The World Around Us
August 5, 2022
Geopolitical Fault-lines Widen over Taiwan

Last week, I wrote that “the world’s largest geopolitical fault lines exist between the United States (US) and China.” This point has been further emphasized this week with the visit to Taiwan by the United States (US) House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. The Speaker visited Taiwan on August 2, as part of a tour of Asia.

Pelosi’s visit has been heavily criticised by Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping, who in a call with US President Joe Biden last month, warned America that “whoever plays with fire will get burnt.” China sees Taiwan as a breakaway province that must become a part of the country and typically takes exception to high profile visits as is the case with Pelosi’s.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Pelosi defended her trip to Taiwan and among other things, stated that the “visit should be seen as an unequivocal statement that America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, as it defends itself and its freedom.” China, on the other hand, considers it the most provocative move so far from the US during President Xi Jinping’s rule. 

According to the Washington Post’s Editorial Board in its 2nd August editorial, “What we do not comprehend is her (Pelosi’s) insistence on demonstrating her support in this way, at this time, despite warnings — from a president of her own party — that the geopolitical situation is already unsettled enough.”

Persons close to the Biden Administration have been calling for a measured response from China. However, history may give some insights into China’s likely response. In the 1995-1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis, which lasted eight months and two days, China fired missiles off Taiwan in retaliation for a visit by Taiwan’s then president to Cornell University in the US. Tensions did not ease until after the then Clinton Administration mounted a significant deterrent naval deployment. China ultimately backed off.

However, since the last cross-straits crisis, China has strengthened its military and become more assertive. Meanwhile, America’s own appetite for direct foreign interventions may have decreased. America’s official policy of strategic ambiguity regarding direct military support for Taiwan also leaves uncertain exactly what the US would do if China attacked Taiwan.

Already, China has vowed to surround Taiwan with live-fire drills in response to Pelosi’s visit and several media have shown images of Chinese warships encircling the island in a manner which could attack it from the east, south, west and north. In a deterrent mode, President Biden has deployed a carrier group east of Taiwan.

The world is now presented with the alarming prospect of having to contend with two major crises – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Writing in the Guardian, Helen Davidson and Chi Hui Lin contend that “for the US or China to back down would be an enormous loss of face.” This makes the prospects of an escalation or miscalculation on either side the more probable.

If anything, even if one can agree with US show of support for Taiwan, Pelosi’s visit is perhaps ill-timed. Should China choose to impose a military blockade around Taiwan, the consequences would be dire not only for the self-ruled island, but also for the global economy.

According to Politico, “The show of force from Beijing is an unambiguous signal to the international community of how easily China could impose an effective trade stranglehold round the democratic island, which is a [sic] crucial to global supply chains because of its advanced microchip production.”

Some American experts are suggesting that an economic retaliatory act by China is much more likely than a military one over Speaker Pelosi’s Taiwan visit. However, given the billions of dollars in trade and investment between the two, and the fact that China needs stability to aid its continued economic development, especially since a recent slowdown, Beijing may seek to limit any economic retaliation.

The other saving grace is that neither of the US or China may have the will to fight a war over Taiwan at this time.
One can only hope that cool heads would prevail and that both a war and an economic response would be avoided. There is already enough trouble in the world.

Joel K Richards is a Vincentian national living and working in Europe in the field of international trade and development.
Email: [email protected]