The visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan this week has sparked off the worst “Taiwan Strait crisis” in decades and added fresh strains in America’s relations with China.
Beijing has reacted by sending Chinese naval ships and military aircraft on Thursday to briefly cross the median line separating Chinese and Taiwanese waters and airspace and threatened a live-fire exercise that may involve firing ballistic missiles over Taiwan.
Taiwan has also deployed missile systems and navy ships to monitor Chinese activities that are likely to go on till Sunday. Meanwhile, all civilian air and sea traffic are advised to avoid the area until the situation improves.
As part of its protest, China also announced a ban on imports of agricultural goods and fish from Taiwan, and suspended exports of natural sand to the island nation, adding it to the list of more than 100 banned items.
Experts feel Chinese countermeasures will be a combination of “long-term, resolute and steadily advancing actions”. US officials also agree that China will continue to react over “a long-term horizon”.
Though most China-watchers believe that cross-strait relations had now reached an “inflection point”, the Biden administration insists that Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan does not mark a shift in America’s “one-China” policy.
But despite the hype and the resulting controversy surrounding the House Speaker’s visit to Taiwan, most observers believe it lacked a strategic component and was not clear what it aimed to achieve in the broader context of Sino-American relations.
“Now more than ever, America’s solidarity with Taiwan is critical,” Pelosi had said during her visit as she pointed out that the world now faces a choice between democracy and autocracy.
She had also spoken about the new law in America to encourage chipmakers that can offer economic opportunities for Taiwan, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of semiconductors. Pelosi was also presented with the Order of Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon for her outstanding contributions to Taiwan.
The fact that Pelosi went ahead with the visit even though she was asked by the US military not to do so has led many to wonder if the trip had more to do with her personal agenda and her desire to leave behind a legacy.
Pelosi, a longstanding critic of China, had initially planned to visit Taiwan in April but had to call it off since she had contracted Covid. She is 82 and given the prediction of the Democratic Party’s fate in the forthcoming mid-term election in November, this is most probably her last term as the House Speaker.
But the fact that her visit has been hailed by the Republicans, many of whom had been advocating for diplomatic recognition for Taiwan, makes the situation more challenging for US President Joe Biden. On the one hand, he faces a serious diplomatic challenge to lower the rising temperature in the Taiwan Strait following the visit. On the other hand, his difference on the issue with his Democratic Party colleague is likely to be used by the Republicans in the election campaign to project him as a weak and confused president.
But this will also raise doubts in the mind of Chinese President Xi Jinping since the two leaders had engaged in a long telephone conversation last week when Biden had assured him that there was no change in America’s Taiwan policy.
Ever since President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power in Taiwan, relations with China have begun to fray. Unlike her political opponent the Kuomintang (KMT), Tsai does not believe in ‘one-China’ and the DPP has always favoured independence for Taiwan.
For Xi, the developments in Taiwan and also those in the US, especially the change in Washington’s attitude since the Taiwan Travel Act was passed under Donald Trump’s presidency in 2018, are causes for concern. Not only did the latter move encourage regular high-level visits of US Congressmen and officials to Taiwan, it also led to the supply of sophisticated weapon systems to the island. Under the understanding between the US and China, the nature of the weapons to be supplied to Taiwan were to be defensive in nature. But China feels that the weapons given to Taiwan in recent months were a clear breach to that understanding.
Moreover, the US Marines have also been conducting training programmes and joint exercises with the Taiwanese army in recent months.
Biden himself has created more worries for China with his conflicting public remarks on coming to Taiwan’s support militarily in the event of a Chinese attack—which was deemed a clear departure from America’s policy of maintaining” strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan. Under the policy, the US never specified if it would intervene militarily to help Taiwan in order to keep both China and the pro-independence elements in Taiwan in check.
The Biden administration later clarified that there has been no change in US policy on Taiwan and tried to downplay what was seen as a gaffe by Biden, but the remarks hit a nerve in Beijing.
China considers Taiwan to be part of its territory and its reunification with the mainland is central to Xi’s policy of national rejuvenation that will allow China to rise to become the number one country both in terms of power and influence.
But the Pelosi visit has posed a serious challenge for Xi as he seeks a record third term as the top Chinese leader in the November congress of the communist party. How he deals with the Taiwan issue has, therefore, become critical for him.
However, if he decides to blockade Taiwan, it will also put a serious challenge before Biden to end it, either through diplomatic negotiations or by force to, maintain his credibility.Whichever way it plays out, the hapless people in Taiwan will face a very tense situation for the next few days.