Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan takes the Island Nation to International Limelight
Prof Rajaram Panda

In the wake of escalating tensions between the US and China that started over trade issues and further complicated by the Covid-19, the Taiwan issue has emerged as a caucus belli for a possible conflagration, which if not controlled with deft diplomacy and dialogue, could snowball into a major regional crisis, adversely impacting many nations in the region and with perilous consequences. The background of this analysis is the visit of White House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan on 2 August, becoming the highest-profile elected American official and second in line to the US presidency in 25 years to visit the self-ruled island, and the strong response of China, which considers the island nation as its own and therefore considers visits by foreign government officials and that of Pelosi as their recognition of the island’s sovereignty.

Though President Joe Biden had clarified that the US continues to subscribe to its long-standing “One-China Policy”, which recognises Beijing but only maintains informal relations and defence ties with Taipei, Beijing is not convinced.

What was the purpose of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan now? In the prevailing situation amid rapid geo-political changes, the US found compelling reasons to send a message of its obligation by Pelosi’s visit that the US stands with democracies against autocratic countries, and therefore with democratic Taiwan against China.[1]

Pelosi’s visit was not sudden. The mission to demonstrate support for embattled democracy movements is decade-long. Earlier in 1991, Pelosi had visited the Tiananmen Square to show support for democracy defying Chinese security forces that were tasked with crushing home-grown democracy movement at the same spot. For some time now, Pelosi’s mission has been to promote democracy abroad. She led a congressional delegation to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in the Spring with the same purpose as she is clear in making a distinction between autocracy and democracy. The visit to Taiwan had the same objective. In an opinion piece published in the Washington Post a day before she visited Taiwan, Pelosi had categorically remarked that “We must stand by Taiwan”.[2] This commitment was as per the 1979 law and therefore there was no ambiguity about it.

It may be recalled that Taiwan and the mainland China split during a civil war in 1949 but Beijing has never accepted this historical truth and continues to hold its position that Taiwan is its own territory, which it wants to integrate by use of military force, if necessary. After China has acquired economic and military muscle, it has increased its intimidation and military pressure. The situation looked ugly after President Tsai Ing-wen came to power in 2016 and refused to affirm the so called 1992 Consensus reached with China. Backed by its clout that it has acquired in recent times, China now sees more closely at any official contact by the US with Taiwan as an encouragement to make the island’s decades-old de facto independence permanent.

In a show of intimidation, Beijing responded with a series of military operations and drills in the waters and skies near Taiwan, which also included the firing of long-range ammunition in the Taiwan Strait as also firing of ballistic missiles. The Chinese army also conducted military drills across multiple locations in waters surrounding Taiwan. The day Pelosi departed Taiwan, China sent as many as 21 planes flying toward Taiwan, 18 of which were fighter jets. The rest included an early warning plane and an electronic warfare plane.

The US expected such a Chinese response and had increased its own military movements in the Indo-Pacific region by deploying aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its strike group in the Philippine Sea. In a show of strength and to deter China from launching any strike on Taiwan, USS Ronald Reagan, the cruiser USS Antietam and the destroyer USS Higgins were in Singapore on a port visit before moving north toward their home port in Japan. The carrier had an array of aircraft, including F/A-18 fighter jets and helicopters, as well as sophisticated radar systems and other weapons.

Despite that China is keen to punish Taiwan for hosting Pelosi, the war-cry by Beijing is only sabre-rattling and an actual conflict might not occur. This does not deny the fact that all stakeholders are on the edge. Since Pelosi also visited Singapore and Malaysia, then Taiwan before flying out to South Korea and Japan, the ASEAN has to take a position on the Taiwan issue because in the event of any conflict occurring over the Taiwan issue, the interests of the ASEAN would also be severely affected.

However, because of China’s provocative manoeuvres not only near Taiwan waters but also around the South China Sea such as close fly-bys of aircraft and confronting vessels at sea, the volatility in the security dynamics has increased. Such a situation increases the risk of an armed conflict. At the moment, Beijing would be dissuaded despite its sabre-rattling to take on the US military might and would be careful not to stumble into a conflict that could result in colossal damage on all fronts. This also could mean that China would be further strengthening its own military strength and wait for a situation when it can take on the challenge from the US. However, since Beijing has already made its intentions known, the world has got time now to prepare to respond appropriately if China chooses to be adventurous.

