China’s determination to take control of Taiwan is often cited as one of the likeliest causes of World War Three – a conflict which, it is widely accepted, could even end human civilisation altogether.
Chinese President Xi Jinping warned in advance that the Speaker of the US House of Representatives was “playing with fire” with her planned visit to Taiwan.
Nancy Pelosi duly went ahead anyway.
She was cheered by crowds and praised by Taiwanese Prime Minister Tsai-Ing Wen on Wednesday for her “ironclad” commitment to defending democracy on the island.
She then continued her tour in other Asian countries, while the consequences of her visit are only just hotting up.
On the economic front, China has already banned the import of fruit and fish from Taiwanese sources.
The Chinese government pre-announced that from Thursday it would conduct “live fire” military exercises in five areas of sea around Taiwan, including in what Taiwan claims as its territorial waters, as close as ten miles off the island’s coast.
China has warned all ships and planes to stay out of the area, but the possibility cannot be ruled out that bystanders will be hit, followed by demands for retaliation.
Over the next few tense days and weeks, it remains to be seen whether Mrs Pelosi’s visit, beyond being a provocation to the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC), will actually inflame the decades-long stand-off over the future of the island.
Decades of threats over Taiwan
The split between Taiwan and mainland China dates back to the Second Word War. The defeated Japanese handed Taiwan back to the non-communist government of the Republic of China in 1945. But that government itself was in retreat from the communist takeover. By 1949 it had been pushed back onto the island of Taiwan – roughly 100 miles off the mainland.
Taiwan has prospered as a capitalist democracy, with a highly educated population of some twenty million people.
In the strategic struggle between the superpowers, it is more valuable than ever, because its Semiconductor Manufacturing Company is the dominant supplier globally of high-end computer chips.
Taiwan was treated by the west as the legitimate representative of all of China, until 1971 when, as part of the “Nixon in China” opening of relations, UN Resolution 2758 recognized the PRC as “the only legitimate representative of China” and the PRC became a permanent member of the Security Council alongside the US, UK, USSR and France.
The status of Taiwan was unresolved except for various verbal commitments to help the island defend its de facto, but not de jure, independence from the communist PRC.
The PRC has never abandoned its insistence that Taiwan is a breakaway part of the nation which should legitimately be incorporated into its territory. There have been numerous threats and low level confrontations with Chinese forces over the decades especially in the Taiwan Straits separating the two countries.
There is concern now that the Chinese actions and exercises being taken in response to Pelosi’s visit could be harsher and more prolonged than any seen previously, coming close to a temporary blockade.
So far the Taiwanese people appear to be taking it all in their stride, less fearful that the situation will escalate catastrophically than outside observers.
Read more on Taiwan:
Why is Nancy Pelosi’s visit so controversial?
US is “playing with fire” and “will get burnt”
Why tensions are rising now
There is no doubt that the rhetoric and apparent threat of an armed invasion by China have increased recently.
Xi Jinping is about to hold a meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee confirming that he can stay on as president for life beyond two terms in office.
Nationalism has become central to his campaign to stay in power as China has struggled with COVID and a stalling economy.
Xi went beyond the careful language of his predecessors to state officially that “unification must be fulfilled” and soon, because the Taiwan issue “cannot be passed down from generation to generation”.
The West has responded by upping military co-operation in the region. NATO recently held a joint meeting with Japan and South Korea. The US, UK and Australia are participants in the controversial AUKUS project, so Australia can build up a nuclear submarine capability. The new British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth and a strike carrier group were deployed last year to the South China Sea in spite of warnings from China.
This only amounts to gestures of defiance. In practice, nations worried about China still want to keep their position on Taiwan ambiguous.
President Biden rowed back from saying “Yes” to the use of US forces in response to a Chinese invasion. The White House did not endorse Mrs Pelosi’s visit pointing out that Congress is an independent branch of government. The president’s inability to control the behaviour of one of the most senior office holders in his Democrat Party drew criticism at home and abroad.
Lessons from the Ukraine crisis
To some, including Mrs Pelosi, the cautious approach taken to Taiwan is reminiscent of the attitude adopted, ineffectively, in the face of Russian threats against Ukraine.
The British Foreign Secretary was one who drew a parallel.
“There is always a tendency of wishful thinking to think that more bad things won’t happen and to wait until it’s too late,” Liz Truss said in June. “We should have been supplying the defensive weapons into Ukraine earlier. We need to learn that lesson for Taiwan.”
But now that she is front runner to become Prime Minister her campaign has clarified that this was not a suggestion that the UK should help arm Taiwan.
Boris Johnson was similarly evasive on the extent of Britain’s commitment to Taiwan, when challenged in the Commons by former Prime Minister Theresa May.
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Why Pelosi is acting now
Nancy Pelosi is running out of time.
Throughout her four decades in public life, representing California on the Pacific coast, she has been a champion of human rights and a strong critic of China including over Tibet, Hong Kong, the Uyghurs, and Taiwan.
The Speaker is third in line to be president and she wanted to make her point with the full weight of her current office.
She may well not be Speaker after November’s mid-term elections, when the Republicans are expected to replace the Democrats as the majority party in the House. Aged 82, she has also said she wants to wind down her leadership role soon.
Nancy Pelosi may have been indulging in gesture politics at the end of a long career but she has highlighted a moral and geopolitical quandary over Taiwan which may be about to drastically reshape the lives of rising generations around the world.