have to cross to invade a highly armed and prepared foe. Any attempt which failed would have serious domestic consequences for the Communists, which explains the caution.
The opposition to China of the island’s 23million people would make it hard to subdue without draconian force which even a reluctant West would find it hard to ignore, since Taiwan can claim to be a better example of democracy to be defended than Ukraine. That is apart from its crucial importance to the West’s economies as a supplier of semiconductors.
US policy has hitherto been one of ‘strategic ambiguity’ towards Taiwan. But this is really a fiction which disguises the reality that a free Taiwan is as important to the US and its allies as an integrated Taiwan is to China. Whether Pelosi’s ‘bold’ visit and China’s warning rhetoric in reply was anything other than theatre well understood by both sides, only time will tell.