Immediately after the announcement that US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would visit Taiwan during her Asia tour, the complex relationship between China, Taiwan and the United States resurfaced. China warned the US that it would pay the price for this visit. Beijing and Moscow, which are allegedly bound by friendship with “no limits”, responded similarly by describing Pelosi’s visit as a provocation. Nevertheless, Pelosi was greeted enthusiastically by Taiwanese officials but not before Chinese Su-35 fighter jets crossed the straits, causing a great stir. Pelosi’s subsequent meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen recalled the liberal remnants of post-Cold War American foreign policy discourse. The Speaker vowed to support democracy in the self-ruled island.
On the eve of the visit, some speculated that this move was the signal of a new Cold War. Others went to the extent of saying that such a step represented the opening salvo of another world war. Ultimately, such an interpretation is an exaggeration. Pelosi’s Taiwan visit represents the apex of America’s “testing the waters” that we have seen often from the Biden administration. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing warned the US to stop playing the “Taiwan card” to contain China. Claiming that such a visit has the potential to ignite a war is ludicrous, especially given the current military power gap between the two countries. However, in this regard, it is useful to underline three key points regarding how recent tensions in the Indo-Pacific region can be understood.
For a start, the traditional American foreign policy of strategic ambiguity since the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act is becoming unequivocally old-fashioned in today’s multi-polar world. This policy should be evaluated in the very context of the bipolar international order in which China was not seen as an economic peer or political competitor for the US at that time.
However, things have changed radically since those days. The China-Taiwan-US conundrum, which should be evaluated in the context of the world’s multi-polarity, becomes more understandable with the moves to return to power politics. The US now seems to understand that China has increased its economic and military power to the extent that it will be able to challenge American supremacy regionally and then internationally. This awakening, which gave its first signals with the trade wars under the Trump administration, now continues with the containment of China today, just as the latter pointed out in the official statement on Pelosi’s visit.
For China, taking the Russia-Ukraine war as a learning process to make up for its deficits, there is still time to confront the US militarily. Unless statements such as “It will pay the price” are not backed by actions, China will not be able to go beyond bluffing the world about Taiwan. This is precisely why China has just fired ballistic missiles and deployed warplanes and warships in its largest-ever military exercises around the island. The J-20 stealth fighter jet, H-6K bomber, J-11 fighter jet, Type 052D destroyer, Type 056A corvette and DF-11 short-range ballistic missile are among the weapons used in the drills, according to the state-backed Global Times.
Moreover, we have good reason to suggest that Taiwan is more than just an island. The Communist Party of China (CPC), the founding and sole party in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), has built a narrative of sacrosanctity towards Taiwan. Since 1949, the CPC has systematically indoctrinated the Chinese people with the idea that Taiwan is China’s largest island and forms an integral whole with the mainland. Although there is little place for nationalist zeal in the world of realpolitik, it is a factor not to be ignored. Realist strategies can gain momentum when combined with nationalist fervour. For an actor on the path of regional hegemony, realist power politics and nationalism going hand in hand would undoubtedly mean a more assertive and aggressive China in the region.
Assessing this impact of nationalism combined with realist strategies helps us to refute one of the common misunderstandings that equate the China-Taiwan relationship with the one between Russia and Ukraine. In the former, nationalism acts as a push factor and empowers realist power politics towards Taiwan, which is seen unconditionally as its own inalienable territory by China. However, in the latter, Russia’s approach is towards a country which has already had its sovereignty recognised internationally for more than three decades. While some roots of Russian behaviour, such as imperial sentiments, for example, are said to be influential, this seems a minor factor vis-à-vis other causes of Russia’s policy towards Ukraine. In the China-Taiwan relationship, nationalism is a reinforcing factor, if not a decisive one.
Finally, like nationalism, economic factors are equally important, if not more influential. We cannot analyse China’s behaviour towards Taiwan independently of its economic significance. The future of China’s economic growth will be shaped by high-tech rather than export-based strategies that have long been assisted by cheap labour. In the 21st century, the way to compete with the strong American economy on a global scale is by manufacturing high-tech products, semiconductors, microchips and suchlike, and investing in software development. It has become obvious that conventional growth strategies are reaching the end of their journey.
The relevance of this aspect in the Sino-Taiwan relationship is that Taiwan is one of the global leaders in this high-tech market (semiconductors and microchips), and the US wants to be the major client of the Taiwanese market to forestall the growing Chinese economy as early as possible. Taiwan’s leading semiconductor-making capabilities on which China so relies heavily, therefore, act as another push factor that impels Beijing to act assertively and aggressively in the region.
It will take more than Pelosi’s visit to untangle the China-Taiwan-US puzzle. Meanwhile, other questions remain unanswered. Who, for example, other than war-weary Russia, would ally itself with China for a potential invasion of Taiwan?
At a time when strategic ambiguity is reaching its limits, we hear the footfall of great power politics again. Time will tell us how China’s foreign policy vision, reinforced by nationalist sentiments and economic concerns, will take shape. As China’s military exercises in the Taiwan Strait continue and the quest for alliances persists, the dark spots in the Indo-Pacific puzzle will hopefully become more apparent. In Hegel’s famous words, “The Owl of Minerva flies only at dusk.”
This article originally appeared in the opinion section of the website Middle East Monitor.