“The Dragon’s quest for destiny leads it to rarified heights,
To the Wise One, it was ordained that the Dragon shall go astray.”
– “Elephant On The High Himalayas” by Col RS Sidhu
“In the international arena, perceptions do matter in influencing strategic and geopolitical thoughts and actions of nations, as the context is invariably set by the dominant geopolitical power.” – Col RS Sidhu.
The Joe Biden Presidency in the U.S., touted as one of the weakest of the century gave itself a simultaneous double boost on 2 August 2022. First, it announced the killing of Al Qaeda head Ayman al Zawahiri by a U.S. drone strike in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, conducted earlier on 31 July 2022. Second, it ensured the safe arrival of U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Taiwan, ignoring publicly announced threats of real-time military retaliation by China.
The first time that U.S. and China jointly starred on the world stage was during their mutual ping pong diplomacy bonhomie of 1972, heralding the latter being brought in from the cold into the full comity of nations. Half a century later, on 2 August 2022, the two superpowers were jointly the cynosure of all eyes again, but for different reasons, with their militaries arrayed against each other across the Taiwan Strait. The world wears nervous and even apprehensive looks as they indulge in brinkmanship over Taiwan that has the potential of developing into a nuclear conflagration, reminiscent of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis between the nuclear-armed U.S. and Russia.
This standoff occurs at one of the most geopolitically and economically inopportune times for the world. There is a latent danger of the Ukraine quagmire escalating into a direct conflict between the U.S.-led NATO and Russia on the one hand. On the other, the world economy is already on the brink of a serious recession due to the economic fallout of the conflict.
The weak U.S.-led response by Western bloc countries to Russian military intervention in Ukraine has cast great doubt on its capability, even willingness, to support weaker countries facing threats from China in the East Asia region. This perception of geopolitical weakness and strategic overreach of the U.S. is influencing the small island countries of the Indo-Pacific Ocean region to fall under the sway of the Chinese sphere of influence. The Pacific Ocean has always provided a buffer to the U.S. mainland from the West. The spread of Chinese influence in the Pacific Ocean region is therefore looked at by its strategic establishment as a looming threat to the security of the U.S. mainland.
Geostrategic Significance of Taiwan
China’s access to the open waters of the Pacific Ocean is currently threatened, North to South, by the island territories of South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Of these nations, Taiwan is the most vulnerable to threats from China. Taiwan is separated from the Chinese mainland by the narrow 130-kilometre-wide Taiwan Strait. It is relatively isolated internationally owing to its weak sovereign position and not being a member of the U.N. China contests its claims to sovereignty. With demonstrated proclivity of China to unilaterally extend its dominion over maritime regions to its East, as is being witnessed in the South China Sea, it’s a matter of time that China adopts the same principles to extend its sway further into the Pacific Ocean region, once it takes over Taiwan.
Contesting China at its doorstep across Taiwan, an unsinkable aircraft carrier, so to say, enables the U.S. to not only pose a latent threat to the mainland of China but also best showcases its resolve to prevent the island nations of Indo Pacific region from succumbing to Chinese pressure.
Prelude to the Visit of Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan
In 1979 U.S. implemented a One China policy by recognising the Beijing regime as a legitimate sovereign entity of all of China. Simultaneously, it withdrew its recognition from Taiwan and closed its embassy in Taipei. An American Institute was created in Taiwan as a non-governmental organisation to serve as the de facto consular service provider on behalf of the U.S. government. It was a glaringly open diplomatic subterfuge.
Prior to the visit of Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, Newt Gingrich, as the U.S. Speaker, had visited Taiwan in 1997. Chinese criticism of that visit was informally fended off as not having the official approval of the then Democrat Party Bill Clinton led U.S. Executive, while Newt Gingrich, a Republican, headed the Legislature body autonomous from U.S. Executive. U.S. legislators, too, have frequently visited Taiwan on official visits.
On 24 February 2022, Russia launched a ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine, which is still ongoing. China’s open support to Russia has been critical to mitigating the adverse impacts of the retaliatory economic sanctions by the US-led Western bloc. Despite long-term inimical interests, a joint front of Russia and China is a decisive challenge to the established world economic order, which is the linchpin of the Western bloc geopolitical supremacy.
On 14 April 2022, a bipartisan group of six U.S. Congress members visited Taiwan. Bob Menendez, Chairman of the powerful U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was also part of this U.S. delegation. The visit also had publicly voiced support of the U.S. Executive.
Deciphering the Changed U.S. Stance on Taiwan
The announcement of the visit of Nancy Pelosi, US Speaker, to Taiwan, by her office led to two significant developments. It invited an extreme official response from China with a direct threat of military retaliation. The U.S. Executive unusually released a recommendation of its military advising against the visit.
Under these unusual circumstances, the eventual visit of the U.S. Speaker to Taiwan on 2 August 2022 has global ramifications. There is no denying that the visit has the tacit backing of the U.S. Executive. Nancy Pelosi is a strong backer of Joe Biden’s Presidency, and the visit has full bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress. The official stance of the U.S. Executive that the U.S. Speaker is autonomous from the U.S. Executive may be taken as a mere fig leaf for diplomatic consumption.
