Last Friday, the US House Speaker kicked off her much-hyped, long-awaited Asia journey. Curiously, her itinerary includes 4 nations – Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore, but a visit to Taiwan is mentioned as “tentative.” In Beijing, many wonder why the suspense over US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plan to visit Taiwan is drawing more attention internationally than the grinding war in Ukraine. While some commentators across the Taiwan Strait insist her visit is a farce, a few others, including some government officials, are calling it “just a bluff.”
Within hours of Putin’s brutal military aggression in Ukraine, a “news headlines war” was sparked off across the Taiwan Strait in particular and in the international press in general – “today’s Ukraine, tomorrow’s Taiwan.” As days and weeks and months went by, the heated debate split into two “hostile” blocs of opinions, i.e. in favor and against equating the Ukrainian situation with the imminent danger of China attacking Taiwan. On the one hand, there were those upholding the view that the“Taiwan-Ukraine Comparison was Inaccurate” and “Why Taiwan is not Ukraine?” On the other hand, there were those advocating that “Taiwan is Xi Jinping’s Ukraine” and “Eerie similarities link the Ukraine and Taiwan Situations.”
Tensions in the Taiwan Strait flared up
Before Pelosi announced last week that her rescheduled visit to Taiwan was to go ahead as planned, the most recent escalation of tensions between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan was seen during the showdown between US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe at the Shangri-la Dialogue security forum in early June. At the Singapore event, Austin singled out the Taiwan Strait as an area where “the stakes are especially stark” while accusing China of “intimidation,” “coercion,” and “aggression” toward Taiwan. General Fenghe, on the other hand, did not hide how angered he was by Austin’s “inflammatory” remarks and declared that “China was ready for war with the US, if necessary.”
Arguably, Austin’s provocative speech in Singapore was not found to be adequate enough to goad China into going for the ultimate option against Taiwan. But let no one be in doubt that President Biden’s “surprise” disclosure that in Pentagon’s assessment it is not wise for the House Speaker to visit Taiwan now has not surprised anyone in the Chinese capital. The fact of the matter is that Austin’s outburst at the Shangri-la, Pelosi’s determined announcement to go ahead with the visit plan, and Biden not stopping his Speaker all are part of the larger, consistent US policy-propaganda accusing “China of preparing to invade Taiwan, especially likening it to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.” In mid-June, the US state department’s blunt dismissal of Chinese sovereignty claims over the Taiwan Strait and calling it to be “an international waterway” was one more attempt to provoke China into committing Putin’s Ukrainian blunder.
China’s aggressive stance on Taiwan
Following information “leak” a week ago that Nancy Pelosi was reviving her earlier plan to visit Taiwan which she had called off due to her testing Covid-19 positive, China’s foreign ministry and defense ministry have both reacted very strongly and condemned the US House Speaker’s Taiwan travel plan. A spokesperson of the Chinese defense ministry even suggested a military response. “If the US side insists on going ahead, the Chinese military will never sit idle,” the spokesperson, Colonel Tan Kefei said. In addition to repeated warnings by various government officials, now the Communist Party of China has also issued a stern warning to both the US and Taiwan. Speaking at a Beijing seminar on July 26, Wang Yang, the CPC leader in charge of Taiwan affairs said, “Beijing is willing to talk to different parties in Taiwan but an ‘abyss of disaster’ looms over independence agitators.”
Earlier on July 27, an influential left-leaning Chinese ultra-nationalist digital news platform “ridiculed” Biden for admitting the US military has recommended Pelosi cancel her visit but “not saying he [Biden] would block Pelosi from visiting Taiwan.” “Biden cannot block Pelosi’s visit,” the Maoist Chinese website explained saying “because just before the midterm elections he does not want to be seen as weak before Beijing.” Interestingly, some Western observers have said Biden’s non-committal remarks on the visit are being “interpreted in Beijing as the US administration’s weakness” and in Taipei as “the confusion in the US policy toward the island” respectively.Besides, fears of the US “abandoning Taiwan” was expressed when a few weeks ago the Chinese air force flew 29 military aircraft into Taiwan’s self-declared air defense identified zone (ADIZ).
Taiwan: A mute, helpless, and hapless ‘victim’ caught in the US and China rhetoric war
First and foremost, it is worth remembering that the only common factor between Ukraine and Taiwan is that the two act as “trigger points” in the escalating US rivalry with Russia and China, respectively. Like Ukraine became the US “cannon fodder” to target Russia, Taiwan is strategically important for the US to stop China in the US-China competition for global leadership. Second, viewed from the international relations lens, Ukraine and Russia are both recognized as two sovereign states. However, relations between Taiwan and China do not enjoy that status and are described as standing outside of the purview of the international relations. In the words of Zhiqun Zhu, a political science professor at Bucknell University, “Unlike Ukraine and Russia, Taiwan and China are not two countries with independent sovereignty. Taiwan and China are ‘one country and two regions’ with overlapping sovereignty and are considered a unique element as ‘cross-strait relations’ in international politics.”
Quite interestingly, unlike in mainland Chinese commentator’s observation that Pelosi would revive her plans to visit Taiwan once she got well, the commentators in Taiwan this time are calling the visit “just a bluff.” Not entirely dismissive of the visit, many in Taiwan are speculating that Pelosi’s rumored visit is aimed at helping Biden “force” Xi Jinping to agree to hold talks with the US counterpart. At the same time, though the public opinion in Taiwan is overwhelmingly in favor of “self-rule” or “self-governance,” it is true that including President Tsai Ing-wen and her government, most Taiwanese believe that Taiwan is nothing but “a bargaining chip” in the US’s China policy. Hence, according to BBC, despite Tsai Ing-wen’s “bargaining” with the US for higher level engagement between Washington and Taipei, the government in Taipei is hugely concerned about whether Pelosi visiting now could “do more harm than good.”
Advantage Beijing or Washington, but Taiwan remains trapped
To sum up, as the US House Speaker and a delegation of Washington officials have left for a scheduled trip through Asia, suspense surrounding Pelosi’s plan to visit Taiwan is getting heightened. And, there is no denying that “will she, will she not” has truly become an international event. Perhaps without realizing where all the rhetoric building between Beijing and Washington would be leading to, both China and the US are now finding it difficult to scale down from their respective high rhetoric positions. In China, the ultra-nationalist former Global Times editor, Hu Xijin,has created a “global storm” by claiming the PLA military aircraft might accompany Pelosi’s plane.
Finally, despite escalating tensions in the Taiwan Strait caused due to Pelosi’s “tentative” Taiwan visit, it is shockingly surprising, as reported, that the US government has “not discussed nor shared its considerations about the visit” with the Taiwanese government. Even as the New York Times correspondent David Sanger quoting US officials reported on July 26 that the “planning for Ms. Pelosi’s visit was moving ahead,” there is uncertainty in the air in Taipei about the fate of the visit. According to some Taiwanese officials, the country is trapped between anxiety and fear. Anxiety because the controversy surrounding the visit will compel Taipei to further compromise its security if the visit happens.
On the other hand, if Washington were to call off the visit then an increasingly aggressive Beijing will not only be emboldened in the future but it will also be tantamount to Washington effectively handing over to China a say in US-Taiwan policy. Citing Taiwan’s opposition party – the Nationalist Party (KMT) – representative in Washington, Alexander Huang, the Financial Times reported on July 25: “If Pelosi comes we need to be prepared to respond to China’s reaction even though we are not the initiator; if she does not come, it would raise suspicion whether China now has stronger power to influence American decisions.” Given the risks the visit entails for the people across the Taiwan Strait, whether a rankled Beijing calls Washington’s bluff remains a moot point.