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Pelosi’s visit seeks to defy superpower China and reassure ally Taiwan

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Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen with US Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Photo: Twitter/@iingwen)

Defying a string of stark warnings and threats from China that have sent tensions between the world’s two superpowers soaring, Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, second in line to the presidency and the highest-profile elected US official landed in Taiwan on Tuesday evening. She greeted at Taipei’s Songshan Airport by Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu.

“Our delegation’s visit to Taiwan honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant democracy,” she said in a statement upon her arrival, adding that her visit “in no way contradicts” the US policy towards Taipei and Beijing—maintaining the ambiguity that Washington follows in regard to Taiwan. While the US follows a ‘One China Policy’ (OCP), its laws bind it to defend the island.

Beijing was furious and called the visit a sure provocation and a threat to China’s sovereignty, peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. It had earlier given a stern warning of taking resolute steps if the visit materialised. In a long telephone conversation on 28th July, Xi Jinping told President Biden that the US was playing with fire and those who play with fire will perish. President Biden himself was not happy with the visit as he wanted to avoid major tension with China when Washington was preoccupied with the Ukraine War, but had to respect the separation of power with the executive having no control over legislature in the US system. He, thus allowed her visit.

Even while the US did not fear military measures from China, as precaution several US warships were cruising in waters near Taiwan on Tuesday, and Pelosi herself travelled in a military aircraft. The Pentagon had on Tuesday deployed four US warships, including an aircraft carrier, in waters east of Taiwan on what the US Navy said were routine deployments. The carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, is positioned far from Taiwan, according to one US official.

So far, Beijing has not taken any major steps other than suspending trade with Taipei on certain products. China’s defence ministry announced on Tuesday that its military would conduct targeted drills around Taiwan, designed to “safeguard national sovereignty,” vowing to “resolutely thwart external interference and Taiwan’s independence and separatist attempts. There were reports that 21 Chinese aircraft entered Taiwan’s air defence zone. There will be more such threatening moves in the coming weeks to intimidate Taiwan so that the latter does not dare to do anything that goes against Beijing’s interests.

China considers Taiwan as a renegade province and a part of China and it has often threatened to take over by force, if necessary. Its strategy towards Taiwan is basically to intimidate the country through military exercises and by firing occasional missiles towards Taiwan in the Taiwan Strait. Other measures are isolating the country diplomatically and luring towards Beijing the countries who have recognized it. Its main objective is to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence. And it strongly believes that visits like Pelosi’s encourage the Taiwanese towards that goal.

Taiwan, however, tries to strike a balance between the two superpowers mainly by keeping quiet even when tension rises. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ingo-wen has done everything possible to avoid unnecessary provocations while maintaining the integrity of Taiwan’s democracy. Some experts feel this is not an unnecessary provocation keeping with the precedent that has been established with the US and Taiwan. For Taiwan’s diplomatically isolated government, any exchange with a foreign political leader is seen as positive. “We are very grateful to Speaker Pelosi who has been very supportive and friendly to Taiwan for many years and we would welcome any friendly foreign guest to visit,” said Taiwan’s premier, Su Tseng-chang.

Other than grandstanding, Pelosi’s daring visit has not brought any tangible benefit either to the United States or to Taiwan. It may have reaffirmed US commitment to Taiwanese democracy, but it has also brought huge risk of a military conflict and spiralling of tension in an already frayed relationship between the US and China.

“Pelosi’s position and the new conditions created by the nationalistic rule of Xi, as well as Beijing’s new assertiveness and military and strategic power make this the most risky brinkmanship over decades”, comments Stephen Collinson of CNN. Most of the expected actions China will undertake like sending its jets to Taiwan’s air defence identification zone may not threaten US naval forces in the area, but they can add to the potential for miscalculations and also raise the prospect how Taiwan would respond to serious provocations.

If Taiwan responds militarily under threatening conditions, the situation will automatically escalate into a major conflict.

But there are other analysts who believe the tension between the US and China may not spiral out of control, as neither wants a military conflict or the tension to fester for longer term. As for China, just months ahead of its all-important 20th Party Congress in which Xi is expected to assume a third term as leader of the Party and country, China is unlikely to make any destabilizing moves.

The US is also fully involved in the Ukraine war and would not like to get involved in unnecessary conflict with China. As the two super powers are engaged in competition and rivalry, they also need the cooperation of each other in dealing with many challenges confronting the world and they have learnt to manage their differences. As Arthur Zin-Sheng Wang, a perceptive analyst from Taiwan’s Central Police University says: “The main point is not in Pelosi coming to Taiwan, but it is to look at how the US and China effectively control the risks that may arise.” Wang gives the example of the phone conversation between Biden and Xi.

The immediate fall out of the Pelosi visit would be some aggressive actions by China vis-à-vis Taiwan and some verbal rhetoric aimed towards the US, but it may not last long, as all the parties involved in the conflict have a large stake in maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

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