Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan: An ominous sign of how the superpower rivalry could play out

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This could lead to an unimaginable catastrophe that the world cannot afford

Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi speaks with Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu before boarding a plane at Taipei Songshan Airport in Taipei, Taiwan , August 3, 2022. PHOTO: Reuters

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Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi speaks with Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu before boarding a plane at Taipei Songshan Airport in Taipei, Taiwan , August 3, 2022. PHOTO: Reuters

The Taipei government claims to rule all of China, including the mainland. Until 1971 he was a member of the United Nations reflecting exactly that. How did it happen? And what is behind the current showdown between the two superpowers? And how could the rivalry play out? A recap of the story might help us understand some things.

The first recorded Chinese expedition to the Taiwan Islands, across the 170 km Taiwan Strait, dates back to AD 239. The Yuan Emperors (1206-1368) placed the P’eng-hu Islands under the control of the China. In the 17th century, the Qing dynasty established Beijing’s hold on Taiwan. In 1895, they lost the First Sino-Japanese War and ceded Taiwan to Japan. After World War II, China took over the island in 1945.

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Meanwhile, in Beijing, Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist party, the Kuomintang, and Mao Zedong’s Communist Party were engaged in a bitter struggle. In 1949 Chiang lost and fled to Taiwan, forming his own government in Taipei, with a claim to all of China. The communists took control of Beijing. This status remains so to this day.

Until China became a power to be reckoned with, Taiwan enjoyed wide international recognition as the Republic of China (ROC), with the active support of the United States. In 1971, Beijing won enough votes in the United Nations General Assembly to oust the ROC as China’s representative. The following year, US President Nixon visited Beijing and signed the Shanghai Communique accepting the Beijing government as the sole legal government for all of China, with Taiwan as a province. But American acceptance of Beijing’s position on Taiwan was only a tactical maneuver to counter the Soviet Union with a rising China, without actually changing its policy.

Slowly, China opened up to foreign trade and investment and implemented free market reforms in 1979, becoming the fastest growing economy in the world. Real annual growth in its gross domestic product (GDP) averaged 9.5% through 2018, the fastest sustained expansion of a major economy in history. It has become the largest merchandise trading partner of the United States, the largest source of imports, and the third largest export market for the United States. China has also become the largest foreign holder of US Treasuries.

Militarily, China was still weak. Although much stronger than Taiwan, US military superiority halted any drastic action by Beijing. Since the 1950s, several crises have erupted in the Taiwan Strait, the first in 1954-1955 and the second in 1958. Both were limited in scale and fought over smaller islands. In both cases, US military intervention led to Beijing’s withdrawal. Then, in 1995, another crisis developed that made Beijing realize that Washington’s acceptance of the one-China policy was just eyewash.

President Clinton granted Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui a visa to visit the United States. Furious, China recalled its ambassador to the United States, canceled a meeting of defense ministers and tested six missiles in waters about 150 km from Taiwan. The following year, ahead of Taiwan’s presidential election in March, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) mobilized 100,000 troops in Fujian province, facing Taiwan across the strait. He also tested missiles just 30 km off the coast of Taiwan. The United States responded with a major show of force and deployed several aircraft carriers. Eventually, the elections in Taiwan went as planned and the crisis dissipated thanks to US military maneuvers.

The crisis of 1995-96 and the Gulf War in 1991 demonstrated America’s global military might. Chinese leaders marveled at its sophistication and technological superiority. Alarmed, he began to modernize the PLA. The next impetus came when President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. He launched the “Chinese Dream” to restore China’s great power status and pushed for military reforms so it could “fight and win” world wars by 2049.

Xi’s more assertive power projection with higher military spending and ambitious Belt and Road projects has alerted Washington. In 2015, President Barack Obama embarked on a power shift towards Asia. Containing China became a major political issue as the United States deepened its alliances with Australia, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, and increased defense cooperation with India, Australia and Japan. In December 2017, a US national security strategy declared the rise of China a military threat, launching a China containment policy that Trump and Biden are pursuing. Taiwan plays a major role in this policy as it is part of the “first island chain” to deter any potential military ambitions from Beijing. Until now, the Americans maintained a status quo and its “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan. But that seems to have changed, as President Biden recently clarified to reporters. Does this show that Washington is now preparing to confront Beijing?

Nancy Pelosi’s recent high-profile visit to Taiwan is a heavy-handed action that further stokes tensions, which could have serious ramifications, including all-out war. There are many in Washington and the Pentagon who are advocating just that. Let us not forget that, in the 1990s, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) advocated for a war in Iraq and obtained it. Now, another Washington DC-based think tank, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), is doing just that by predicting China’s invasion of Taiwan. He also advocates for more armaments for Taiwan, further reinforcement of US bases and the formation of new defense alliances in the region. These are worrying signs.

For Beijing, Taiwan is an unfinished business. For Washington, it maintains its superior superpower position, which it cannot afford to lose. But the world cannot afford another war which could be far greater than any other in history.

Dr. Sayed Ahmed is a consulting engineer and CEO of Bayside Analytix, a technology-focused strategy and management consulting firm.


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