The US-China standoff over House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s provocative visit to Taiwan can be compared with the conflict between the US and Russia over Ukraine. There are similarities as well as differences between the two episodes.
Both conflicts began with the US using a State on the border of a rival power to pose a direct security threat to the latter. It was Ukraine in the case of rival Russia, and Taiwan in the case of China. Both moves had the ultimate aim of bringing about a regime change. In the case of Russia, it was the overthrow of Vladimir Putin and in the case of China it is the ouster of Xi Jinping and the Communist Party from power.
But there are crucial differences between the two conflicts. In the case of the conflict with Russia, the allies of the US in Europe support the US decision to militarily aid Ukraine and apply sanctions against Russia. But in the case of the conflict with China, the allies of the US in Asia appear to be wary about provoking China. They fear that war will adversely affect the economic progress of South East Asia and the Far East.
While in the case of the standoff over Ukraine, the US has unstinted domestic support, in the case of the one over Taiwan, it is lacking in this critical department. Russia and China, in contrast, enjoy full domestic support for their stand on the conflict.
America’s liberals are not on board with Pelosi. Nor is the Biden Administration (along with the military), though it said that the Speaker had the right to go wherever she wanted to go. The liberals consider Pelosi’s trip ill-advised at this juncture.
With the US being relatively weaker on the issue of Taiwan, a full-scale war comparable to the one now going on in Ukraine appears unlikely. What might happen is the ushering in of a long period of high tension in the Taiwan Strait causing anxiety in South East Asia and the Far East, with unintended adverse repercussions for the region’s economic growth.
The conflict with Russia over Ukraine began with the US nudging Ukraine to join NATO thus bringing the anti-Russian military pact to the very doorstep of Russia and directly threatening it. An earlier agreement not to do this was broken by NATO and Ukraine. This provoked Russia to invade Ukraine to subdue it, if not absorb it. In the case of Taiwan, the US had been blowing hot and cold on the time-honoured ‘One China’ policy. In the Trump era, the US openly adopted the goal of liberating China from the clutches of the Communist Party and its leader Xi Jinping. There have also been moves to set up Taiwan against China by arming the former to the teeth.
In the recent past, Beijing had become very anxious about the possibility of the US abandoning the ‘One China’ policy and other countries following suit. Chinese envoys began to seek assurances from several governments that they would stick to the ‘One China’ policy.
Matters came to a head when Nancy Pelosi (82), a senior US Democratic politician, House Speaker, second-in-line for succession to the US Presidency and a known hawk on China, decided to visit Taiwan to boost its morale visa-a-vis China.
However, there are reasons to think that war as such is not on the cards. There is no consensus in the US on the Pelosi visit. A vocal liberal section comprising the New York Times and the Washington Post in the US and The Guardian in the UK consider Pelosi’s move ill-advised and even reckless. Principally, President Biden was not supportive of the visit, saying that the US military did not think the time was right.
Writing in New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman warned: “Nothing good will come of the visit”, he said and added: “Taiwan will not be more secure or more prosperous as a result of this purely symbolic visit, and a lot of bad things could happen. These include a Chinese military response that could result in the US being plunged into indirect conflicts with a nuclear-armed Russia and a nuclear-armed China at the same time. And if you think our European allies — who are facing an existential war with Russia over Ukraine — will join us if there is a US conflict with China over Taiwan, triggered by this unnecessary visit, you are badly misreading the world.”
According to Friedman, the US should instead have spent energy and time to dissuade China from giving military aid to Russia at this juncture, when Russia’s arsenal is getting depleted. The US could have controlled a belligerent China better by threatening to deny it access to two of its most important export markets, namely, the US and EU. Lastly, Freidman said,“ It makes no sense for the US to seek a two-front war against two nuclear powers.”
US commentators also point out that by creating tension over Taiwan, Washington may actually be helping Xi Jinping to divert his people’s attention from domestic problems like slow GDP growth, high domestic debt and the strict pandemic containment protocols. The US may well be paving the way for another Presidential term for Xi later this year.
Allies in Asia
Southeast Asia feels the strain of living in the shadow of the US-China rivalry, reports say. Southeast Asian governments on Wednesday urged China and the US to hold back from ‘provocative actions’.
Indonesia expressed grave concern about the ‘increasing rivalry among major powers,’ without naming the US and China. “If not managed well, it may lead to open conflict and disrupt peace and stability, including in the Taiwan Strait. The world is in dire need of wisdom and responsibilities of all leaders to ensure peace and stability are maintained,” Benar News reported.
In Bangkok, Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “We do not wish to see any actions that would aggravate tensions and undermine peace and stability in the region. We hope that all parties concerned will exercise utmost restraint, abide by international law, principles of respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and resolve their differences through peaceful means.”
Malaysia’s Foreign Minister said his government wanted to ensure peace, stability and prosperity in the region as officials in Kuala Lumpur sought to maintain good relations with their counterparts in Beijing and Washington.
“We’ve put a lot of value in both the U.S. and China when it comes to trade and technology in the region and we want to be friends to both,” Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said from Phnom Penh, where foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) were assembling for the ASEAN Regional Forum Meeting.
A top ASEAN official told Benar News that the Taiwan situation “could destabilise the region and eventually lead to miscalculation, a serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences among major powers.”
Cambodia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar and Vietnam reaffirmed support for the ‘One China’ policy while also calling for peace and stability in the region.
By P.K. Balachandran