Saturday August 20, 2022

Pelosi’s controversial trip

August 02, 2022

So, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, has embarked upon her much-touted tour of Southeast Asia. Pelosi, number three in the line of US presidential succession, is leading a six-member congressional delegation to Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan, according to a statement released by her office on Sunday.

The statement, however, conspicuously, skipped any mention of Taiwan, after days of intense speculation about a likely stop there that fueled tensions between Beijing and Washington. On July 28, Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden had a more than two hour long conversation on the phone, which is expected to have a relatively positive impact on the plummeting Sino-US relations that were suddenly ebbing towards a new low after the Nato summit in Madrid where China was officially declared a “threat and a challenge”.

In the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s alleged plan to stop over in Taipei during her trip to the region amid reports that an American aircraft carrier is sailing up toward the South China Sea, the telephonic meeting between the two leaders has assumed unusual importance. Interestingly, with the exception of the simmering tensions in the South China Sea and the controversial US tariffs on the Chinese goods, the two leaders discussed almost all the other contentious topics and expressed their intention to move forward quickly towards early resolution, but the main irking subject of discussion was Taiwan. At the same time, both of them also “discussed the value of meeting face-to-face and agreed to have their teams follow up to find a mutually agreeable time to do so”, as per the official statement of the White House. This is perhaps the most positive aspect of the whole episode – that there is a mutual will to sit together to resolve the chronic pricking issues that have been stressing their relationship, but also impacting the whole fabric of Indo-Pacific as well as the global power structure.

In April, when US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, while addressing the session of the Asia Society at the George Washington University, divulged the basic contours of the Biden administration’s strategic intent towards China, it was evident that there was no major difference in Biden’s China policy compared to the Trump administration; however, his tone was visibly not that much stingy and belligerent. The meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali was also conducted in a much more genial atmosphere, raising hopes of some constructive engagement between the two sides on less controversial subjects.

But President Xi Jinping was extraordinarily resolute and assertive on the Taiwan issue during this phone conversation and perhaps used the strongest-ever phrase in diplomatic terminology to warn Biden about the recent American provocations. Xi said: “the position of the Chinese government and people on the Taiwan question is consistent, and resolutely safeguarding China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity is the firm will of the more than 1.4 billion Chinese people. The will of the people cannot be defied and those who play with fire will perish by it”. Though Biden reassured Xi about strict adherence to the one-China policy, the Chinese leader did not hesitate in openly expressing his displeasure over Pelosi’s rumoured visit to Taiwan.

The good thing is that, despite such stern warning from President Xi Jinping, the Americans’ reaction was unexpectedly much ‘accommodative’. Asked whether Biden had perceived Xi’s comments as a threat, a senior White House official briefing the media said the Chinese leader “used similar language in the conversation that the two leaders had back in November. She further added she “was not going to get into parsing metaphors”. This is rather unusual tranquility on the part of Washington.

This was the fifth such telephonic communication between the two presidents since Biden took office last year. However, it seems that Pelosi’s rumoured trip to Taiwan has irked the Chinese leadership to the point where President Xi Jinping had to personally intervene with President Biden on this matter. Pelosi will be the first US House Speaker to visit the island since Newt Gingrich in 1997. Beijing’s view is that a trip by Pelosi would be more of a violation of its sovereignty over Taiwan than previous visits to the island by US officials and politicians because she is second in the US presidential line of succession. The Chinese military has already warned it would take countermeasures if Pelosi were to go ahead, and the US military is also reportedly planning to upturn its movement of forces and assets in the Indo-Pacific region. This has all the potential to easily lead to a risk of military conflict.

The recent reports about the move of the US aircraft carrier toward the Taiwan Strait has heightened the suspicions of the Chinese who are already in an irritable mood over Pelosi’s proposed visit to the self-ruled island. Though Pelosi’s visit is being labelled as that of a private citizen, as House Speaker she is second in line to the presidency and is also a Democrat like Biden, and the Chinese leadership is considering it as a deliberate provocation to test Beijing’s tolerance level. Since 1997, no American of her stature has visited Taiwan, but at that time China was not as financially and militarily powerful and influential. A flurry of US delegations, consisting of sitting and retired officials and lawmakers have been regularly visiting Taiwan in recent years. Naturally that has drawn angry responses from China, but Pelosi’s political stature makes her potential visit extremely provocative to Beijing.

Pelosi is a longstanding critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and is considered to be among the fiercest of hawks on China. She has repeatedly denounced Beijing’s human rights record and met with pro-democracy dissidents and the Dalai Lama -the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader who remains a thorn in the side of the Chinese government. In 1991, Pelosi unfurled a banner in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to commemorate victims of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters. More recently, she has voiced support for the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Her planned trip to Southeast Asia was cancelled in April when she caught Covid-19, but now she is here in the region on the first leg of her tour. A stopover in Taipei would certainly worsen the tumbling relations between Beijing and Washington and escalate tension and uncertainty over the Taiwan Strait. The fifth round of talks between Xi and Biden has enabled the sharing of views. But the resumption of positivity on issues marring US-China ties now exceedingly depends upon how Biden handles Pelosi’s trip.

The writer is a freelancecontributor.