The Tilt to Taiwan
Imagine if a high-ranking political leader from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were to visit the island of Hawai’i, meeting grassroots members of the independence movement and reaffirming notions of ‘decolonization’ and ‘self-determination’. What would the reaction of the US be to such a blatant disregard of its territorial sovereignty? Whilst not identical, this hypothetical is still somewhat comparable to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan, an island off the coast of Mainland China.
Although it functions as an independent country, Taiwan is largely defined in material terms as the ‘other China’ which carries little international recognition as an independent state. The visit to Taiwan has been viewed almost unanimously in critical light; in the light of an already unstable international order, it is seen as ‘provocative’ and ‘irresponsible’ by prominent US analysts, and even the White House has expressed—at least in public—strong disapproval of Pelosi’s visit, reassuring the People’s Republic of China (PRC) of its commitment to Chinese sovereignty.
In spite of the lack of state backing, the visit has been received very harshly by the Chinese government, which has responded with military exercises and large-scale sanctions. This reaction has been seen by international observers as China adopting a disproportionately aggressive posture; however, an understanding of the historical nature of the Taiwanese issue may allow one to gauge why territorial sovereignty remains an unambiguous principle in Chinese foreign policy.
An Innocent Vacation
Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was marred with controversy even before she stepped foot on the island. The decision came at a crucial juncture in domestic American politics; Pelosi herself is looking at a bleak future which may see her removed from the position of House Speaker with historically unpopular ratings.
The midterm elections have been seen as a primary motivation for the Speaker’s trip, the explanation being that the weaponization of the ‘China Threat’ may help the Democrats gain ground among voters. This also comes at a time when the Biden presidency stares down the barrel of rising inflation, fuel prices and economic recession.
Since domestic crises are unaccommodating to the Democrat’s electoral prospects, diverting grievances towards external enemies is a tactic adopted. The rhetoric behind this long-standing US hostility towards China was somewhat utilized by Pelosi in her explanation for the visit, citing an ‘ironclad’ commitment to Taiwanese democracy.
Ignoring the fact that this is the first time an official US representative has visited the country in over a quarter of a century, the speaker has, historically, been seen as a ‘China Hawk’, being one of the first lawmakers to support the 2018 Hong Kong protests. Her track record in this regard provides even more significant dimensions to her visit.
This also ties into another reason why this trip is not just an ‘innocent vacation’ of pro-democracy leaders parading their self-proclaimed moral high ground over the Mainland Chinese state. In a global economy where the Chinese are successfully building in-roads through initiatives such as the Belt and Road and through a grip on technological production, the economic hegemony of the US has waned visibly.
This changing global dynamic is seen by many observers as a primary motivation for the ‘Cold War mentality’ adopted by the US towards China, especially since the Trump era. This mentality has, in many ways, translated onto the US perception of Taiwan during the Biden presidency as well, with the president not shying away from confrontational proclamations.
Even though the President was critical of Pelosi’s visit, the structural perception of China’s rise has created an innate sense of insecurity within the US ruling class, which has tilted towards Taiwan as a way to initiate instability within the Indo-Pacific region.
One-China Policy & Taiwan’s History
Despite the increasingly strained relations between the two world powers, there remains an international consensus on the One-China policy. This policy has been, since 1948, the bedrock upon which China deals with other countries in the international arena.
The history of Taiwan is stained with imperialist intervention and occupation, most notably during the ‘Century of Humiliation’ and the Japanese occupation during the early 20th century. During this period before the revolution of 1949, China found itself fragmented and disunified due to years of quasi-imperialism by powers such as Japan and Britain.
The collective memory of this era made unification an important agenda for Maoist China, which eventually managed to unify all of Mainland China under its rule in 1949, defeating the Nationalist Kuomintang in the Second Civil War. The Nationalist Party then defected over to the Island of Taiwan, claiming to represent the entire government of China through that settlement.
However, despite this, the majority of the world recognized Communist China, opening up diplomatic and economic links with the country. Even now, over 160 countries have condemned Pelosi’s visit as being a serious infringement on an international consensus. The One-China policy is also the foundation upon which US-China ties exist in the first place.
