Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Taiwan tensions: How serious could the US-China standoff ...

Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Taiwan tensions: How serious could the US-China standoff get?

In this episode of Worldview, we examine the aftermath of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and what India’s reaction should be

The past week saw a dramatic scale up in tensions in the Taiwan Strait- after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went ahead with the visit of the congressional delegation to Taipei- to meet the leadership and many civil society representatives in the island.

The visit went ahead despite several warnings from China that this would destabilize the region, and even a disavowal of the trip from the US government, that said Ms. Pelosi’s plans were not helpful, and even this appeal from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who said humanity is one miscalculation away from annihilation

Why was the visit so controversial for Beijing?

1. The Speaker is a high ranking US official- comes third in precedence after the US President and Vice President – and a visit to the self-governed island that the US doesn’t formally recognise, but supports, is significant

2. The Pelosi visit came 25 years after the last visit by a US speaker, Newt Gingrich to Taiwan in 1997

3. Unlike Gingrich who was a Republican Speaker in a Democrat Administration, Pelosi belongs to the ruling Democratic party, making it diffcult for the Biden administration to distance itself from her decisions

4. Another red rag: Pelosi is an avid supporter of Tibetan rights, has visited the Dalai Lama often. She has publicly called out China on every human rights issue from Tianenman square to Tibet and Xinjiag.

In the Washington Post this week, Pelosi spelt out her rationale.

5. Pelosi’s visit comes on the back of Biden administration’s renewed energy in the Indo-Pacific in the past few months, the launch of IPEF, Blue Pacific Partnership, AUKUS, and invitation to Indo-Pacific allies at NATO conference like Australia, Japan, New Zealand.

No surprise that China’s response was ballistic, quite literally:

1. After issuing a series of threats, it announced military exercises that came closer to the Taiwan straits than they have in 25 years.

2. Nearly 30 Chinese military aircraft entered Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) on Tuesday, the day Pelosi landed

3. From August 2-6, China is conducting military drills at 6 locations that encircle Taiwan, in what military analysts call “blockade exercises”, testing its ability to surround Taiwan in case of more hostilities

4. China launched the biggest such Missile Drill since 1997- Japan’s defense minister said five missiles fired by China landed in Tokyo’s Exclusive Economic Zone off Hateruma island 5. China announced economic sanctions against Taiwan, banning import of Taiwanese goods from about 100 exporters, although this wouldn’t make a dent in the bilateral trade of $32 Billion.

6. Beijing went into diplomatic overdrive as well- summoning the US ambassador, issuing strong statements from every embassy, including Delhi, and garnering a number of statements in support, including from India’s neighbourhood: where Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and even the Taliban affirmed the One China policy, called for peace and criticised the provocations

7. Above all, China stressed the One China principle, that the world must stand by its recognition of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)- ruled by the CCP in Beijing, not the Taiwanese Republic of China (ROC)- which only a handful of countries recognise.

In an edition of Worldview in 2021, we had looked at some of this history.

Brief history of Taiwan

– Beijing controlled Formosa or Taiwan until 1895, when it gave up the island to Japan in the first Sino-Japanese war.

– In 1945 China’s Nationalist forces or Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai Shek, that ruled China reclaimed the island after Japan lost the 2nd world war

– In 1949, however China’s Communist party led by Mao Zedong took Beijing and the rest of China in the People’s revolution, while Chiang Kai Shek’s forces took refuge in Taiwan. The UN, US, and other countries continued to recognise ROC not PRC for decades, while India and many other countries recognised the PRC, and the One China principle.

– In 1971, as US-China relations thawed, the UN expelled the ROC and replaced it with the PRC. However even as the US affirmed the one China policy in 1979, it passed the Taiwan Relations act- which meant the US would continue to help Taiwan defend itself, spending billions of dollars each year and selling weapons to Taipei.

– In 1987, Taiwan began a democratisation process,and held a president election in 1996- arguably this has set it up as a counterpoint to the Chinese system and increased the distance between Taipei and Beijing.

– In 1954, 1958 and then 1996, China and Taiwanese forces actually saw military action between them- these were called the First, Second, and Third Taiwan Strait Crisis.

In fact, after a period of 25 years of relative calm- it is clear that US-China tensions over Taiwan are on the rise, but also, the possibility of Chinese action to either contain or take control of Taiwan is rising, and US fears have doubled after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. President Xi Jinping said in 2021 reunification with Taiwan must be fulfilled, albeit he has said this will occur peacefully.

