As the world watched Nancy Pelosi’s Spar19 flight fly from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei Songshan Airport, the weight of history bore down on the moment’s symbolism.
Taiwan is unique. The Island democracy has a special place in the hearts of the US foreign policy establishment. But the long arc of history has more signposts along the road than mere appreciations of Taiwan’s current geopolitical heft.
There is a regret within US foreign policy circles that goes back to the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s. As the interpretation of history suggests, President Harry S Truman’s administration had “lost China” by failing to provide sufficient support to Chiang Kei Shek and the nationalist forces against the Communist army. The sentiment that the US has “lost China” and allowed a communist state to rise in Asia still reverberates in many corners of the US foreign policy establishment.
The war in Korea brought back Taiwan into focus as Truman wanted to protect the Island nation from falling into PRC’s ambit. But the US maintained its relative distance from Taiwan under Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek because of the Martial Law and the types of ‘undemocratic’ politics that prevailed in Taipei until Generalissimo’s son Chiang Ching-kuo scrapped the Martial Law.
A long anti-China campaign
Pelosi understood the symbolism of the US’s support for Taiwan and Washington’s ‘hub and spoke’ security architecture in Asia. She has carried the weight of US foreign policy towards China for a long time.
In 1991, Pelosi unfurled a banner at Tiananmen Square along with US rep Ben Jones and John Miller — angering Beijing. Pelosi’s banner read, “To those who died for democracy in China”.
In 2008, when there were a series of protests in Tibet, Nancy Pelosi visited Dharamshala and met the Dalai Lama. Beijing was initially angry and promised to act. Instead, Beijing ended up inviting Pelosi to visit Tibet.
“If freedom loving people throughout the world do not speak out against China’s oppression and China and Tibet, we have lost all moral authority to speak on behalf of human rights anywhere in the world,” Pelosi had said in Dharamshala during her 2008 visit.
Pelosi led a rare trip to Tibet in 2015, the first since the large-scale protest in 2008.
There was a period after 2008 when Beijing had turned ‘progressive’ under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, and Pelosi met several high-ranking PRC officials. Times have changed. China’s new politics under Xi Jinping has turned the tide, and Pelosi carries the weight of US foreign policy in Asia – a burden of course correction.
Pelosi has articulated the reason behind her trip by saying, “The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has ramped up patrols of bombers, fighter jets and surveillance aircraft near and even over Taiwan’s air defence zone, leading the US Defense Department to conclude that China’s army is ‘likely preparing for a contingency to unify Taiwan with the PRC by force”.
Beijing believes the US is eroding the consensus between PRC and the US under Three Joint Communiqués, six assurances and what China calls the ‘one-China principle’.
The US administration disagrees with Beijing’s diagnosis of the current state of US policy towards Taiwan.
“Our visit — one of several congressional delegations to the island — in no way contradicts the long-standing one-China policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the U.S.-China Joint Communiques and the Six Assurances,” wrote Pelosi in her op-ed in Washington Post.
The US subscribes to a one-China policy and maintains official ties with Beijing without declaring Taiwan as part of the PRC – a managed ambiguity by Washington.
Despite reassurances by Biden in the recent call with Xi, Beijing is unlikely to buy Washington’s word currently.
But is Pelosi visiting Taipei a mere symbolic reassurance to Taiwan and its new place as a beacon of democracy? Not really.
Pelosi’s visit came at a time when the US Senate deliberated the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 which was introduced by Senator Robert Menendez. The Bill adds to Beijing’s concerns about Taiwan preparing to declare independence in the future.
The Act will include $4.5 billion in Foreign Military Financing appropriations for Taiwan over four years and $2 billion in foreign military financing and loan guarantee authority. The Taiwan Policy Act will designate Taiwan as a major non-NATO ally, which would facilitate the security assurances that Washington is planning to offer Taipei.
The Act includes a Comprehensive Training Programme providing Taiwan with training to improve its defence capabilities.
Diplomatically, the Taiwan de facto embassy in the US will be renamed as “Taiwan Representative Office” from the current “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office”. Though symbolic, the diplomatic piece will elevate Taiwan’s status and be perceived as a major challenge for Beijing. The US representative as the director of the American Institute, the de facto embassy in Taipei, would require Senate confirmation under the new Act.
US Committee Chair Bob Menendez will lead the business session at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to discuss the Taiwan Policy Act as Pelosi meets Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen. Taiwanese people feel overjoyed by US’ assurances both in policy and practice.
The Cold War shadow
Sceptics have raised questions about the overall gain from Pelosi’s visit. In response to the visit, Beijing has announced major military sea exercises in the sea and airspaces of the northern, southwestern, and southeastern Taiwan Islands.
The failure at turning the People’s Republic of China into a ‘liberal democracy’ has brought back the long shadow of the Cold War and the US’ entrenchment in Asia.
“Our delegation came to Taiwan to make unequivocally clear we will not abandon Taiwan, and we are proud of our enduring friendship,” Pelosi wrote in her op-ed for Washington Post about the visit.
Pelosi has carried the weight of history with elegance. In the geopolitical chess game, Beijing is still a professional heavy weight – it will respond.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)