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By visiting Taiwan, Nancy Pelosi has called China’s bluff

If US-China tensions escalate in Taiwan, New Delhi will be forced to show its hand. Unlike the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis, where India’s stand was on expected lines, its views on Chinese aggression will be closely watched

August 03, 2022 / 11:40 AM IST

In Asia, Taiwan represents the United States’ biggest commitment to upholding democracy. Taiwan is the postcard picture of the benefits of being a US ally, and Washington cannot ignore any threat to it. The longstanding Chinese threat to the island nation is but the threat a democratic Taipei faces from an autocratic Beijing.

That’s why despite Beijing’s warnings that it would “not stand idly by”, Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan on August 2. In fact Beijing’s provocative statements left Pelosi (and even the US administration) little choice but to go ahead with the visit. To back off would have meant that Washington was cowing down to Beijing’s threats — something no administration in Washington would want.

Pelosi’s Taiwan visit is all about standing by and protecting a “vibrant, robust democracy” which is “under threat” from China. Pelosi’s August 2 article in The Washington Post titled ‘Why I’m leading a congressional delegation to Taiwan’ focuses more on the threat the Chinese Communist Party is to “democracy itself”.

From quoting US defence observations that Beijing could use force to unify Taiwan to “advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific”, from highlighting Beijing’s “brutal crackdown” in Hong Kong to its atrocities in Tibet and Xinjiang, the Speaker of the House of Representatives also calls out China’s “abysmal human rights record….as President Xi Jinping tightens his grip on power".

Domestic Compulsions

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The coming few months are important for the governments in the US and China. In the US the mid-term polls to the US House of Representative and Senate are crucial for the Joe Biden administration which is hoping for a favourable outcome on a wing and a prayer. Decade-high inflation, economic slowdown, rising fuel prices, etc. have meant that Biden shifting the blame on Russian President Vladimir Putin has not done the trick. Biden ate humble pie when he fist bumped Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on July 16, even as it came in for sharp criticism. Given this, Pelosi’s Taiwan visit could breathe some life into the Democrats’ chances in the November polls.

Pelosi’s visit is also an attempt by the US to undo the damage done by President Donald Trump at the international stage while he was in office. In her visit to Taiwan, and to Kyiv in April, the US is telling its allies that it will stand by them in their darkest hours.

In China, President Xi Jinping is all set to enter an unprecedented third term in office during the Chinese Communist Party’s national congress in November. Politically, Xi’s re-election appears to be a mere formality, but China’s economy is weakening, and that could take the sheen off his presidency. The slump in the manufacturing sector, coupled with a weakening real estate sector might present Xi an economically dull third term. Nevertheless, Xi would also want to cater to the nationalistic sentiments of many Chinese who see Taiwan as an extension of China. It wouldn’t harm to be remembered as the leader who brought back Taiwan, and in the process if it diverts attention from the economic situation, why not!

India’s Options

India, most probably, will wait on the side lines and watch all the action from a safe distance. When it comes to China, New Delhi has to weigh in on a complex web of issues: from economic dependence to border disputes, among other considerations.

New Delhi is often unjustly accused of not voicing its mind at the world stage, of not taking a bold stand, and of being too cautious to a fault. Its critics often say: how can India be taken seriously if it does not stand up when/where it counts! Well it’s for good reason that New Delhi is guarded in its response. Foreign relations and diplomacy are not governed by social media standards where to stay relevant you have to voice your opinion, and be the loudest to be heard. India has charted its foreign policy on its own terms, which are guided by an understanding of its priorities and, of course, its limitations.

That said, if US-China tensions escalate in Taiwan, New Delhi will be forced to show its hand. Unlike the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis, where India’s stand of not condemning Russia was understandable, even expected, its views on Chinese aggression in Taiwan will be closely watched.

The strengthening India-US ties, especially over the last two decades, makes it difficult for New Delhi to maintain a diplomatically safe distance. In her first tweet after landing in Taiwan, Pelosi said: “…Our discussions with Taiwan leadership reaffirm our support for our partner & promote our shared interests, including advancing a free & open Indo-Pacific region.” The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is of special significance for India, and a cornerstone from the four-nation Quad.

Conclusion

While tensions might rise and remain high for the near future, it is unlikely to cross acceptable limits in foreign policy sabre-rattling. As a measure to reassure Beijing, Pelosi in her Post article, and the White House, have said that the visit does not change US’ ‘one-China’ policy. China, on its side, would not want to open a military offensive, and definitely not one where it is in direct confrontation with the US.

The situation in Taiwan is far from normal, but it might be safe to say that 82-year-old Pelosi has called China’s bluff — at least for the time being.
Viju Cherian is Opinion Editor at Moneycontrol. He writes on politics and policy, and hosts Political Bazaar.
first published: Aug 3, 2022 08:44 am
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