This leaves with the question: how is Taiwan preparing itself from increased psychological warfare launched by Beijing? As a natural response, Taiwan is stepping up its own security against possible disruptions by “overseas forces”, including cyber attacks from China. Taiwan has already stepped up security at key infrastructure, including power plants and airports and increased the cyber security alertness level across government offices.[3]

Economic Reprisals by China

Following Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Beijing summoned the US ambassador to protest as an infringement of its sovereignty. At the same time, Beijing announced several punitive measures such as halting agricultural imports from Taiwan, suspended natural sand exports, and blocked imports of Taiwanese citrus fruits, chilled white scallops and frozen mackerel.[4] China’s General Administration of Customs cited the detection of pests in fruit shipments and positive coronavirus tests in the cold supply chain as it reasoned while confirming the ban. Earlier, in the lead up to Pelosi’s visit, Beijing had announced to ban on imports of Taiwanese confectionery, biscuits, bread and aquatic products. Such Chinese actions are merely symbolic trade restrictions and might not prove to be impactful.

This is not to say that China’s ban on natural sand exports to Taiwan would not impact Taiwan’s construction projects, transport and water conservancy. Natural sand is also used for producing silicon wafers in chip production, one of the island’s key manufacturing sectors. The truism tells us a different story. While China’s own demand for natural sand has risen in recent years, Taiwan’s imports from mainland China have shrunk sharply. In 2012, Taiwan imported over 75 per cent of its natural sand from China; this figure dropped to just over 3 per cent in 2021. This shows that Chinese reprisals might not be impactful. In the first half of 2022, Taiwan’s import of natural sand, including silica and quartz sands, accounted for just 1.88 per cent of its total imports. Interestingly, Taiwan’s imports of natural sand from Australia with which China has a severe trade friction, accounted for over 48 per cent of its total imports.[5]

China’s economic reprisals against Taiwan are nothing new. China has always targeted in the past Taiwan’s fruit industry by suspending imports of pineapples, sugar apples and java apples, Taiwan’s top three exports to China, owing to ‘detection’ of pests. Taiwan need not be unnecessarily disturbed about China’s economic reprisals. This is because though China remains as the largest export destination of its agricultural products, in terms of value it is mere $1.12 billion. Agricultural exports make up only a small amount of Taiwan’s $765 billion economy.

China’s economic sanctions might look symbolic but could hit billions if tensions escalate. Billions of dollars worth of Taiwanese investment in China could be at stake if China chooses tough position. But if China targets high-value exports and direct investments, such measures could hurt both. China will be incapable of controlling the ripple effects in such a situation.[6]

Impact of Chinese Drills in Taiwanese Waters

The six-days of military drills conducted by China surrounding Taiwan was a serious provocation, which could have sparked a full-blown conflict if the threat threshold had been breached. The live fire drills violated UN rules, invaded Taiwan’s territorial space and are a direct challenge to free air and sea navigation. It appeared that the PLA wanted to practice blockading the island it had to in a later war. It looked as a rehearsal for a future military fight with Taiwan.[7] China’s larger objective could be to make the Taiwan Strait non-international waters and make the entire area west of the first island chain in the Western Pacific its sphere of influence. If China succeeds in doing so, it could be fatal for the safety and stability of regional countries, as well as for the regional economy.

Pelosi’s visit is a test case for China and the way it responds. Though a full-blown conflict has been avoided this time, it transpired that there are significant possibilities for an accidental escalation.

What if China Takes Control of Taiwan?

Pelosi spoke about upholding democracy and against autocracy and this position brought Taiwan to the front of international attention. With Pelosi’s visit Taiwan became a metaphor for a fundamental question about the nature of the international system. Taiwan found itself sandwiched between two hard powers resolved to protect their own interests while navigating to protect its own future. If Taiwan comes under China’s control, most of its cultural assets with democratic credentials would surely cease to exist and Taiwan’s vibrant democracy would have been relegated to a page in history.[8]

Japan’s Vulnerability Exposed

Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan sparked fears in Japan about Chinese military drills in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. While Pyongyang fully supported Beijing’s position on Pelosi’s visit and slammed Washington’s “imprudent interference”, South Korea called for dialogue to maintain peace and stability.[9] China saw Pelosi’s presence as a major provocation. Japan feared that the maritime areas identified by China for military exercises overlapped with Japan’s EEZ. Parts of Japan’s southernmost island region Okinawa are close to Taiwan, as are islets at the centre of a long-running dispute between Tokyo and Beijing.

Peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait are important not only for Japan’s security but also for the stability of the international community. Japan, therefore, wants the Taiwan issue be resolved peacefully through dialogue.