Let’s go across to Beijing, The Hindu’s Correspondent Ananth Krishnan has been covering events:

How does the current situation compare to past Taiwan Strait Crises?

What makes this Taiwan crisis different from previous crisis that we have seen in the eyes of people here in Beijing is that they feel this is going to have a lasting, permanent impact on the status quo around the Taiwan Strait.

We have seen that in terms of the military exercises that China has been carrying out since Thursday which have been unprecedented in scale. For the first time, you have had conventional missiles that have flown over the island of Taiwan, flown out from the Eastern coast of China into the waters, into the east of Taiwan for the first time. As well as the deployment of a range of aircrafts across the median of the Taiwan Strait also for the first time. The message from Beijing is that some of these exercises including what has taken place within 12 nautical miles of Taiwan coast, what Taiwan would consider to be it’s territorial waters, that these maybe here to stay. That these essential blockades that we are seeing for the last four days as a result of these exercises are a message from Beijing being that should it feel inclined to do so in the future it could similarly blockade Taiwan’s airspace and waters. So, one big difference from this crisis atleast from the messaging we are seeing from Beijing is that it will have a permanent, lasting impact on the security situation in the Taiwan Strait to a degree we have not seen previously.

With the Pelosi visit crossing a 25yr line for the US, what is China’s likely next response, especially given the Party Congress ahead?

We have so far seen two kinds of measures from China- military measures and economic measures. The military measures are of course these unprecedented security drills that we have seen carried out pretty much surrounding the island of Taiwan. What is interesting is that the economic measures have been very modest. They have been limited to banning about 100 exporters from Taiwan, mainly of agricultural products, fruits or fish, curtailing Chinese export of sand to Taiwan.

These will have very little impact on the bilateral trade between China and Taiwan which is robust or, in fact, it would have very little impact on Taiwan’s economy. This goes to show that the domestic difficulties in China, in terms of China’s economy which only grew under 1% in the second quarter of this year. They are going to fail to meet their annual 5% target in 2022. This goes to show that China is not really in a position right now to inflict real economic pain on Taiwan. Also, reminds us that China is on a bit of a sticky wicket. They are forced to take these military measures to send a signal not just to Taiwan but essentially to their domestic audience which these week has been asking uncomfortable questions to the Chinese leadership saying if they issued all these public warnings to deter Nancy Pelosi why did they fail and why did she go. This just goes to show that having played up their warnings to Nancy Pelosi, they are now in a situation where they have to act unless questions will be asked of their credibility of their response within China as well.

Indian reaction– and possible reaction to more such provocations and reactions in the Taiwan Strait- which is informed by a number of factors:

1. India’s relations with the Taiwanese polity and business has been growing since 1996, and then in 2011 when it signed the Double Tax Avoidance Treaty. India-Taiwan trade has grown from $2bn in 2005 to about $6 bn in 2020, and is now exploring semi conductor collaborations.

2. India’s trade relations with China are gigantic in comparison: From less than $20 billion in 2005 to $130 bn last year, but strategically, relations have been strained for a number of reasons- which has had an impact on India’s articulation of the One-China policy

3. After 2008, when Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh and comments on Jammu Kashmir grew- including renaming of Arunachal villages, issuing stapled visas to Indian citizens from JK and Arunachal, the government decided not to change policy, but to stop referencing it in Joint resolutions and statements.

4. However, India still follows the One China principle, given its own sensitivities on territorial integrity, at several multilateral fora- One example is the World Health Assembly, where despite statements from G-7, other Quad partners and requests from Taipei, New Delhi did not back an observership for Taiwan

5. In recent times, India has also made no statements on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has been reticent about Myanmar junta’s coup, and after a year out of Afghanistan, has now re-opened its mission in Kabul. This suggests that India’s reaction to military action by China may be muted.

6. Even in the case of Chinese PLA transgressions at the Line of Actual Control- India’s official line has been restrained- The PM and government have insisted Chinese troops havent crossed into Indian territory- in an effort to resolve the situation diplomatically.

Given the political posturing, it is clear that US-China tensions will be on a slow boil with some eruptions for the foreseeable future. The question is, can a world already weighed down by economic distress, the continuing Covid pandemic, energy and food shortages resulting from the Russia Ukraine invasion and western sanctions, really afford another conflict at this time?

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