On 2 August, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, paid an official visit to Taiwan.
During the previous two weeks, and in the absence of an official confirmation or denial from her office, the Chinese government had warned that if Pelosi visited Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, there would be grave consequences for Chinese-US relations.
In their fifth telephone conversation that took place two weeks ago, Chinese and US Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden discussed the question of Taiwan, each reiterating the traditional position of his country in its respect. Without dwelling specifically on a probable visit by the speaker of the House to Taiwan, Xi Jinping told his US counterpart that whoever “plays with fire” has to bear the consequences.
Once Pelosi’s visit had ended, the consequences became very plain to see, particularly from the standpoint of the Taiwanese government and the US administration. The Taiwan Affairs Office of the ruling Chinese Communist Party said on 2 August that any attempt to seek independence by Taiwan would be “shattered by the powerful force of the Chinese people.” China also imposed a series of punitive economic moves against Taiwan including suspending certain exports.
However, the most serious consequences were military in nature. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army announced and then carried out from 4 to 7 August military manoeuvres in six zones around Taiwan and in areas that are beyond the median line that demarcates the territorial waters of China and Taiwan.
The New York Times reported on 3 August that two of the six zones were inside Taiwan’s maritime border. The Chinese military had even fired ballistic missiles, it said. The Japanese government also accused China of firing missiles in the direction of its Exclusive Economic Zone. It is difficult to say whether they were fired intentionally, or inadvertently, or by mistake.
Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Xie Feng stressed on 2 August that “Taiwan is China’s Taiwan.” The Chinease Foreign Ministry summoned the US ambassador in Beijing to protest officially against Pelosi’s visit.
The ill-advised visit remains a subject of debate. The main question is the ‘why’ of the visit and the significance of its timing.
As to the ‘why’, Pelosi herself penned an opinion piece published in the Washington Post on 2 August entitled “Why I am Leading a Congressional Delegation to Taiwan.” In it, she said that “we must stand by Taiwan” and that “this vibrant, robust democracy is under threat.”
From her perspective, similar to that of the Biden administration, China “has dramatically intensified tensions with Taiwan” in the form of patrols by bombers, fighter jets, and surveillance aircraft near and even over Taiwan’s air-defence zone. These developments have led the US department of defence to “conclude that China’s Army is likely preparing for a contingency to unify Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China by force,” Pelosi said.
The following quotation from her piece is highly revealing and surprising at the same time. Pelosi accused the Chinese Communist Party of “accelerating aggression” and said that her visit “should be seen as an unequivocal statement that America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, to defend itself and its freedom.”
She stressed that her trip was taking place at a time when “Russia wages its premeditated, illegal war against Ukraine... [and] it is essential that America and our allies make clear that we never give in to autocrats.”
Framing her visit in these terms makes one wonder if including Taiwan on her Asian tour during which she visited Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan had not been cleared and coordinated with the White House in the context of its overall strategy of confrontation with China and Russia.
The Chinese ambassador to Washington, Qin Gang, also wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post on 4 August in which he underlined the fact that “Taiwan is one of the very few issues that might take China and the US to conflict.”
He was absolutely right in calling for “extra caution and a sense of responsibility,” which are “indispensable when it comes to Taiwan.”
Let’s hope that his call for “extra caution” and a “sense of responsibility” will find listening ears in Washington. The fact of the matter is that China, whether under the leadership of President Xi Jinping or any other leader, will never compromise on its One China Policy.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on 5 August in Cambodia, where he was attending a conference for the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), that American warships will continue to pass through the Taiwan Strait, accusing China of using Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan as a “pretext to increase provocative military activity in and around the Taiwan Strait.”
China, in retaliation, decided to cancel the so- called China-US Theatre Commanders Talk, China-US Defence Policy Coordination Talks, and China-US Military Maritime Consultative Agreement meetings.
Quoted in The Financial Times on 8 August Vivian Balakrishnan, the Foreign Minister of Singapore said, speaking of the positions of ASEAN, “We all have skin in this game and... want America and China to get along,” warning that this is a “dangerous moment for the whole world.”
Indeed, it is.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.