by Sashank Rajaram
The Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan has caused a major furore among diplomats and political commentators. Her visit which comes against the backdrop of the deteriorating US-China relationship has riled up the latter to such an extent that China imposed sanctions and conducted military operations near Taiwan in what seemed like a simulated attack. While many argue that the visit has unnecessarily led to more global instability, this article contends that one needs to step back and consider the larger picture of perceiving the visit as a counter to Chinese aggression.
The after-effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Russian-Ukraine war, the global economic slowdown, and the rising inflationary pressure, have left the world in a state of increasing uncertainty. And now, the US House of Representatives Speaker, Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan – the first of its kind in 25 years – has again pushed the world further into the trenches of war and fearmongering. In a visit that was purely symbolic and designed to assert America’s hegemony over the world order, Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was poorly received in China. Following her flight’s arrival, China sanctioned Pelosi and suspended eight dialogue mechanisms with the US. They further imposed an import embargo on fruits, fish, and other perishable goods from Taiwan, citing (funnily enough) pesticides as a concern. China also stopped exporting sand to Taiwan in a bid to sever the island’s huge semiconductor industry. Further, in a typical jingoistic fashion, Chinese ships breached the median line of the Taiwan Strait several times and effectively enforced a blockade in the region. Moreover, Chinese missiles with live ammunition flew over in what seemed to be a simulated attack to showcase their displeasure at Pelosi’s visit.
Yet, despite the constant threats coming in from the mainland, Taiwan refused to bow down to the Chinese threats. Instead, it welcomed Pelosi who has always been outspoken against China and its human rights record with open arms. In 1991, two years after the Tiananmen Square protests when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) brutally crushed pro-democracy demonstrations, Pelosi visited China and bravely held a banner that read “To those who died for democracy in China.” Projecting herself as a spokesperson of democracy, Pelosi, in a recent op-ed at the Washington Post, stated that her visit reinstated the US’s vow to support the defence of Taiwan in case of Chinese aggression.
However, it is not just a moral obligation to defend democracy for the US or the concern of national security for China that explains the two countries’ active involvement in issues regarding Taiwan. The strategic and financial importance of the island remains a key aspect in understanding the issue comprehensively.
Behind the Veils
Historically, China has always considered Taiwan as an integral part of its territory. Yet, Taiwan does not subscribe to that view. After being under the control of the Dutch, Taiwan remained under the Japanese empire until the end of World War II. Then, the ideological differences between Chia Kai Shek’s Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and Mao Zedong’s CCP intensified, resulting in a civil war. Fighting for the legitimacy of the Government of China, the civil war resulted in the CCP gaining control of mainland China, forcing the Chia Kia Shek and the Kuomintang to retreat to Taiwan where they established their government. Since then, Taiwan has considered itself independent, and sovereign and even claims to be the ‘real China’. Therefore, just like Russia’s war in Ukraine, there is a certain historical narrative that both China and Taiwan use to gain approval and legitimacy for their actions. Nevertheless, the economic reasons cannot be ignored either.
The Chinese economic success is a dish that has two main ingredients—manufacturing and exports. However, if one takes a closer look at China’s geography, it is not all pleasant. The eastern coast of China is dotted with numerous islands of Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, etc. These archipelagos, collectively called First Island Chain, prevent China from efficiently exporting its manufactured products across the Pacific Ocean to other parts of the world. But with Taiwan situated right in the South China Sea – a significant maritime route that supports close to $5.3 trillion worth of trade – the region would ideally provide China with the economic leverage to aid its exports. Moreover, the region has an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which have made it very attractive to world powers. Similarly, the semiconductor industry, a potential driver in the 21st century, is housed in Taiwan which manufactures 65% of all semiconductors. Hence, both the US and China view Taiwan as a battleground for their economic rivalry and therefore, try to sway the region under their sphere of influence.
But Pelosi’s visit did come at a cost. Her visit drew wide criticism for escalating the tension between the US and China, especially at a time when global cooperation is critical to overcoming the present economic and environmental challenges. After all, the US officially supports the ‘One China’ policy, right? Or does it?
The first US-China Shanghai Communiqué, issued during President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, declared that the US acknowledges that ‘there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.’ Later, the Jimmy Carter administration signed the second Communiqué while also annulling the 1955 Sino-American Mutual Defence Treaty that guaranteed Taiwan’s defence against invasion from mainland China. However, the communiqué drew criticism from the US Congress, with US Senator Barry Goldwater filing a legal challenge to Carter’s decision to unilaterally terminate the 1955 defence treaty with Taiwan without Congressional permission. Even though the US Supreme Court dismissed the petition, the debate compelled Congress to rewrite the Taiwan Relations Act. The amended Act, though, states that Taiwan will be treated by the US on par with ‘foreign countries, nations, states and governments’. Hence, began the ambiguity of how the US views Taiwan and whether the amended act includes military aid as well.
But now, many political commentators believe that by enraging China – which claims Taiwan as an integral part of its territory – Pelosi exacerbated a schism between the world’s two most powerful countries and may have harmed the same cause that she was attempting to promote. While such arguments have their legitimate concerns, it is important to realise that a dispute between the US and China over Taiwan and the regions in the South China Sea are inevitable. While Pelosi may have shortened that prognosis by a few years, US President Joe Biden’s declaration that the US will intervene militarily in Taiwan (if the need arises) shows the changing global scenario. And though one could question the timing of Pelosi’s visit, it was, nevertheless, a necessary attempt to convey a message that its actions will not be tolerated indefinitely.
In fact, it was the pacifist attitude displayed by the West that offered Hitler the confidence to annexe many neighbourhood territories such as Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia during WWII. And if one thinks that drawing parallelism between Hitler’s Germany and Xi Jinping’s China is far stretched and inaccurate, then it is critical to realise that it was the unadmonished reactions from other powers that allowed China to seize Tibet, attack democracy in Hong Kong, breach the Line of Actual Control (LAC), claim Arunachal Pradesh as their own, and dismiss international verdicts to the territorial disputes over the South China Sea. Through the Sri Lankan economic crisis, the billion-dollar investments in Africa, and the flagship Belt and Road Initiative, China’s infamous debt-trap policy has once again been exposed, emphasising its intent to create a unipolar world centered around Beijing and its oppressive policies.
The Future Outlook
As tensions continue to rise, there are already some who expect the outbreak of another world war. Though the possibility of World War III seems a little too dramatised, it is not entirely surprising. In a recent novel titled 2034, the authors, James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman hypothesize a third World War in 2034 which begins with China sinking a US Naval destroyer in the South China Sea. Even though the book presents an understanding of global affairs based on a western perspective, it makes one thing clear: the South China region is becoming increasingly volatile and as China continues to leverage its economic and military clout in pursuit of global dominance, caution is needed.
Sashank Rajaram is a rising sophomore at Ashoka University, pursuing an Economics Major and Political Science Minor.
Image Source: https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/national-security