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Pelosi in Taiwan: A Risky Provocation for Imperialism

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has made the bad Washington-Beijing relationship worse. What was her purpose?

André Barbieri

August 3, 2022
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U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks at a podium with arms wide open as President of the Republic of China Tsai Ing-Wen looks on.
Photo: Jeremy Liu / Office of the President of the Republic of China

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S House of Representatives, landed in Taiwan on the evening of Tuesday, August 2 (local time). In advance of her arrival, the Chinese Bonapartist dictatorship of President Xi Jinping had threatened, through a foreign ministry spokesman, “Those who play with fire will perish by it.”

The motivation for Pelosi’s visit is the subject of confusion among analysts. In the midst of the war in Ukraine, it is unclear what the Democratic administration’s objectives are in heightening tensions with Beijing — an ally of Russia that has, thus far, pledged not to assist Putin’s offensive militarily. This is a new escalation with unknown consequences.

Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan’s capital Taipei is one stop on an Asian tour that includes Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan. It is the highest-level presence by a U.S. official in Taiwan for decades — since Newt Gingrich visited in 1997, when he was Speaker of the House. At that time, when China was much more fragile both economically and militarily as it proceeded through the destruction wrought by capitalist restoration, the Clinton administration had just hosted a visit by Lee Teng-hui, then Taiwan’s president. The People’s Republic considered that visit a departure from Washington’s “One China” policy: it provoked the so-called Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, in which China fired missiles into Taiwanese waters in retaliation. The U.S. government responded by staging the largest display of imperialist military might in Asia since the Vietnam War.

In a statement released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China’s government condemned Pelosi’s visit as “a serious violation” of the One China principle that “seriously infringes upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Prior to Pelosi’s arrival, the People’s Liberation Army staged air and sea maneuvers in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, along with military exercises in other coastal areas. The danger of military skirmishes prompted the U.S. Air Force plane carrying Pelosi and her delegation to change course, abandoning its previous route from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei and instead taking a wide detour across Borneo and the Philippines.

Hours earlier, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused the United States of “hollowing out” its One China policy, under which it recognizes Beijing’s view that Taiwan is part of China. He stated further that the trip “will only make people of all countries see more clearly that the United States is the biggest destroyer of peace today.”

China received immediate support from Russia even before Pelosi arrived. In apparent reciprocity for Beijing’s tacit support for Putin’s reactionary invasion of Ukraine, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, “Everything about this tour and [Pelosi’s] possible visit to Taiwan is purely provocative.” The Ostankino television tower in Moscow lit up with a message saying, “China, we are with you!”

In recent weeks, the White House sent conflicting signals as rumors of Pelosi’s visit made headlines. The press zealously reported that Joe Biden had sent several senior officials, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan, to try to convince her not to travel to Taiwan. Biden also recently said that the U.S. military did not think the visit was “a good idea right now,” although Defense Department officials indicated that General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had merely laid out the scenarios that might arise around her visit. No less curiously, though, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby warned China not to turn a possible visit to Taiwan into a “pretext to increase aggressive military activity in or around the Taiwan Strait.”

This may reflect real disagreements at the top of the U.S. government — something that cannot be ruled out. This is especially possible given the pressure of the upcoming midterm elections on Democrats: they will likely lose their legislative majority to Trump’s Republicans as they compete over whose rhetoric against Beijing is most vociferous. The posture of the United States in the face of Chinese threats exerts a strong influence on the political campaign of both Republicans and Democrats. Despite Biden’s continuation of the aggressive posture inherited from Trump, the president is seen as insufficiently firm when it comes to conducting the policy of competition-cooperation-confrontation with China. Biden has even come under criticism for alleged softness in dealing with Moscow over the Ukraine war, despite leading NATO’s logistical command and military interference (absent any troops on the ground) on behalf of the Ukrainian army. Despite the Pentagon’s warnings, Biden recognizes that he could not simply back down in the face of Xi’s explicit warning, which would show Washington in a defensive position vis-à-vis the Asian power, and could be read as encouraging the plans of the People’s Republic to take military action to incorporate the island back into the mainland.

