Last week, the world witnessed a repeat of the US-China confrontation of last August when the then Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (Democrat –California) paid an official visit to Taiwan and the military exercises by the Chinese Navy and Air Force in the Strait of Taiwan.
This time round, on 5 April, the present Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (Republican – California), received the President of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen, in California. She was transiting the US on a ten-day trip to Latin America.
Last year, McCarthy, at the time campaigning in the US mid-term elections, said that if elected he would travel to Taiwan in the footsteps of his predecessor.
Meeting the Taiwanese president on US soil and while she was transiting the United States was a clever diplomatic move by the US administration with the approval of the Republican Speaker of the House to show support for Taiwan without provoking a strong official reaction similar to that of the Chinese government last August.
Washington would have factored in a major political development that took place in the intervening period between August 2022 and April 2023, namely the re-election of Chinese President Xi Jinping for an unprecedented third term in office in March. This would have warranted a stronger Chinese response this time round if McCarthy had officially visited Taiwan.
Fortunately, reason prevailed.
However, the Chinese Southern Military Command that oversees the Taiwan Strait nevertheless planned and executed a three-day military drill in the strait from 8 to 10 April. The exercise was called “Joint Sharp Sword.”
According to the spokesman of the Chinese Military Command, the drill was a “necessary action” to safeguard the territorial integrity of China and a warning against “joint provocations by Taiwan secessionists… and foreign forces.”
The Joint Sharp Sword manoeuvres saw the Chinese Air Force flying dozens of early warning reconnaissance, fighter, and bomber planes to the target airspace, meaning Taiwan’s, as well as building a joint strike system involving the Coast Guard and sea and air forces in a combined operations mode while supported by joint intelligence. This was to allow them to become acquainted with the “battlefield,” with the Chinese media reporting that the manoeuvres were designed to support “target guidance” and provide cover for “joint assault forces.”
At the same time, a spokesman for the Naval Research Institute attached to the Chinese Army told the Chinese media that the Shandong Aircraft Carrier Group had sailed to the Western Pacific, with this move showing that the sea-combat system was strengthening “drastically” as a warning to Taiwanese “independence forces.”
The Joint Sharp Sword manoeuvres and the deployment of the Shandong Carrier Group to the Western Pacific demonstrate China’s growing military resources and capabilities. They are intended to act as a deterrent to the use of force in the Strait of Taiwan. The French newspaper Le Figaro rightly pointed out that the manoeuvres aimed at the “total encirclement” of Taiwan and were intended to exercise full control of the sea lanes and airspace leading to Taiwan.
The official US reaction was measured and called on Beijing not to overreact to the California stopover of the Taiwanese president on 5 April. The State Department spokesperson said on 8 April that “there is no reason for Beijing to turn this transit, which was consistent with long-standing US practice and policy, into something it is not or to use it as a pretext to overreact.” He added that the US is “comfortable and confident that [it] has in place sufficient resources and capabilities in the region to ensure peace and stability and to meet our national security commitments.”
Let us hope that encouraging, explicitly or implicitly, the official independence of Taiwan is not part of the US “national security commitments.”
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien, addressing the annual economic forum in China known as the Boao Forum for Asia in the southern Chinese province of Hainan on 6 April said that the US-China relationship is “most worrying” and that the tensions between the two are felt “keenly across the world,” in comments quoted in the South China Morning Post.
He went on to say that the “big powers have a heavy responsibility to maintain stable and workable relations with one another because any clash between them will have grievous consequences for themselves and for the world” as a whole.
I could not agree more.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly