China’s saber-rattling after Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit may encourage yet more nations to re-visit the ‘One China’ policy
The last time a United States (US) House Speaker visited Taiwan was in 1997, at which time Newt Gingrich’s trip to Taipei elicited the usual rhetoric from Beijing, but little else of note. That was a far cry from the threats, intimidation, and outright warmongering with which China responded to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit on 2-3 August. Such extreme reactions by Beijing this time around were a reflection not only of China’s considerably enhanced economic and military heft, but also of its propensity to challenge and disrupt the painstakingly evolved world order of which Beijing has itself been perhaps the greatest beneficiary. The Chinese response was also a clear sign of its insecurity and discomfiture over the significant show of US support for Taiwan that Pelosi’s visit represented. After arriving in Taiwan as the head of a US Congressional delegation on a tour of Asia that included stops in Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan, Pelosi asserted that her visit “honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant democracy”.
Pelosi’s Taiwan visit has exposed many chinks in China’s armor. Beijing’s angst against such US support stems from its controversial and disputed claim of full sovereignty over Taiwan, a democracy of over 23 million people located off the southeastern coast of mainland China, despite the fact that the two sides have been governed separately for more than seven decades. Also, while Beijing aggressively demands unwavering adherence to the ‘One China’ principle from the rest of the world, it itself has been guilty of violating international law and the territorial sovereignty of several countries and regions, whether they lie in East Asia, South East Asia, or even South Asia. Such duplicity had led many, including EFSAS, to question whether adhering to a ‘One China’ policy was any longer justified or wise. Commenting on India-China relations way back on 01-11-2019, EFSAS had argued that “India’s unreciprocated ‘One China Policy’ is strategically not sound”. An increasing number of experts are now suggesting similar questioning of the ‘One China’ policy by other democratic members of the international community.
Pelosi, in a Washington Post opinion piece that was released after she landed in Taipei, mentioned the US’ recognition of ‘One China’ but criticized Beijing for dramatically increasing tensions with Taiwan in recent years and for constantly violating the rule of law and human rights. She wrote, “In the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) accelerating aggression, our congressional delegation’s visit should be seen as an unequivocal statement that America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, as it defends itself and its freedom… The United States continues to oppose unilateral efforts to change the status quo. Our discussions with our Taiwanese partners will focus on reaffirming our support for the island and promoting our shared interests, including advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific region. America’s solidarity with Taiwan is more important today than ever — not only to the 23 million people of the island but also to millions of others oppressed and menaced by the PRC… Beijing’s abysmal human rights record and disregard for the rule of law continue, as President Xi Jinping tightens his grip on power. The CCP’s brutal crackdown against Hong Kong’s political freedoms and human rights — even arresting Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen — cast the promises of ‘one-country, two-systems’ into the dustbin. In Tibet, the CCP has long led a campaign to erase the Tibetan people’s language, culture, religion and identity. In Xinjiang, Beijing is perpetrating genocide against Muslim Uyghurs and other minorities. And throughout the mainland, the CCP continues to target and arrest activists, religious-freedom leaders and others who dare to defy the regime. We cannot stand by as the CCP proceeds to threaten Taiwan — and democracy itself. Indeed, we take this trip at a time when the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy”.
The shrillness of China’s threats and warnings not only to the US and Taiwan but to most other countries in the run-up to, during, and following Pelosi’s visit betrayed its fear and insecurity. In the run-up to the visit, China’s State-owned Global Times warned that Beijing “will see it as a provocative action permitted by the Biden administration” rather than a personal decision made by Pelosi. It added that the “Russia-Ukraine crisis has just let the world see the consequence of pushing a major power into a corner”. The report warned that “no one should underestimate China’s determination for its reunification and rejuvenation”, adding that China can now be expected to “steadily speed up its process of reunification and declare the end of US domination of the world order”. Global Times commentator Hu Xijin went to the extent of suggesting that China shoot Pelosi’s plane down. The Chinese government, meanwhile, was liberal with its hints that the visit would elicit a military response.
Indulging in such extreme and aggressive rhetoric in an effort to deter Pelosi’s visit left China with no choice but to engage in intense saber rattling once the visit began and China’s bluff was called by Taiwan and the US. With the Chinese people looking for answers to back up the aggressive statements of their leaders, Xi Jinping left himself with little option but to act. He launched a highly sophisticated military drill surrounding Taiwan in which Chinese ships and jets infringed upon Taiwanese territorial waters and the island’s airspace, and live Chinese ballistic missiles landed around Taiwan with one flying directly over it. The drill simulated a blockade and invasion of Taiwan, and some experts believe that in the process Beijing gave away much of its plans. As of today, the shockwaves from the highest-level US visit to Taiwan in a quarter century are still reverberating around the region days after Pelosi flew back to Washington. In an interview soon after her return to the US, Pelosi, while asserting that her Taiwan trip was “worth it”, described Chinese President Xi Jinping as “a scared bully”.
The reverberations of Pelosi’s visit were also felt in South Asia, where senior Chinese officials concentrated their energies on prising out reaffirmations of the ‘One China’ policy from the region’s governments. Foreign Minister Wang Yi raised the issue during his visit to Dhaka, and he praised Bangladesh’s historical commitment to ‘One China’. Other countries of the region such as Pakistan, China’s “all weather friend”, and Sri Lanka, which is heavily under Chinese debt and has been trapped in Beijing’s debt-trap diplomacy, also reaffirmed their commitment to the ‘One-China’ policy.
India, which is still stinging from what it views as Chinese betrayal and expansionism in the high Himalayas in 2020, has chosen not to comment at all on Pelosi’s Taiwan visit. The Indian media, quoting officials and experts, said that the decision not to issue a statement was a deliberate one as New Delhi sought to avoid controversy on a sensitive issue between the US and China. Also, India, unlike other countries in the region, has not referenced the ‘One China’ policy since 2010. A former Indian government official familiar with the matter said that in 2010, “We conveyed that if the Chinese side desired India to state the ‘One China’ policy, then it should respect a ‘One-India’ principle” too. Thus, while India is loathe to extend allegiance to the ‘One China’ policy, it also does not wish to cause a storm with China at a sensitive time in the ongoing border talks between the two countries.
India’s position on the matter did not prevent the Chinese Ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, from trying, though. In an interview to the Times of India, Weidong said, “It is hoped that India can honour the one-China principle, grasp the vicious political intention behind Pelosi’s visit and the serious harms of the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist force”. Claiming that the ‘One China’ principle was a “universal consensus of the international community” and the foundation of China’s bilateral relations with other countries, including India, Ambassador Weidong warned that “It is the core of China’s interests and a red line and bottom line that cannot be crossed”. The envoy added that he “hoped that the Indian side can understand and support China’s efforts to defend its sovereignty, security and development interests, and work together with the Chinese side to promote a healthy and steady development of China-India relations”.
These Chinese efforts to pressure India on the ‘One China’ issue were not well received in New Delhi. Kanwal Sibal, India’s former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Russia, described the Chinese Ambassador’s remarks as extraordinary. He said, “It is extraordinary he should say this after China has violated all previous border agreements, attempted unilaterally to alter the Line of Actual Control (LAC), massed thousands of troops on our border, continues to build military infrastructure to threaten our security and continues to claim large parts of our territory. That he should not be conscious of the absurdity of his position demonstrates China’s sense of entitlement as it grows stronger economically and militarily that it expects others to accept China’s positions without it accepting any reciprocal commitments. What is even more absurd is that he calls such support as the foundation of China’s relations with India. This is new, because since 1954 it was the principles enshrined in the Panchsheel agreement that governed India-China relations”.
Sibal added, “As is happens, the Chinese ambassador has put us at a disadvantage by cautioning us in advance against India making any statement on Taiwan that displeases China. China has described Nancy Pelosi’s visit as reckless, irresponsible and extremely irrational. All these adjectives could apply more appropriately to China’s response. Pelosi’s visit was political in nature, to express US solidarity with Taiwan in the face of Chinese threats. Taiwan is in no position to threaten China militarily, much less invade it. Her visit did not pose any military threat to China whose response has been unabashedly military in nature. China has conducted military exercises encircling Taiwan, launched missiles, put in action fighter aircraft and drones and crossed the median line with the intention to intimidate Taiwan and signal to the US its capacity and readiness to achieve reunification by force if required”.
Sibal also made the pertinent point that “China’s claim that Pelosi’s visit violates its sovereignty and territorial integrity has no political or legal basis. China may have sovereign claims over Taiwan, as it has over features in the South China and East China Seas, as well as over land belonging to India and Bhutan. But that does not make these claims legitimate. Invoking territorial integrity assumes that Taiwan is an integral part of China. If that were the case, Taiwan would not have an international personality, issue its own passports, be a WTO member, have FTAs with a handful of countries as well as diplomatic relations. Setting up trade offices in Taiwan, as India has done, does not require Beijing’s approval. There is a need to challenge the Chinese narrative”. He further pointed out that while “China’s ambassador to the US loftily claims that Taiwan has been an inseparable part of China’s territory for 1,800 years, in 1895 Taiwan was ceded to Japan by the Chinese emperor. The Allies restored it to the Republic of China (RoC) in 1945, not the People’s Republic of China (PRC)”.
Similarly, the Deccan Herald underlined the ludicrousness of the Chinese envoy’s demands of India by arguing that his “call to India in this regard reveals China’s hypocritical approach to the idea of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Beijing expects India to respect China’s territorial integrity even as it shows scant regard for India’s. Not only has it intruded into India and sliced away large chunks of Indian territory over the decades, it has also explicitly supported Pakistani occupation of Indian territory. China accepted, and remains in control of, Shaksgam Valley, territory that is legally India’s but which Pakistan gifted to China. To add insult to injury, China is building projects on occupied territory belonging to India. Despite the many provocations, India has refrained from breaking with the ‘One China’ principle and establishing formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan”. Maybe the day is not far away when Chinese excesses will constrain it to choose to do so.
More than any other reason, the ‘One China’ concept is unraveling due to China’s own expansionist actions that often verge on being illegal. The example of India mentioned afore is not the only one. China has captured and tyrannized vast territories like Tibet and Xinjiang. It claims almost eighty percent of the South China Sea on spurious grounds, much to the consternation of littoral South East Asian nations. It has occupied and militarized disputed islands in the South China Sea. In recent years, the economic progress that China has achieved thanks mainly to its participation in the post Second World War international order has only encouraged it to persistently attack and challenge that very order.
Perhaps it is time that the boldness displayed by the US in exposing China over Taiwan and the reticence now visible in India towards endorsing ‘One China’ became the norm among the world’s other democracies that are keen on preserving the rules-based international order and ensuring that democracy prevails over autocracy in the battle that seems to now have begun in earnest.