Pelosi visit supercharges global US-China Taiwan chess game

Beijing followed the Pelosi visit with a flurry of trade bans on companies and institutions it accused of supporting "Taiwan independence"

Peter AppsPeter Apps
Published : 11 August 2022, 08:27 PM
Updated : 11 August 2022, 08:27 PM

A Somali TV panel discussion on Sunday on powerful neighbour Ethiopia's long entanglement in the country segued into a discussion of how the government in Mogadishu should address rising tensions between China and Taiwan.

Abdirahman Nur Dinari, a former Somali ambassador to Syria and South Sudan, supported Mogadishu's decision to send a supportive letter to Beijing, pointing to its economic engagement in the region. He expressed anger that Taiwan maintains friendly relations with Somaliland, a breakaway strip along the northern Somali coast that operates as a de facto independent state.

Political commentator Idris Abdi disagreed, arguing that it was in Somalia's best interests to remain neutral in disputes between great powers.

For decades, the governments in Beijing and Taipei have played a complex global game over the status of self-ruled Taiwan, which China views as a rogue province of "one China". This year's conflict in Ukraine, however – coupled with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan and a hawkish new Taiwan Relations Act currently working its way through Congress – has seen tensions escalate dramatically.

How companies, countries, institutions and individuals react to that new reality is clearly still evolving. Russian President Vladimir Putin's Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine had immediately drawn attention to Taiwan, which also finds itself in a "strategically ambiguous" relationship with allies who might support it but not fight for it in any war. The island only has full diplomatic relations with a handful of nations.

In a White Paper on "reunification" issued on Wednesday, China's Foreign Ministry pledged once again to bring the island under Beijing's control and refused to rule out the use of force, while laying out a strategy of economic and military pressure intended to stamp out "separatist" activities.

The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, is looking to name the island as a major U.S. non-NATO ally and significantly step up military and diplomatic support, something that President Joe Biden's administration – which also opposed the Pelosi visit – is lobbying hard against. Passage of that legislation would infuriate Beijing even further.

Pelosi, who met Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and visited factories and installations, was unrepentant this week, saying the trip was "worth it" and that China could not be allowed to prevent foreign leaders visiting the island.

U.S.-CHINA CONSENSUS "SHATTERED"?

While U.S. news coverage has presented the Pelosi visit as largely against the wishes of the White House, few in China have interpreted it that way. Writing in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, columnist Xie Maosong – a senior fellow at China's National Security Institute at Tsinghua University - presented it as a deliberate decision by the Biden administration to "shatter" the consensus on U.S.-Chinese relations built up over decades since the days of Henry Kissinger and the Nixon administration.

That, she argued, meant Chinese Premier Xi Jinping should act with speed and purpose.

"Many in the West still believe that China is not ready to reunify Taiwan," she wrote, arguing this should not stop those in authority in Beijing. "Looking back on modern Chinese history, was China ready to take on the U.S. in the Korean War? Was the PLA ever ready for any of its major military campaigns?"

Other Chinese state media, however, have pushed a more nuanced message. Talk of military reunification appears to have been deliberately promoted in the days leading up to the Pelosi visit but during the visit itself, Chinese state media encouraged readers to focus on the bigger "U.S.-China chess game" and not the "chess piece" of Pelosi.

For almost a week from last Thursday, China's People Liberation Army Eastern Command says Chinese naval and air forces practised what they described as "defence and blockade" operations around the island in multiple directions, seen by analysts as a warning that even without invasion China could block access to the island.

Taiwan authorities say Chinese ships and planes repeatedly crossed the "median line" between mainland and Taiwan that both sides largely kept to for decades. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu told reporters this week that "no median line exists" as he defended China's response.

CHARM OFFENSIVES

Companies and investors are keen to avoid being blindsided the way they were with Russia and Ukraine, while the sheer economic size of China and importance of Taiwan to high-tech microchip supply chains mean even a non-violent blockade and increased sanctions could have an even greater impact on the global economy.

Some of that is already under way. Beijing followed the Pelosi visit with a flurry of trade bans on companies and institutions it accused of supporting "Taiwan independence".

That drew alarm from both foreign and domestic business groups in China, with the EU Chamber of Commerce in China – which had also lobbied against the Pelosi visit – warning that the new Chinese restrictions on Taiwan-related businesses would further deter foreign investors in both China and the island.

Beijing's trade disputes with the U.S. and Australia have also worsened – just as China goes on charm offensives in the developing world, slashing import tariffs on goods from 16 of the world's poorest countries including Cambodia, Laos, Djibouti, Rwanda and Togo. Chinese media have also highlighted support from Russia, Mongolia and North Korea, as well as highlighting Saudi comments recommitting the kingdom to Beijing's "one China" policy.

Taiwan is also reaching out for friends, its officials and media praising supportive comments from Lithuania, the Pacific Marshall Islands and Turks and Caicos – even as they criticise the Biden administration for what many in Taiwan see as inadequate support.

Beijing will want to keep up psychological pressure on Taiwan, pressure U.S. lawmakers and demonstrate the level of disruption it is capable of alongside more conventional military force – although that may simply embolden those in the U.S. Congress and beyond who believe that only a tougher line on Taiwan will deter China from attacking.

[Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party.]

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