Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to poke a tiger in the eye with a stick. Especially if the tiger is up for re-election.
But that’s essentially what US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did on her trip to Taiwan on August 2. In a few weeks, over 2,000 Communist Party delegates will meet in Beijing and select its leaders for the next five years at the CCP’s 20th National Congress. Xi Jinping will almost certainly be re-elected to an unprecedented third term as President, but he and his political allies have been under pressure for some time due to the human and economic effects Xi’s “zero-COVID” policy, and continuing lockdowns of millions of citizens.
And as former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd put it in his book The Avoidable War, “the ‘return’ of Taiwan remains the holy grail of Communist Party politics… many Americans may not appreciate how central the Taiwan question is to the CCP’s political priorities… or how much Taiwan shapes how China views its overall relationship with the United States.” (Kindle loc 1534 and 1604 )
It would have been hard for Pelosi to pick worse timing, or an issue more likely to further inflame China’s already rabid wolf warrior nationalist movement. And inflame it she did. Hu Xijin, a former editor of the party-run tabloid Global Times, wrote that the Chinese military should ‘shoot down Pelosi’s plane.’” Many Chinese thought they might, and nearly 3 million of them tracked the flight’s progress on the app Flightradar24 to see, making it “the most tracked flight of all time.”
So what has Pelosi’s controversial visit accomplished so far?
- Minutes after her plane landed on August 2, China announced four days of its most aggressive military exercises ever against Taiwan.
- Almost as soon as Pelosi left, Chinese warships circled Taiwan, in part to demonstrate how easy it would be to cut the island off from the rest of the world.
- On August 4, China launched 11 ballistic missiles in the area, some flying directly over Taiwan.
- On August 5, Taiwan reported 68 Chinese warplanes over the Strait separating them from mainland China.
- Of these, 49 entered the disputed Air Defense Identification Zone, the midway point between China and Taiwan. This came close to setting a new daily record.
- Flights crossing the median continued at a rate of about 10-20 per day for several weeks.
- According to a CNN report “Chinese and foreign analysts say the PLA’s cross-strait sorties aren’t likely to go away anytime soon, effectively making them a daily routine that some say could wear down Taiwanese vigilance as well as that of its supporters, including the US.”
- In response to the heightened tensions, Taiwan has announced a record jump in defense spending for next year.
- Cyberattacks against Taiwan have increased to rates 23 times higher than the previous daily record.
- While military activities are setting new highs, US-China communication is approaching new lows.
- China has canceled future phone calls and meetings between defense leaders in the two countries.
- They have also canceled bilateral discussions on such topics as immigration, drug operations, and climate change.
- This last is particularly disturbing. As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it “China’s decision to suspend climate talks ‘could have lasting consequences for the future of the region, the future of our planet,’ and would punish the developing world rather than the US.”
Summing up these events and others, “the China Power Project at the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said Beijing ‘seeks to establish a new normal in which the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] no longer respects Taiwan’s claims to a separate airspace and territorial waters.’” Chinese commentators are using the same phrase “Military drills that simulate actual battles have become the new normal. China can now decide whether a future exercise will seamlessly be turned into actual combat.”
So what could Pelosi have been thinking when she decided to include Taiwan on this Congressional Delegation trip to Asia?
Pelosi had been asked to avoid Taiwan on this jaunt by a number of senior officials, including President Biden. According to a White House spokesperson, “The United States had seen indications over the last several months that China was considering unprecedented military activity across the Taiwan Strait, and officials had seen signs that China would use Pelosi’s visit as a pretext to act.” Which of course, is exactly what they did.
On July 28, Xi Jinping had even called Biden with a direct request: “Find a way to keep Pelosi from visiting.” Biden explained as a practical matter that would be difficult or impossible to accomplish. That’s not how we do things in the US.
Pelosi explained her reasons in a Washington Post op-ed published the same day she landed in Taiwan: “The CCP’s brutal crackdown against Hong Kong… cast the promises of ‘one-country, two-systems’ into the dustbin… By traveling to Taiwan, we honor our commitment to democracy.”
It is worth noting that Pelosi’s op-ed does not seem consistent with official US State Department policy, which still holds to the principle of “strategic ambiguity.” As explained in the New York Times, this “longstanding — and famously convoluted — policy [is] derived from America’s ‘one China’ stance that supports Taiwan without recognizing it as independent. The United States provides political and military support for Taiwan but does not explicitly promise to defend it from a Chinese attack.”
An opposing opinion piece published the same day in the Washington Post was entitled “The real crisis over Taiwan will start after Pelosi comes home.” It predicted that “The pace and intensity of U.S.-China competition are set to go up, changing the relationship forever, with Taiwan caught squarely in the middle.”
Writing a few weeks after Pelosi’s visit, two experts from the Carnegie Endowment provided several examples of how this prediction was already becoming true. “Beijing could use an American freedom of navigation operation as a pretext to escalate the crisis further, potentially leading to an unsafe incident or encounter at sea or in the air. The breakdown in bilateral communication channels and the broader distrust between the United States and China only makes such a contingency more likely. Recent reports indicate that U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was unable to reach his Chinese counterparts after Beijing suspended multiple military deconfliction protocols.”
And just a few days before this blog was posted, “Taiwan… shot down an unidentified civilian drone over one of its islands that lies just a few kilometers from mainland China.” Uh oh.
Pelosi is entitled to her opinions, of course. But you’d hope a highly successful 82 year old politician could find something better to do with her time than rattling her saber.
A number of analysts have offered a cynical view of her motives, including Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, who said Pelosi “had wanted to visit Taiwan before her retirement as part of her personal legacy.”
It would be a shame for all of us if this is even partly true, and one congress member’s hubris ultimately helped lead to an accidental war.