Despite serious warnings by President Xi Jinping, Nancy Pelosi, second in the line of succession for America’s presidency, went ahead surreptitiously to pay a highly provocative, whirlwind visit to Taiwan, including a meeting with the island’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen.
This is the most senior American official visit in 25 years, since then-House speaker Newt Gingrich’s visit in 1997, when China-US relations were among the best ever.
After expressing initial misgivings about Pelosi’s intended visit, US President Joe Biden maintains that as House speaker, Pelosi’s decision was hers alone, notwithstanding strong bipartisan support for her defiant action. Pelosi probably thought, mindful of coming midterm elections, that this was an opportunity to show political resolve against Beijing’s “diktats”, calling Beijing’s bluff and poking China in the eye.
The US has long been making repeated attempts to hollow out the one-China principle. More and more senior-official visits take place. Attempts are made to expand “diplomatic” and geopolitical space to promote the island’s role in international institutions normally reserved for independent countries. Signals are sent to America’s allies to do the same. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, more and more advanced weaponry is supplied to turn the island into a “porcupine”.
Beijing has long prepared militarily for all eventualities over Taiwan. Highly coordinated, multitheater, live-fire military exercises swung swiftly into action, literally blockading Taiwan Island for several days. These serve as a robust warning to the US, Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party authorities, and Western allies that China can no longer be messed around with. The Pelosi saga also gave Beijing the rare opportunity to rehearse on-site the dynamics of a possible future takeover of the island by force, if push ever comes to shove.
The speed and robustness of Beijing’s response to the Pelosi visit has surprised many, not only foreigners but also some Chinese citizens who felt humiliated as Pelosi managed to set foot on the island.
America-led G7 Western nations are now clamoring that Beijing has overreacted, adding to “unnecessary” tensions in the region. In an on-the-record White House online press briefing on Aug 12, Kurt Campbell, deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council, maintained that the US has been consistent in upholding its one-China policy and in supporting peaceful resolution of cross-Straits relations, while accusing China of trying to change the status quo. Campbell vouchsafed that the US will “continue to fly, sail, and operate where international law allows, consistent with our longstanding commitment to freedom of navigation, and that includes conducting standard air and maritime transits through the Taiwan Strait in the next few weeks”. He affirmed that the US “will continue to fulfill ... commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act, ... supporting Taiwan’s self-defense and maintaining ... capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize Taiwan’s security, economy, or society”. He added that the US “will continue ... to deepen ... ties with Taiwan, including through continuing to advance our economic and trade relationship.”
Some Western observers play down the significance of Beijing’s military drills, saying that they are not totally unexpected and are of a short duration, that both the US and China do not want an escalation, and that the Taiwan people have remained relatively calm. Others have pointed out that Beijing now faces a dilemma: escalate further, or court its neighbors? Southeast Asian countries have urged all sides to show restraint, warning against the risks of miscalculations. European and Asian nations carefully refrain from getting involved in the fray. The South Korean president and his senior adviser declined to meet Nancy Pelosi during her whirlwind visit to Seoul.
At this point, both the US and China know that a hot war is not possible, being aware of the big events in November. In America, looming midterm elections may see both Pelosi’s and Biden’s authority on Capitol Hill topple. In Beijing, the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China is to be held around that time, which is widely expected to make important decisions on future national strategy.
Many seem to miss the reality that amid worsening bilateral relations, including the US’ unrestrained playing of the “Taiwan card” to retard China’s trajectory, Pelosi’s provocative Taiwan visit was the last straw, signifying the need for quickening the process of Taiwan’s eventual reunification with the mainland, by peaceful means if at all possible, lest it ultimately becomes an empty dream.
In an in-depth interview with World Geostrategic Insights, an independent international geostrategic platform based in Rome, I outlined the following dynamics.
In testimony to the US Congress in June 2021, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley advised that China does not yet possess full military capacity and confidence to definitively prevail over Taiwan, at least until 2027.
Shortly afterward, a study of the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center conducted in December 2021 under Professor Graham Allison (who coined the term “Thucydides trap”) found that “the era of US military primacy is over; ... every domain is contested — air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace”. The report suggests that “China has the capability to deliver a fait accompli ... before Washington would be able to decide how to respond”, thanks to its sophisticated A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) capabilities.
Sun Tzu, however, remains the ultimate guide. Beijing has repeatedly stressed that peaceful unification remains the best option, but not to be allowed to scuttle the Chinese Dream of complete reunification by 2049 at the latest, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.
The Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council and the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China have now released a third white paper on the Taiwan question, affirming the inviolability of the one-China principle and the imperative of working with compatriots in Taiwan toward peaceful reunification and national rejuvenation.
To prevent Taiwan drifting further and further away from the motherland, it is now time to create an irresistible momentum for time-limited negotiations for peaceful reunification. Instructive is the example of how Hong Kong eventually managed to return peacefully to the motherland, notwithstanding then-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s reluctance and some Hong Kong residents’ initial misgivings.
My reading points to the following possibilities:
(a) Regularizing a “new normal” of periodic live-fire and other People’s Liberation Army military excises, including those in close proximity surrounding the island.
(b) Maintaining, as and when appropriate, selective sanctions and other restrictive measures on Taiwan’s imports from and exports to the mainland, including individuals and business entities, save for certain strategic products important to the mainland, such as high-end semiconductor chips.
(c) Quickening the process of squeezing Taiwan’s “global diplomatic space”, aiming to reduce to zero the small number of countries still recognizing Taiwan’s “separate status”.
(d) Further strengthening China’s comprehensive military combat capabilities on all domains, including A2/AD, hypersonic missiles, undersea, and space.
(e) Offering tailor-made concessions to incentivize more Taiwan manufacturers to produce and sell on the mainland, especially those of strategic interests such as semiconductor industries.
(f) Promoting more cross-Straits people-to-people exchanges, including education, think tanks, civil society and sightseeing tours for Taiwan residents.
(g) Expanding China’s soft power through enhanced global media outreach, publicizing the latest developments including poverty relief, ecological preservation, civil society, etc, not forgetting movies in partnership with Hollywood and other international studios.
(h) Offering overtures, without preconditions, to explore further development of cross-Straits relations through various selective channels.
In any event, the die is cast. The process for Taiwan’s peaceful reunification with the mainland needs to be speeded up, lest it fast becomes a pipedream. This quickened process is likely to resonate with the vast majority of people on the mainland and Chinese diaspora around the world.
The author is an international and independent China strategist; he was previously the director-general of social welfare and Hong Kong’s official chief representative for the United Kingdom, Eastern Europe, Russia, Norway, and Switzerland.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.