Author: Chengxin Pan, University of Macau
When both US Democrats and Republicans think something is a good idea, it is safe to bet their rare agreement is on countering China. The latest bipartisan chorus in an otherwise bitterly divided Washington is their joint cheering for the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
In defiance of Beijing’s repeated warnings ahead of this visit, Pelosi has now carried out her plan. To Pelosi and her supporters, the case for this trip is compelling. Taiwan is seen as a thriving democracy which is deserving of US support. The separation of powers in US politics means that Pelosi does not represent the executive branch of the government, so the White House cannot tell her what to do. Had she cancelled the trip, it would have been tantamount to showing weakness and allowing Beijing to dictate the travel of a US official.
So why doesn’t China get it and relax?
More than four decades ago, the US government recognised the People’s Republic as the sole legal government of China, acknowledged the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China and promised to engage only in unofficial relations with Taiwan. Codified in the 1979 Joint Communique, this forms a central plank of the ‘one-China’ policy — a policy that has since served as the political foundation for the US–China relationship.
Second in line to the presidency, Pelosi is not your average US official. China sees her trip as clearly violating the ‘one-China’ policy and eroding the political status quo in the Taiwan Strait, something the United States allegedly opposes. Yet amid growing calls for Washington to end the ‘outdated’ ‘one-China’ policy, the United States has thrown most of the protocols guarding a normal US–China relationship out the window.
The destruction of US–China relations over the Taiwan question includes incidents like former president-elect Donald Trump’s phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, Trump’s signing of the Taiwan Travel Act in 2018 and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar’s visit to Taiwan in 2020.
Then came revelations in 2021 that US military personnel had been secretly training Taiwan’s military forces for over a year and that Taiwan’s elite soldiers travelled to Guam for month-long combat training with US marines. After Russia appeared to be bogged down in Ukraine, one Pentagon official boasted that the Ukraine situation ‘validated some long-standing steps we’ve been taking in Taiwan’.
Adding more fuel to the smouldering fire, Biden vowed to defend Taiwan should China attack it on three separate occasions, marking a notable departure from Washington’s long-standing strategic ambiguity. With Pelosi’s appearance in Taiwan, the highest-level official visit in 25 years, China now has every reason to fear that the United States has reached a point of no return in hollowing out the ‘one-China’ policy.
Beijing previously registered its displeasure by issuing warnings against so-called US or Taiwanese provocations. After the independence-leaning Tsai Ing-wen came to power in 2016, it began occasionally flying planes near the island. Such manoeuvres intensified after Azar’s 2020 visit and have been routinely cited in Western media as evidence of China’s growing threat to Taiwan.
This seemingly endless escalation spiral is where US–China–Taiwan relations are at today. In the broader context of the sharpening US–China rivalry, the grave risk of strategic misunderstanding and military miscalculation has never been higher than today. China repeatedly stated that its military ‘will not sit idly by’ if Pelosi’s trip went ahead — reminiscent of similar language China used in October 1950 to warn against US troops crossing the 38th parallel on the Korean Peninsula. Back then, the United States brushed off the warning. The rest is history.
As Pelosi’s plane touched down in Taipei, it appears that China’s tough talk was little more than a bluff. The most it could do seems to be issuing another statement to make ‘strong protest’, following earlier efforts to scramble fighter jets across the Taiwan Strait.
But it would be a mistake to think a major crisis has been avoided. To China, this is likely to be a rude awakening as well as a turning point for US–China–Taiwan relations. Together with the increasing push for NATO to expand to China’s doorstep, the individually small but accumulatively monumental steps from the United States and its allies are goading China into a war. Pelosi’s needless gamble may well pay off for her personal political legacy, but she could be remembered for moving us one step closer to a catastrophic military conflict by recklessly crossing one of the world’s most dangerous red lines.
Chengxin Pan is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Macau. He is a co-editor of China’s Rise and Rethinking International Relations Theory (Bristol University Press, 2022).
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