Becoming the first senior US official in 25 years to visit Taiwan, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ended weeks of speculation, leaving China red-faced.
Context: Pelosi is leading a congressional delegation to Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan, but was silent about a possible stopover at Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims as part of its territory. It matters because:
Pelosi is third-in-command after President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in the US government hierarchy, and her stature makes this trip notable.
Already known to be a China hawk, Pelosi is the first speaker in 25 years, after Newt Gingrich made the trip in 1997, to visit Taiwan.
China had issued warnings in the run-up to Pelosi's visit, including during a call between the Presidents of China and the US.
Xi Jinping spoke of a fiery response to the visit, stating that "those who play with fire will perish by it."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a media briefing that "we are closely following the itinerary of Speaker Pelosi" and mentioned a "resolute response" if she went ahead with the visit.
"As for what those measures will be, let's see what happens if she actually goes," he said. (Pelosi went.)
"We want to once again make it clear to the US side that the Chinese side is fully prepared for any eventuality and that the People's Liberation Army of China will never sit idly by, and we will make a resolute response and take strong countermeasures to uphold China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Zhao said.
China's anger stems from the apparent disregard displayed by Pelosi to the ‘One China’ policy instituted by American president Richard Nixon in 1972 as a precursor to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two nations.
By that policy, designed to save Chinese face, America rather vaguely accepts the Chinese view that Taiwan is a part of China, while permitting the US to engage with Taiwan and underwrite its security, equally vaguely.
Taiwan seemed elated by Pelosi's visit for obvious reasons, mainly the symbolic power of the US standing alongside the Taiwanese people.
Taiwan apparently planned to give Pelosi a low-profile yet high-level reception to avoid further antagonising Beijing, the South China Morning Post reported.
Low-profile it wasn't. With the world watching closely, Taiwan's tallest building 'Taipei 101' posted a series of messages in English and Mandarin welcoming and thanking Pelosi for her visit.
While the messages in English included "Welcome to TW," and "TW hearts US," the Chinese messages said: "Thank you, friend of democracy" and "Firm support for Taiwan."
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen met Pelosi and tweeted photos of her meeting with a cleverly worded message.
"A pleasure to meet with @SpeakerPelosi & recognise her longstanding support for #Taiwan. Your visit not only reflects strong #US congressional support for bilateral ties – it also sends a message to the world that democracies stand together in the face of common challenges," she tweeted.
China responded by launching military drills around Taiwan even as Pelosi was there.
The exercise included a long-range live fire drill in the Taiwan Straits and a live fire conventional missile drill to the east of the island nation, state-run Global Times reported.
The report quoted Xinhua news agency to say that PLA would also conduct a series of live fire military drills from 4 to 7 August in six different areas that encircle Taiwan from all directions.
The US was prepared for military actions and had deployed ships and military planes near Taiwan prior to her visit.
The USS Ronald Reagan returned to the South China Sea after making a port call to Singapore a week before Pelosi’s visit.
Another amphibious assault ship, USS Tripoli, is near the island of Okinawa and the amphibious assault ship USS America is deployed in Sasebo, Japan.
It is reported that Pelosi's airplane was escorted to Taiwan by two dozen fighter jets of the US military.
Taiwan too had mobilised its military in the run-up to her visit.
Danger looms over Taiwan as there is fear that China will make not the US but Taiwan bear the burnt, as Taiwan is the weaker power. It will be easier for China to change the status quo vis-à-vis Taiwan.
Concerns are that Pelosi's trip will give Beijing the excuse it needs to change the status quo on the ground.
China might violate Taiwan's airspace.
It has been steadily increasing the number of times it violates Taiwan's air defence zone, but violating Taiwanese air space proper would be an escalation.
A more unlikely but extreme scenario might be China attempting to block the Taiwan Strait.
Sino-US discomfort: Neither Biden nor Xi is pleased with the visit.
Xi’s political hold in China and within CCP is at stake, for reunification with the island nation has been on his agenda for over a decade now.
As for Biden, committing to a possible war in Taiwan without an exit strategy, with potential military aggravation in the Korean peninsula, and a huge economic cost is unthinkable, especially when the US has had two consecutive quarters of negative growth and inflation peaking at a 40-year high.
The failure in Afghanistan, the silence on Hong Kong, and the confusion about Ukraine must also be factored in while evaluating a potential response from the US in Taiwan.
The US would want the status quo to remain in order to prolong their strategic ambiguity. Pelosi's visit changes that.
Bottom line: If the West believes and is worried that Pelosi's visit may trigger a military response from China, rest assured, Taiwan is already lost.
It's merely a matter of when from here on out.
Pelosi’s visit will only intensify the Mexican standoff, a diplomatic charade, which is only relevant until the US acquires semiconductor capacity to hedge its economic play.
Ujjawal Mishra is a Staff Writer at Swarajya. He tweets @Ujjawal1Mishra.
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