But even given the almost certain fissures within the establishment, there is — as the old adage goes — a method to the madness. The bipartisan imperialist regime, and especially Joe Biden, are undergoing domestic challenges, and it is traditional to use foreign policy for mitigation, as an escape valve. The U.S. economy contracted by 0.2 percent in the second quarter of 2022, and two consecutive quarterly contractions technically falls within the definition of economic recession (in the first quarter, the economy contracted by 0.4 percent). The inflation rate in the United States, driven in part by the effects of the war in Ukraine, rose to 9.1 percent this year, the highest since 1981 — forcing the Federal Reserve to raise the official interest rate by 0.75 percent twice in a row. That constitutes a direct attack on the purchasing power of millions of workers and people in the U.S. middle class.

Already, diminishing real wages and terrible working conditions in the post-pandemic period — despite a stable level of employment — has led a new generation of young workers to fight for unionization in big companies such as Amazon and Starbucks. Strikes have also emerged in strategic sectors such as aviation, with a shutdown by Boeing workers. This situation will likely worsen in 2023, especially with plans and proposals by economists across a broad spectrum of the establishment, from Fed chairman Jay Powell to Nobel Prize winner and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, to “solve” inflation by freezing wages and increasing the unemployment rate.

China’s economy also slowed in the second quarter, affected by Covid-19 lockdowns in several cities across the country. It grew by 0.4 percent, according to official data, far short of the 0.9 or 1 percent growth experts predicted for this period. 

It is possible that these two factors act in combination. 

To these, a third element must be added, one that is important to Taiwan’s destiny. This November, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will hold its 20th Congress, where Xi will be enthroned in an unprecedented third term as president (possibly paving the way for a government for life). Since 2013, the policy of the People’s Republic has become openly more aggressive against Taiwan. In 2019, Xi declared that the island’s incorporation will happen one way or another, stating, “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures.”). He did the same in 2021 during the CCP’s 100th-anniversary celebration, where he stated that unification with Taiwan is a “historic mission and an unshakable commitment” of the Party.

Taiwan is the crown jewel of Southeast Asia. China has considered the island an integral part of its territory, not an autonomous nation, since the end of the 1946–49 Civil War, in which the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek led the anti-Communist Kuomintang to migrate to the island. While Taiwan is today led by President Tsai Ing-wen (of the bourgeois People’s Democratic Party, who is known as an independence extremist), the unification of Taiwan is an important part of the Chinese nation’s rejuvenation plan. There are two central reasons for this: it would provide direct access to the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean (which China does not have); and it has an advanced technological infrastructure, with the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Taiwan producing the world’s most valuable next-generation semiconductors. The United States, which has just passed legislation boosting U.S. semiconductor manufacturing companies, rejects any prospect of China seizing the technological-industrial structure responsible for supplying 70 percent of the world’s next-generation microchips. Pelosi’s trip to Taipei is a blunt signal against Chinese intentions before the 20th CCP Congress.

Biden turned up the heat over Taiwan during his first visit to Asia as commander-in-chief in May. Asked whether the United States would get involved militarily were China to attack Taiwan, after refusing to send troops to Ukraine to counter the Russian invasion, he affirmed that it was a commitment he had made.

China’s Foreign Ministry attacked Biden almost immediately after these comments, despite White House officials saying that U.S. policy had not changed. “China,” said a ministry spokesman, “has no room for compromise or concession” on key concerns, including Taiwan, and would take firm action to defend its security interests.

None of this makes the Pelosi visit any less risky for imperialism, and there are controversies over what its results may be. Thomas Friedman, a leading columnist for the Democratic Party-linked New York Times, called Pelosi’s visit “utterly reckless, dangerous, and irresponsible.” The main risk he sees is giving China a reason to change its stance of passive support for Russia, thus pitting two military powers at the same time against Washington’s policy in Europe.

