US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan can be analysed from various angles: her longstanding campaign against China’s suppression of human freedoms, its conduct in the western Pacific, its challenge to US global power, Taiwan as a vital part of the first island chain that curbs China’s maritime expansionism, the critical importance of its semi-conductor industry, giving confidence to its East Asian allies about US commitment to the security of the region, the credibility of its Indo-Pacific strategy and, not the least, to warn China against taking advantage of the conflict in Europe to apply military pressure on Taiwan in pursuance of its reunification agenda.
It would not be entirely right to treat Pelosi’s Taiwan visit as her personal initiative, as an extension of her long record of targeting China on human rights issues, in particular her support for the Dalai Lama and Tibetan rights. The separation of powers in the US can be cited to explain why the US government could not stop this visit, even if it was considered ill-advised and ill-timed. On the other hand, experience shows that the Executive and the Congress often work together to achieve policy goals in situations where the former wants to generate pressure on a country without it being seen as a US government initiative with a view to creating more elbow room for bilateral diplomacy.
Given her adversarial relationship with Donald Trump, were he in power, Pelosi’s visit could be construed as a defiant initiative, but with the Democrats in power it is difficult to imagine that she would be impervious to counsel that her visit at this juncture would be counterproductive. One can only speculate whether all that has appeared in the news about the Biden Administration trying to discourage this visit is true or is narrative management.
Nevertheless, it does appear that the debate in the US around the opportuneness of Pelosi’s visit has only drawn more attention to a certain disarray in US policymaking. To let it be known that Secretary of State Antony Blinken, NSA Jake Sullivan and the Pentagon were against the visit, and the nail-biting suspense over whether Pelosi would eventually visit Taiwan or not, the announcement of her itinerary that excluded Taiwan, the fears expressed about China’s reaction, even a military riposte that might include shooting down her plane by the Chinese, and her arrival by a circuitous route at night, all showed a jittery US that is cognisant of China’s new strength.
President Joe Biden’s long conversation with President Xi Jinping during which he sought to assure the latter that there was no fundamental change in US policy towards Taiwan, and the latter’s warning that those who played with fire would end up being burnt themselves, shows the changing balance of power between the US and China.
The doubts and debate in the US about Pelosi’s visit and the warmongering rhetoric from China against it put both countries in an untenable situation. Faced with Chinese warnings the US could not afford to retreat without losing credibility with allies and partners about its determination to stand up to China and provide the security cover they expect from it, besides eroding the concept of the Indo-Pacific and raising doubts about the raison d’être of the Quad.
America has cast the confrontation with both Russia and China as one between democracies and autocracies in the context of preserving a rules-based world order. The cutting edge testing ground of this confrontation is effectively between authoritarian China and democratic Taiwan. Unlike Ukraine, whose democratic credentials are suspect, Taiwan is a functioning democracy, which makes it all the more important that it is not allowed to be overwhelmed by CCP’s China. Taiwan, it needs recalling, was invited by Biden to the Summit for Democracy in December 2021.
Pelosi announced in advance of her visit that it was intended to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific region, underlining that America’s solidarity with Taiwan was more important than ever “as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy”. She echoed the US government’s standard line that the visit of her delegation did not in any way contradict the longstanding US policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, US-China Joint Communiques and the Six Assurances, adding that the US “continues to oppose unilateral efforts to change the status quo”.
China, in its protest, says Pelosi’s visit “seriously infringes China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”. Taiwan still has an international personality. It is a full member of the WTO, has FTAs with a few countries, even diplomatic relations with a handful of them. Beijing does not exercise de jure or de facto sovereignty over Taiwan. China ceded Taiwan to Japan in 1895. The US handed over Taiwan to China after Japan’s surrender in 1945 and Chiang Kai-shek took shelter after the communists took power in Beijing. It is therefore absurd to speak of Pelosi’s visit as violating CCP China’s “territorial integrity”.
That China was given the Republic of China’s (RoC) seat in the UN in 1971 constituted a political recognition that RoC without having any control over mainland China — the most populous country in the world — could no longer pragmatically represent the latter in the UN. It did not mean either that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) controlled RoC. The issue of representation in the UN was resolved but not the issue of sovereignty, which has been deliberately left ambiguous because of ground realities then and now. It is for PRC and RoC to decide what their relationship should be; the PRC cannot unilaterally decide this.
China is wrongly claiming that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory”, or that this was recognised by UNGA Resolution 2758 of 1971. That Resolution only clarified that the PRC was the only legitimate representative of China at the UN, that’s all. That the One-China principle “is a universal consensus of the international community and a basic norm in international relations”, as China’s protest claims, is Beijing’s self-serving propaganda.
Contrary to what its protest claims, it is China’s own response that “gravely undermines peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”, as is evident from the current Chinese military exercises all around Taiwan. These have raised international concerns, with the G7 countries reaffirming “their shared commitment to maintaining a rules-based international order, peace and stability across the Taiwan strait and beyond”. They have expressed concern at PRC’s “threatening actions”, particularly live-fire exercises which risk unnecessary escalation. They see “no justification” for China to use Pelosi’s visit “as pretext for aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait”, noting that “it is normal and routine for legislators from their countries to travel internationally”. The use of the word “internationally” is significant in the context of Chinese sovereignty claims over Taiwan.
Russia has called Pelosi’s visit a provocation and has expressed solidarity with China. This is understandable in the light of the close strategic ties developing between the two countries, with Russia at the receiving end of US policies over the Ukraine crisis. India’s position is different. In the case of Ukraine, we have resisted Western pressure to take sides against Russia in view of our longstanding friendly ties with Moscow, preserving which is in our national interest.
This consideration does not apply to the US-China rift in the context of our own relations with China. We are at the receiving end of Chinese provocations on the border and its continuing territorial claims on our country.
Sixteen rounds of negotiations between the two sides have not led China to undo its aggressive moves in Ladakh. It continues to build military infrastructure on its side of the LAC to further threaten our security. It is important for us that China’s extravagant and illegal territorial claims in various geographies are effectively countered. We should therefore find an appropriate language to express our concern at the developments in the Taiwan Strait, specifically mentioning that these are international waters, affirming freedom of navigation, advising against any escalation and advocating a constructive approach by all sides to resolve differences peacefully without any threat to use force.
Kanwal Sibal is former Indian Foreign Secretary. He was India’s Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.