Japan has close economic and security ties with Taiwan. A Chinese takeover of the island nation would be detrimental to Japan’s interests, exposing its security vulnerability. As a mark of close bonding, Japanese lawmakers have visited Taiwan to discuss trade and security matters. When Taiwanese Vice President William Lai visited Tokyo in July 2022 to attend funeral of Shinzo Abe it drew mainland government’s ire. Subsequently, seven Japanese lawmakers belonging to a cross-party parliamentary group visited Taiwan to discuss security issues and in an apparent show of support for the island. Sharing values of freedom and democracy between the lawmakers of the two countries displeased Beijing.[10]

Another parliamentary security group from Japan visited Taiwan and met the island’s leader Tsai Ing-wen prior to Pelosi’s visit to discuss ways the two sides could plan their response as Beijing intensified its sabre-rattling. Japan is aware that there exists the risk of an accidental conflict between the US and China over Taiwan. If that happens, Japan’s security would be badly exposed.[11] In a conflict situation, Japan as Washington’s major ally in the region will be dragged willy-nilly into it. Therefore it needs to have contingency plan in advance. South Korea as another key ally shall find itself in similar position.

India’s Position

Where would India position itself if a conflict breaks out between the US and China over the Taiwan issue? Consistent with time-tested policy and the strained ties with China, it would be diplomatically pragmatic to continue adhering to the One-China policy while at the same time expanding and deepening non-official relations with Taiwan. If a conflict breaks out, it would be expected that India sides with the US, Taiwan and other stakeholders in the region to defend Taiwan’s 'sovereignty'.

Endnotes :

[1] “Why Nancy Pelosi went to Taiwan, and why China's angry”, 3 August 2022, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/why-nancy-pelosi-went-taiwan-and-why-chinas-angry-2854271
[2]Nancy Pelosi, “Why I‘m leading a congressional delegation to Taiwan” Washington Post, 2 August 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/08/02/nancy-pelosi-taiwan-visit-op-ed/
[3] “Taiwan expects increased ‘psychological warfare’ after Nancy Pelosi visit”, 3 August 2022, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/taiwan-expects-increased-psychological-warfare-china-nancy-pelosi-visit-2856231
[4]Zhao Ziwen Ralph Jennings and Ji Siqi, “China ramps up trade sanctions on Taiwan in wake of Nancy Pelosi’s visit, bans sand exports, fruit and fish imports”, 3 August 2022, https://www.scmp.com/economy/global-economy/article/3187544/china-ramps-trade-sanctions-taiwan-wake-nancy-pelosis-visit?utm_medium=email&utm_source=cm&utm_campaign=enlz-china&utm_content=20220803&tpcc=enlz-china&UUID=2b22bd78-81ce-47b2-a193-00c7ec579ed6&next_article_id=3187510&article_id_list=3187591,3187585,3187568,3187541,3187544,3187510,3187606,3187483&tc=13&CMCampaignID=b0b7ee2f0eb5918ef14ac3f0e90d7a66
[5]Ibid.
[6] Ralph Jennings Ji Siqiand Luna Sun, “China’s economic sanctions on Taiwan over Pelosi visit ‘symbolic’, but could hit billions if tensions escalate”, 3 August 2022, https://www.scmp.com/economy/global-economy/article/3187591/chinas-economic-sanctions-taiwan-over-pelosi-visit-symbolic?utm_medium=email&utm_source=cm&utm_campaign=en
[7] “Risks mount from China drills near Taiwan during Pelosi visit: Analysts”, 3 August 2022, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/china-drills-near-taiwan-pelosi-visit-risks-mount-analysts-2855206
[8]Mark Harrison, “Beijing will wipe out a vibrant democracy if it seizes control of Taiwan”, 4 August 2022, https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/beijing-will-wipe-out-a-vibrant-democracy-if-it-seizes-control-of-taiwan/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Weekly%20The%20Strategist&utm_content=W
[9] “Nancy Pelosi in Taiwan: Japan anxious over China drills as North Korea slams ‘interference’ and Seoul calls for calm”, 3 August 2022, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3187487/malaysia-pm-queries-poor-status-us-human-trafficking-report?module=perpetual_scroll_1&pgtype=article&campaign=3187487
[10]Lawrence Chung, “Japanese lawmakers to visit Taiwan on security, trade trip”, 13 July 2022, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3185167/japanese-lawmakers-visit-taiwan-security-trade-trip?module=hard_link&pgtype=article
[11]Minnie Chan, “Risk of accidental us-China conflict over Taiwan could leave Japan badly exposed”, 28 July 2022, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3186948/risk-accidental-us-china-conflict-over-taiwan-could-leave?module=top_picks&pgtype=article

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


Image Source: https://c.ndtvimg.com/2022-08/tkp2fv8o_pelosi-reuters_625x300_03_August_22.jpg

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
4 + 1 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us