Despite its notions of ‘strategic ambiguity’ and unofficial support, the United States supports the territorial sovereignty that the People’s Republic has over the entirety of China, on both sides of the Taiwan straits. This policy was furthered by three joint US-China Communiques in 1978 and 1979, which reassured the People’s Republic as the sole legal representative of China whilst also providing commitments pertaining to the decrease of arms sales to Taiwan.
There is much historical precedent to doubt the sincerity of Washington’s commitments in this regard; not only has there been a ballooning of arms sales to the country, but the US military has also regularly conducted military drills along the South China Sea. This has been justified by the US under its ‘Taiwan Relations Act’, but China argues that this act has been unilaterally concocted in violation of the agreed communiques.
Consequence of Ambiguity
It becomes very clear that Washington’s ambiguity with regard to Taiwan has allowed it to enjoy the economic benefits brought upon by the One-China policy while violating principles of Mainland China’s territorial sovereignty. This has allowed the US to leverage the island against China in an attempt to maintain its global hegemony. Meanwhile, China remains adamant about international respect for its territorial sovereignty, as evident from its response to Pelosi’s ‘provocative’ visit.
The unprecedented scale of this visit can not be overstated. Not only is this the first time a House Speaker has officially visited the island in over a quarter of a century, but it is also the first and only time since the ’70s that a Speaker of the ruling party has gone to Taiwan in a trip isolated from wider geopolitical events. Simply put, it is unprecedented for an official representative of the US to officially visit Taiwan as an end in itself.
It can be argued that it could eventually lead to more high-profile visits of political leaders to Taiwan, thereby increasing the political legitimacy of the self-governed island in the international sphere. Such a domino effect puts China in a bad position where it must depend on diplomatic maneuvers to bring to light the sensitivity of the issue; any belligerence in this regard would only lead to greater condemnation for the Mainland government, giving fuel to American interests.
The material consequences of this meeting have, however, settled along this belligerent line. Not only has China started live-military drills along the Taiwan straits, but it has also cut off a number of very significant communication channels with the American government. This includes the cancellation of theater commander talks, defense policy coordination, and even a suspension of cooperation on climate affairs.
Such counter-measures suggest that the existing trust between the two countries— especially their militaries—has taken a nosedive. At the same time, it signals China’s discontent while also acting as a deterrent for future visits of these sorts; if a rising global power refuses to cooperate on very vital global issues, it may prompt other powers to take its territorial claims with more seriousness.
What about Taiwan?
Throughout this piece, I have discussed the US tilt towards Taiwan mainly through the framework of international relations. It is important, however, to understand the complex internal dynamics of Taiwan, which is largely shaped by its regional economic links with the PRC.
Ever since the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power in the country in 2016, pro-independence and anti-Beijing sentiment has dictated state policy. The consequence of this has been tight regulations on economic and tourist-related relations with the country, symbolizing a rollback of traditionally inter-dependent regional links.
This has contributed to a visible economic stagnation in the country, with tourism declining steeply even before COVID-19 and domestic consumers showing discontent. The situation has led to a resurgence of the KMT’s Pan-Blue Coalition which has been seen as a more pro-Beijing party that wishes to restore customary relations between the two regions.
Within this context whereby KMT is sweeping through local elections, the visit of Pelosi may also be seen through the prism of the DPP reining in on existing anti-China discontent to try and re-energize its voter base.
Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan can not be viewed in isolation. Any analysis of its implications requires a thorough study of the historical context which has given birth to the unique dynamics which exist within this region. As of right now, the international consensus remains overly in support of the People’s Republic, owing to its large economic role in the global order.
Such a role may decrease the need for the Communist Party to seek forceful reunification, but visits such as Pelosi naturally incite militaristic reactions. This is due to the primacy the Chinese put on their territorial sovereignty, something every nation-state in the world seeks to protect regardless of its history.
Coming to the US, the visit seems to be motivated by a mix of domestic and international factors. All these factors find in them the common denominator of a feeling of rising insecurity towards China’s independent economic inroads. They necessitate the need for a global superpower such as the US to react in whatever way possible to maintain its global hegemony.
If you want to submit your articles and/or research papers, please check the Submissions page.
The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.