Saturday, December 2, 2023

The Pelosi Effect

China’s bellicose reaction to a brief visit to Taiwan by US politicians headed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was entirely predictable, but the consequences could impact the entire  Asia-Pacific region

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By Kenneth Tiven in Washington

In today’s climate of the Russia-Ukraine war, there is a nervousness when super powers behave negatively. The stated objective for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a delegation of US representatives visiting Singapore, Malaysia, South Ko­rea and Japan was to discuss trade, the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, security and “democratic governance”. Congress is in recess and these trips are a political perk. 

The bugbear for Beijing was her delegation’s one-day visit to Taiwan. The delegation’s stop in Taiwan pushed China to react with a show of military force, which may benefit the American position that “soft” Chinese diplomacy is never really soft. China’s military often holds live-fire exercises in the 160-kilometre-wide Taiwan strait, as well as in the South China Sea. However, this week, warships have encircled Taiwan’s main island and target areas within its territorial sea.

Chinese President Xi Jinping reacted to bolster his international claim to Taiwan and for internal support. China’s export-based economy has taken a hit from the pandemic’s impact on global life and business. Multiple internal issues in China can be obscured by an outburst of anti-American sentiment dominating all the government-controlled media. As China’s most powerful leader in generations, Xi believes unifying Taiwan with the mainland is a primary goal of his rule—and a key to what he calls China’s “national rejuvenation” as a modern, unified superpower. India has had its share of both verbal and military confrontations with China, most focused on territorial issues along their border. This negative propaganda response is nothing new.

What is happening is best understood with some historical perspective. In the five years after the end of World War-II, India gained independence while China emerged from decades of Japanese domination with a Communist government in charge. Taiwan has never politically been part of the People’s Republic of China. When Chiang Kai-shek fled China after Mao Zedong’s Communist revolution of 1949, he went to Formosa as the island was named. With backing from the US, he imposed martial law on the locals and the Chinese citizens who had come with him. China and the United States twice came close to going to war over Taiwan in the 1950s. When the Cold War tension subsided in the late 1980s, Taiwan democratized its government. China at the time opened its economy and the two are trading partners.

As America’s post-war opposition to “communism” faded, it was possible in the 1990s for agreement on the One China concept for global diplomacy issues. This did allow Washington to continue supporting Taiwan as a democratic enclave on an island 161 kilometres from the mainland. (About the distance from Mumbai to Pune.)

President Joe Biden and his state department advisors are sophisticated experts, not ideologues. Pelosi didn’t decide on a frivolous summer recess trip with several colleagues out of the blue. She has plenty of experience with Taiwan. She has a tight relationship with President Biden from decades of shared political experience in Washington. She also represents San Francisco, California district, with a significant Chinese-American population.

A reasonable assumption is that this stop-over by a Congressional trip to Asian nations offered a non-verbal message to Chinese leadership regarding American positions on the international aspects of the South China Sea as well as its special relationship with Taiwan. Geographically, the USA is a Pacific nation with four states having Pacific Ocean coastlines.

Pelosi met with Taiwanese lawmakers and with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, offering assurances of United States support despite threats from China. “Today the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy,” said Pelosi, adding, “America’s determination to preserve democracy here in Taiwan and around the world remains iron-clad.” It was in keeping with her long history of poking China in the eye. She also brought economic assurances, calling a trade deal between Taiwan and the United States hopefully imminent and holding a cordial meeting with the chairman of the Taiwan chip giant TSMC. For Taiwan, it was a symbolic victory regardless of duration or substance.

Pelosi’s trip made her the highest-ranking active member of the United States government to visit the island in 25 years and offered a rare moment of international support for the self-ruled democratic island, which China has relentlessly tried to isolate. A holiday  atmosphere followed Pelosi as she toured Taipei, the capital, Hundreds turned out to watch her plane land. Taipei’s tallest building was illuminated with welcome messages, while both protesters and supporters waited at her hotel.

