Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan caused quite a stir - with unforeseeable consequences not only for the region but also for US President Biden. Was it worth it?
Nancy Pelosi had already broken a record before she set foot on Taiwanese soil: 2.92 million people followed (at least parts of it) the flight of her machine from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei with the Flightradar24 flight observation service. Until recently, it was unclear whether the top US politician would really dare - despite the threats from Beijing and despite the unease in Washington. Pelosi did.
The feared escalation with China has not materialized so far. And yet the highest-ranking visit from the USA for 25 years has been highly controversial. The Chinese leadership has already threatened consequences. No matter what kind they will be, the two superpowers USA and China could be facing a new diplomatic ice age. The question is whether it was worth it.
Even if there were protests in Taiwan beforehand, the majority of the Taiwanese see the visit as an important signal of solidarity. In the wake of the Ukraine war, the country is more dependent than ever on security guarantees from the West. US President Joe Biden has emphasized several times during his tenure that the US would stand by Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. Nevertheless, the presence of the number three in the US succession to power sends an additional clear message to Beijing that it does not want to shake the decades-old status quo.
The consensus that China will leave the island alone and that the West will not recognize Taiwan as an independent state in return is crumbling. China's President Xi Jinping has never made a secret of the fact that taking power in Taipei is one of his top political goals. However, observers did not anticipate such attempts until the end of the 2020s at the earliest. The Ukraine war may have changed that. The fact that things are not going as planned for Vladimir Putin there, thanks to Western support for Kyiv, could teach Xi a lesson.
He, too, would have to reckon with the fact that Taiwan would be armed in the event of aggression from the West. It is obvious that things could go better for Beijing if clear conditions were created in a timely manner. According to CDU foreign policy expert Roderich Kiesewetter, this would be an advantage for China "because the West is currently tying up a lot of capacity in the Russia conflict." FDP parliamentary group deputy Alexander Graf Lambsdorff also believes that a change of strategy on the Taiwan question is conceivable by the fall. Then Xi lays out the Communist Party (CP)'s route for the coming years.
Loser: Joe Biden
Pelosi did the US President a disservice with her visit. In the past few months, Biden had tried to involve the USA's traditional partners in Asia - such as South Korea and Japan - more closely. Now Pelosi's visit is causing tensions across the region. The China expert Seong-Hyon Lee of Harvard University told the New York Times that the White House's handling of Pelosi's visit was "worrying". Ultimately, China's power was "emphasized" while the role of US allies was weakened.
Biden had made no secret of the fact that he was critical of Pelosi's visit to Taiwan. Still, he let it happen and tried to limit the damage from afar. Biden supporters credit the president with preserving the independence of Congress. But in the eyes of an autocrat (like Xi), so much domestic sensitivity can only be counted in one way: as weakness. That both Pelosi and Biden belong to the Democratic Party completes the picture of divided leadership.
Not only does Biden have no authority in his own country, but also not in his own party? Midterm elections will be held in the United States in three months. By then, Biden will have to demonstrate domestic political successes, otherwise there is a risk of a debacle. Inflation is still high, climate protection is struggling and Corona is far from gone. Who would know this better than the President at the moment? Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, however, could mean that Biden is more concerned with relaxing Chinese punitive measures than with such questions.
With her visit, Pelosi gave the leadership in Beijing an excuse to once again demonstrate China's military superiority in Taipei. In the province of Fuijan, tanks drove directly to the straits to Taiwan, military maneuvers started in six sea zones around the island, fighter jets took off from the coast. The State Department defended it as a "necessary and legitimate measure to resolutely protect national sovereignty." From China's point of view, Pelosi is a state guest, so her visit is a state visit - and that on Chinese territory: Taiwan.
According to the One China Doctrine, the island would not be entitled to it. Basically, the doctrine states that no country can maintain diplomatic relations with Taipei and Beijing at the same time. From afar, the US government hastened to assure that the US respects this principle. Pelosi didn't question it either - knowing full well that, according to this understanding, her visit is definitely a border crossing.
All this ultimately makes it easy for China to sell the action as a provocation; as a breach of a promise, so to speak, which legitimizes appropriate penalties. Beijing can certainly hurt the United States, especially economically. Bilateral trade has still not fully recovered from the tariff dispute under Trump.
Loser: Indo-Pacific Region
Pelosi has departed. She left behind a region in which, in addition to China and Taiwan, numerous nations have a military presence. Last week, the US sent the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan to the South China Sea. Loyal to Taiwan and the US, Japan had also deployed troops, artillery and missile defense systems to the southern islands near Taiwan before Pelosi's visit - albeit with the aim of deterrence rather than provocation. Now the concern is growing that an unwanted incident could lead to escalation.
Australia is also trying to defuse this mixed situation. Although the country is directly affected by Beijing's attempts to expand its sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific, Secretary of State Penny Wong is seeking dialogue with China. The press response to Pelosi's visit is devastating. It was the "high point of her decades of anti-Beijing activism," writes the Sydney Morning Herald, and at the end of her career the "last chance to show Beijing the middle finger."
Loser: world trade
Even if some in Washington and Beijing take a similar view, it may take some time to calm things down. Because China has announced maneuvers around the island, Taiwan fears a blockade of its ports. This would also have consequences for the global economy. "If Taiwan fails for the world market, the wheels won't turn anymore," said Christian Rusche from the German Economic Institute (IW) in an interview with ntv. A third of the world's chip production, for example for smartphone and car production, takes place on the island.
The corona crisis has already caused a shortage of chips. According to the expert, the effects of a military conflict would be correspondingly devastating. When asked about the economic impact of her visit to Taiwan, Pelosi said that the new regime to strengthen the US chip industry vis-à-vis China offers "a greater opportunity for US-Taiwan economic cooperation." The US stock exchanges saw things differently on Tuesday. Only the stocks of US defense companies such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon gave their visit a boost.
(This article was first published on Wednesday, August 03, 2022.)