There are moments in international relations when you need to keep your eyes on the prize. Today that prize is crystal clear: We must ensure that Ukraine is able, at a minimum, to blunt — and, at a maximum, reverse — Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion, which if it succeeds will pose a direct threat to the stability of the whole European Union.

To help create the greatest possibility of Ukraine reversing Putin’s invasion, Biden and his national security adviser Jake Sullivan held a series of very tough meetings with China’s leadership, imploring Beijing not to enter the Ukraine conflict by providing military assistance to Russia — and particularly now, when Putin’s arsenal has been diminished by five months of grinding war.

Biden, according to a senior U.S. official, personally told President Xi Jinping that if China entered the war in Ukraine on Russia’s side, Beijing would be risking access to its two most important export markets — the United States and the European Union. …

By all indications, U.S. officials tell me, China has responded by not providing military aid to Putin — at a time when the U.S. and NATO have been giving Ukraine intelligence support and a significant number of advanced weapons that have done serious damage to the military of Russia, China’s ostensible ally.

While Friedman wonders why the United States would “risk a conflict with China over Taiwan, provoked by an arbitrary and frivolous visit by the speaker of the House,” the Trumpist Wall Street Journal — taking advantage of the Democrats’ vices — asserts that Pelosi’s “largely symbolic visit … isn’t a good reason to trigger a U.S.-China confrontation.” However, the Journal continues, retaliation by Beijing suggests that it’s time to modify U.S. understanding of the One China policy. 

Taiwan has already become a dangerous U.S.-China flashpoint. For 50 years the mutual understanding has been that China will wait for peaceful reunification while the U.S. recognizes one China and is ambiguous about defending Taiwan. That is no longer holding. Mr. Xi wants to unify China on his presidential watch, and Beijing’s rhetoric and its military posture are increasingly belligerent. …

If China abandons its pledge of peaceful reunification — which it has made in diplomatic communiques over the decades — that would be cause for the Biden Administration to change official U.S. policy to make clear that the U.S. will defend Taiwan.

It may be difficult to escape the escalation of this situation. The immediate consequence is already a new round of more aggressive military exercises by China in the Taiwan Strait, possibly with the participation of Russian forces.

In his book China’s New Foreign Policy,1Tilman Pradt, China’s New Foreign Policy: Military Modernisation, Multilateralism, and the “China Threat” (London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Tilman Pradt describes the nearly annual regularity in which China and Russia conduct joint naval exercises over a wide swath of Asian territory, even involving the South and East China Seas — exercises dominated by anti-submarine and air defense operations. Commenting on the July 2021 joint military exercise on the outskirts of Taiwan, Song Zhongping, a former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) instructor, said that the exercises — while only a small part of an actual operation to take over Taiwan — further enhanced the PLA’s combat capability and reflected China’s growing confidence in implementing a holistic military mission (i.e., of landing, invading, and retaining island control).

“Deterrence cannot solve problems, only concrete actions can work to defend Beijing’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Song said.

Today’s disputes are exacerbated against a backdrop of an inflationary economic crisis affecting nearly the entire globe, which has spurred acute political crises in various regimes, and has even led to the fall of governments in some central imperialist countries (such as Boris Johnson in the UK and Mario Draghi in Italy). The crisis has also incited uprisings in Sri Lanka, Panama, and Ecuador; anti-hunger demonstrations in several African countries, including Ghana, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, and South Africa; and workers’ struggles, including strikes with broad popular support in Britain and the strikes by dockworkers and at airports in Germany. With the addition of heightened U.S.-China tensions, the global situation is quickly becoming a powder keg.

First published in Portuguese on August 2 in Esquerda Diário.

Translation by Scott Cooper. The original article has been slightly modified to reflect our publication after Pelosi’s departure (the original was published soon after her arrival in Taiwan).

Notes

Notes
1 Tilman Pradt, China’s New Foreign Policy: Military Modernisation, Multilateralism, and the “China Threat” (London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
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