THE ill-advised trip to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of US House of Representatives, showcased the deep-seated tensions and intensifying rivalry between the world’s two leading powers. It also revealed the mindsets of the leadership classes and the domestic politics of both nations.
Mrs Pelosi, a progressive, is admired by many, including this columnist. It is telling that the most vocal domestic support in the United States for her visit came from hawks in the Republican Party and the foreign policy establishment, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a strange political bedfellow for Mrs Pelosi.
A number of moderate Democrats and Republicans were more tepid or remained quiet as her controversial trip unfolded.
As President Biden publicly noted, the civilian and military leadership of the Pentagon was reportedly opposed to the visit at a time of considerable tension with the People’s Republic.
He understood that in the lead-up to President Xi Jinping’s intention to “secure a third term at the Chinese Communist Party’s national congress later this year”, that any provocation from the US was ill-timed and might play into the political calculation of the Chinese leader.
In the event, the Speaker appears to have handed the Chinese Communist Party a gift, demonstrating the unintended consequences of ill-conceived decisions, which often boomerang when not strategically planned and executed.
Her decision to go to Taiwan was described by various critics as “a vanity project” and “a last hurrah” as Speaker, with the Democrats likely to lose the House in the upcoming midterm elections in November.
New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman bluntly described her trip as “utterly reckless, dangerous and irresponsible”. He posited that the “purely symbolic” visit will make Taiwan less secure.
Bonnie Glaser is director of the Asia Programme at the German Marshall Fund, a US think tank. She posited on a Council on Foreign Relations podcast last week: “There has been a lack of clarity, consistency, a lack of discipline, shall we say, and even a lack of coherency, I think, in US policy statements.
“The Biden administration continues to say that the United States has a One China policy, that the United States does not support Taiwan independence, but then there are other things that the US does, which from China’s perspective and using their language, looks like we are slicing the salami.”
Glaser added: “So Speaker Pelosi going to Taiwan doesn’t really, I think, in and of itself cross a red line, but I think the Chinese see a slippery slope.”
Foreign policy mandarins and elites often misjudge and misinterpret the intentions and worldviews of the elites and mandarins of other countries. From Vietnam to the Iraq War, the US foreign policy establishment has had spectacular blunders and failures of intelligence and imagination.
Much of the inner workings of the Chinese government and the Communist Party are likely unknown and misunderstood by US foreign policy elites, especially elites who frame their judgments based on certain prejudices and blind spots – and a lack of historical knowledge and considerations.
Some in the US seem not to appreciate the internal political pressures and considerations under which President Xi must operate. Just as there is American nationalism and jingoism, there is similar nationalistic fervour in China.
Having been humiliated in its history by the West and Japan, China is sensitive to threats to its homeland and sovereignty, as any country, great or small, would be.
Weibo is a leading social media platform in China. During the debate on Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, the platform crashed with Chinese citizens asking why the government had not responded more fully to the trip, which many viewed as humiliating.
As The Guardian in the UK reported: “The discrepancy between Beijing’s words and actions had triggered the public’s fury. The Chinese people are not warmongers. They had simply been watching to see if their country was as powerful and determined to enforce its sovereignty as Beijing said it was. Later that day, Beijing announced the People’s Liberation Army would be undertaking an historic series of military exercises over several days.”
There are questions as to whether the response by the Chinese government was disproportionate. Whatever one’s judgment on this, the Pelosi trip needlessly inflamed tensions. “Disproportionate” is often in the eye of the beholder.
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is an expert on China. He is currently President and CEO of Asia Society and has been president of the Asia Society Policy Institute.
He believes Pelosi’s trip was a misjudgment. He argues for the need to maintain a certain status quo on Taiwan. He worries that the visit may have pushed the countries toward greater “potential conflict”.
Rudd, like other foreign policy experts, also argues for a sustained framework for the two countries to “manage strategic competition”. Needless stunts, like Pelosi’s trip, do not advance dialogue and peace. Her intention to demonstrate US strength and resolve may have backfired.
The 99-year-old former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who likely knows more about and understands China as well or better than any American foreign policy thinker, continues to warn the US foreign policy establishment about its needlessly bellicose approach to China.
China is a rival to the United States. But it need not be seen simplistically as an enemy, especially as many global economic, environmental, public health and other challenges will demand cooperation from China. The two super states need avenues for dialogue and cooperation not skirmishes which might lead to miscalculation.
The politically savvy Pelosi allowed her arrogance and the increasing bellicosity and hysteria in the US toward China to upend her judgment. Like many in Congress who are typically better at domestic rather than foreign policy, Mrs Pelosi belligerently waded into a foreign affairs matter she likely worsened.
The executive and legislative branches in the US are constitutionally coequal. Still, the executive, namely, the presidency is given more deference and has more power in foreign policy. The executive has increased its powers in this arena, though there is considerable debate about war powers.
Mrs Pelosi’s trip proved to be an unnecessary and unwelcome foreign policy and domestic politics problem for the White House. The Biden Administration and the US appeared incoherent and shambolic in its messaging on the visit.
David Stilwell, a former Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs explained: “By openly arguing among ourselves about Pelosi’s travel, we made the trip a public spectacle, forcing Beijing to react. Had we done the trip quietly, as we usually do, it would have generated none of the brinkmanship we’re seeing now.”
President Biden also had to contend with a domestic political balancing act: trying to appear strong in the face of domestic hawks; seeming not to interfere in the rights of Congress; and trying to ease tensions in a private two-hour conversation with President Xi.
A smart domestic political operator, Mrs Pelosi got the international politics mostly wrong, while distracting the US media and others from various domestic legislative successes by the Democrats in the lead-up to the midterms.
Mrs Pelosi has rightly faced down misogynists and bullies in the US But if this was the frame she was using to supposedly confront President Xi Jinping, she does not understand the moment nor grasp the wider historical context.
Her trip was not about a faceoff with President Xi. Long-term she will prove an inconsequential figure in US foreign policy. President Xi is already proving one of the more consequential Chinese leaders.
Moreover, the moment and the future are not simplistically a struggle between democracy and autocracy, as she and others have bellicosely thumped. China is a global power and an ancient civilization that is re-emerging.
And America’s rhetoric on democracy rings hollow given the brutal dictatorships it has historically supported, as well as its current alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Many will have differences with China in terms of certain values and its abysmal domestic human rights violations, including its treatment of the Uighurs.
Still, China is a global power that must be engaged and respected for the sake of realpolitik, the national interests of countries, small and larger and for the sake of global peace and strategic cooperation.