Accompanied by an official Congressional delegation, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, made a fiery trip to the Indo-Pacific region, stretching across Northeast (Japan, South Korea) and Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Singapore). The showstopper of her power-packed visit though was Taiwan.
Initial flip-flops regarding the visit were driven by apprehensions regarding China’s possible reaction, but undeterred by such repeated warnings, Pelosi went ahead with the trip on August 2-3.
A longtime critic of human rights violations in China and a supporter of Taiwan, Pelosi is seen as one of the key faces of America’s democratic values, at home and abroad. Naturally, her visit and interaction with the officials did not go down too well with the Chinese leadership, which started a live fire drill to show that Beijing can blockade the island nation.
Joe Biden had a telephonic conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping on July 28. While both sides extensively discussed Taiwan, they differed in their perception of the issue as well as the outcome they thought they had achieved. While China wants the US to not up the ante on Taiwan and consistently accuses America of violating the One-China policy, Washington believes Beijing is failing to respect Taiwan’s existence as a democracy and maintain the peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Despite China’s warnings and even Biden not being on board, Pelosi still went ahead with her Taiwan visit and was received with much fanfare. China must understand that the US foreign policy and the role of public institutions and public opinion in shaping it are not the exclusive domains of the US government.
Trapped in its own rhetoric, China had no option but to pledge retaliatory measures. China announced that it will conduct live fire military drills, joint air and sea exercises in the sea and air spaces of the northern, southwestern, and southeastern Taiwan islands, and blockade Taiwan. Keeping its word, China has sent more than 70 PLA aircraft and more than a dozen vessels to the Taiwan Strait with some even crossing the median line. In addition to sanctioning Pelosi, China has even refused to hold all institutional dialogues with the US, which also include critical issues such as defence policy coordination talks, phone calls between theatre command incharges, Maritime Military Consultation Agreement, and climate change dialogues. During the recent ASEAN ministerial meeting, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi didn’t meet US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Apparently, China-US relations are staring at a turbulent phase marked by strategic mistrust and anxiety.
Pelosi’s Taiwan visit completely outshined her visit to other Indo-Pacific countries. But then, what happened in Taiwan arguably also enhanced USA’s image among host countries, and reassured its allies and partners of its commitment to the Indo-Pacific especially to get more support for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), announced on the sidelines of the Quad leaders’ Summit in Tokyo.
In Japan, she met Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and Hiroyuki Hosoda, her Japanese counterpart. Equally important were her delegation’s trips to South Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia. China’s aggression in the region is already visible, not just in the Taiwan Strait but also in the South China Sea and with that the US’s countermeasures too. Ahead of Pelosi’s visit, the USS Ronald Reagan and her strike group were operational in the South China Sea after a visit to the Singapore port. While it was emphasised that the US aircraft carrier was on a routine patrol/FONOP, it coincided with the growing Chinese threats of action. What is noteworthy is that USS Ronald Reagan was operating in the South China Sea before making a call at the Singapore Port. Its return to the South China Sea has more to do with China’s warnings. Global Times also reported that “Chinese naval training flotilla – composed of Type 055 large destroyer Yan’an (Hull 106) and Type 054A guided missile frigate Xianning – conducted a realistic combat training in the waters of South China Sea to test weapons, equipment and combat readiness of the crew”.
In Singapore, Pelosi reaffirmed the US’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific. This was a much-needed assurance as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been most divided on how to approach the China-US rivalry. During her meetings in both Singapore and Malaysia, the focus was on the US’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region and strong partnerships with its members. This is a critical time for the US as it makes a re-entry in the region. It cannot afford to let the countries have doubts about its commitment to the Indo-Pacific. Pelosi clubbing her Taiwan visit with Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia indicates that these democracies figure prominently in the US Indo-Pacific strategy. Sensing their positive responses, the US is stepping up the engagement. In Southeast Asia, Malaysia, and Singapore (of course, in addition to Indonesia) are the safest bets when it comes to democratic yardsticks, which was the undercurrent of Pelosi’s visit to the region.
While Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and China’s potential response are attracting the maximum attention, it is important to analyse and assess her visit and the US’s policy in the wider Indo-Pacific region, especially in the context of China’s growing aggression towards Taiwan. ASEAN issued a statement on the cross-strait tensions and expressed its concerns regarding “…the international and regional volatility, especially in the recent development in the area adjacent with the ASEAN region, which could destabilise the region and eventually could lead to miscalculation, serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences among major powers”.
ASEAN’s concerns are valid. With China overreacting to Pelosi’s visit and sending dozens of aircraft and naval vessels and the US responding in equal measure by deploying more personnel and weaponry in Taiwan, the chances of an accidental war have gone up exponentially. As China scales up its retaliatory measures, the US and its allies will have no option but to spiral up the tensions.
That said, both China and the US must understand that cross-strait tensions are not just between China and Taiwan; they impact the entire Indo-Pacific region. Pelosi’s visit to the Indo-Pacific should have set the right tone for the US’s engagement there, had China not reacted this strongly. It is important for both China and the US to try to contribute towards defusing the tensions, not just for Taiwan but for the entire Indo-Pacific region. Nobody is ready for a war, and even if they are, none would be able to afford it. And that precisely should be the guiding principle for the cross-strait dynamics.
Dr Rahul Mishra is Director, Centre for ASEAN Regionalism (CARUM), and Senior Lecturer at the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya, where he heads the European Studies programme. He is a weekly columnist with Deutsche Welle, Germany. His latest publications include Asia and Europe in the 21st Century New Anxieties, New Opportunities (Routledge, 2021) and India’s Eastward Engagement from Antiquity to Act East Policy (SAGE, 2019). He tweets @rahulmishr_. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.