Regional analysts say Xi’s growing interest in unification reflects domestic political realities. Seeking an unprecedented third term as leader at a Communist Party Congress in the fall, makes him keen to project an image of strength at home and abroad, particularly on the question of Taiwan. While Silicon Valley in California employs thousands of Indians in technical and managerial positions, Taiwan’s role in the digital universe is different. That island of 23 million people manufactures 90% of certain types of critical computer chips. The United States would prefer a democratic Taiwan for this reason alone. Similarly, the Beijing government wants control over this segment, recognizing the potential power it represents globally.

In Beijing, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said that more punishments for the United States and Taiwan would follow. “As for the specific countermeasures, what I can tell you is that they’ll include everything that should be included…(it) will be firm, vigorous and effective.”

China’s military is more powerful and more emboldened under Xi Jinping. Recently Chinese officials also strongly asserted that no part of the Taiwan Strait could be considered international waters. The USA disagrees.

Taiwan’s military sought to signal that it did not wish to escalate the situation. Calling the military drills a blockade, it said the exercises had intruded into Taiwan’s territorial waters, endangering international waterways and regional security. “We resolutely defend national sovereignty and will counter any aggression against national sovereignty,” said Major General Sun Li-fang, a spokesman for Taiwan’s defense ministry.

Hours after Pelosi arrived in Taiwan, Beijing added economic measures to its series of retaliatory moves, suspending exports of natural sand to the island and stopping imports from Taiwan of certain types of fruit and fish.

The bans are a vivid reminder for people in Taiwan that doing business with China, the island’s largest trading partner, can be risky during times of high geopolitical tension. Over the years, Beijing has occasionally put pressure on the island’s economy by restricting access to China’s vast consumer market. Previous bans have targeted Taiwanese pineapples, wax apples and grouper fish, among other products. Over the years, Taiwan has tried to diversify its commercial relationships with China. While Taiwanese investments in China gradually declined, the island’s trade with China continued to grow. Its economic dependence on China continued through the early part of the pandemic, in part because the Chinese economy was doing well.

Some bans have caused lingering economic pain. The one on Taiwanese grouper fish, in particular, dealt a huge blow to a lucrative industry that had been sending 91% of its exports to China. The precise impact of China’s ban on Taiwan’s natural sand imports was not immediately clear, last week. The local news media has reported that Taiwan imports both natural sand and manufactured sand from China. The two types of banned fish—horse mackerel and white striped hairtail—are not among its top 10 exported fish species.

Chiao Chun, an economic analyst and a former trade negotiator for the Taiwanese government, said the fruit and fish bans would probably not have a major impact on the economy. “The political message is greater than the economic hit,” he said. Chinese social media has come under stricter censorship and government guidance, meaning that users’ comments do not always reflect public opinion. Even so, the goal of absorbing Taiwan into China is widely shared by many Chinese people and the online mood reflected support for Beijing’s combative position. However, one Weibo commenter said, “All the war propaganda, all the clamour, lies and hatred, comes from those who never go to the battlefield,” Another wrote, “Reject any political posturing. Firmly oppose war.” 

Some social media commentary considered the geopolitical strife a relief after China’s run of bad economic news. “In a flash, everyone has stopped caring about bank accounts, mortgage strikes, abandoned building sites and the leaks of private data,” it said. “Pelosi has cured everyone’s internal mental exhaustion.” But the official Chinese denunciations ranged well beyond the House Speaker’s visit. “The United States government must shoulder responsibility,” the Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister, Xie Feng, told the American Ambassador in Beijing, Nicholas Burns, according to Xinhua, China’s main news agency. “For some time, the United States has said one thing and done another, constantly twisting, distorting, voiding and hollowing out the One-China principle.”

In USA, The Washington Post editorial board found fault with many aspects of the trip: “Of course we share Ms. Pelosi’s strong support for democratic Taiwan, her condemnation of the Chinese communist dictatorship and her belief, as she put it in an op-ed for The Post, that ‘it is essential that America and our allies make clear that we never give in to autocrats’. What we do not comprehend is her insistence on demonstrating her support in this way, at this time, despite warnings—from a president of her own party—that the geopolitical situation is already unsettled enough. However much the 82-year-old Ms. Pelosi might want a capstone event for her time as speaker—before a likely GOP victory in November ends it—going to Taiwan now, as President Xi Jinping of China is orchestrating his third term, was unwise.” 

—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels

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