The operative part of the official statement from the office of the U.S. Speaker on the visit is itself quite instructive. “Our discussions with Taiwan leadership will focus on reaffirming our support for our partner and on promoting our shared interests,” she said, adding that her visit is one of several Congressional delegations to Taiwan. She said it does not contradict the longstanding United States policy, which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, and U.S.-China Joint Communiques and the Six Assurances. The U.S. continues to reject unilateral attempts to alter the status quo, she added.
The official statement from the office of the U.S. Speaker on the visit, her meeting with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, and her address to the Taiwan Legislative Yuan, despite fierce Chinese resistance, openly showcase to the international comity of nations U.S. determination to back Taiwan against forced annexation by China and actively block the spread of Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
The U.S. has resolved its dilemma, imposed by the Ukraine conflict, of prioritising Europe or its proclaimed policy of ‘Pivot to the East.
Countering China is its priority. Unlike in the Ukraine conflict, the U.S. has proactively and unequivocally thrown the gauntlet at China in East Asia. This is further reinforced through the joint statement by Foreign Ministers of G7 countries counselling restraint to China.
Before proceeding further, it is preferable first to understand two truisms of China’s internal power structure and strategic mindset.
First, the interest of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its continued grip on China’s governance structure reign supreme. The CCP considers its armed forces the biggest safeguard against the internal threat to its rule while silently acknowledging the contradiction of the same military being the biggest existential threat to their continuity in power. CCP has resolved this dilemma by exercising supreme control over the Chinese armed forces. Therefore the primary responsibility of the Chinese military is to safeguard the political hierarchy from its own people, and safeguarding the borders from external threats is secondary.
Hence, their Joint warfare command and control structures, vital for the success of overseas military operations, are hampered by a lack of executive authority and political controls. This stultifies their decision-action matrix in a dynamically volatile situation such as presented by the visit of the U.S. Speaker to Taiwan.
Second, China’s strategic thought propounded by their famous theorists is all about indirect battle. To win the war without fighting is, to them, the acme of military leadership. The Chinese strategy is heavily premised on gaining psychological ascendancy over the opponent’s mind by inducing the latter to think China is invincible. Hence psychological warfare to instil shock and awe in the opponent’s minds and sap their will to fight is a key strategy for China.
China’s very opening gambit of threatening a grave military response to the visit of U.S. Speaker to Taiwan is a strategic blunder, as it leaves no space for a strategic manoeuvre. U.S. Speaker’s visit is over, and China has not been able to deliver on its public threat of military action. No matter the severity of military action, if any, China undertakes to post the visit. The damage to its geopolitical standing for the foreseeable future is irretrievable.
What shall be the most galling for China’s leadership is that Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has stood firm against all Chinese threats. Overall, China’s propaganda-induced myth of being a world power capable of challenging U.S. dominance lies exposed. The Chinese leadership is finally the victim of the success of its propaganda, an unmitigated fiasco of its geopolitical miscalculations.
Likely Geopolitical Impact
While individually, the 82-year-old Nancy Pelosi comes out as the strongest leader from this episode, as it was her safety which was at stake; at one stroke, it has enabled the weak-looking POTUS to regain lost ground geopolitically for the country.
Just two months earlier, the Russian and Chinese nuclear-capable strategic bomber aircrafts had undertaken a joint air patrol very close to the air defense identification zone of South Korea and Japan, necessitating scrambling of Japanese air force fighter aircraft, even when the U.S. President and other leaders of the Quad countries were present in Japan for joint deliberations. This symbolic, unheard-of, deliberately provocative act had set off alarm bells worldwide.
With Russia mired in the Ukraine conflict, an isolated China is now being challenged in its front yard by the U.S. This will adversely impact Chinese attempts at establishing its footprint in the island nations in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as further marginalise its influence in ASEAN countries.
China’s attempts at escalating the military situation in Taiwan, post-Nancy Pelosi visit, will be heavily cautioned by anticipated retaliatory economic sanctions by the U.S. Chinese economy, despite the orchestrated hype, is in deep trouble facing the widespread collapse of its provincial banking infrastructure and the massive sub-prime mortgage crisis in its housing sector. With an already sub-performing economy, such sanctions may act as the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Conversely, the event has placed the leadership of China on the horns of an action dilemma. Losing face on a global stage is a mortal sin in East Asian culture. The 20th CCP Congress is around the corner, where the decision to accord an unprecedented third term to the current leadership is due to be taken. It puts enormous pressure on Xi Jinping to take judicious action that satisfies the internal nationalist constituency without imperilling its fragile economy.
There shall also be an impact on the China-Russia combined power dynamics, which post-Ukraine had become heavily biased in favour of China. It will further spur them to speed up their joint strategy to marginalise the U.S. grip on global financial institutions.
The contest for global supremacy between the U.S.-led established world order and the joint challenge by China and Russia is well underway.