Time to tone down Taiwan tensions

Time to tone down Taiwan tensions

It was a picture-perfect shot, really. That was my thought when I saw US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi standing side by side with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei last Wednesday. But the one-day visit to the self-ruled island by the 82-year-old American politician has created no end of tension, not only for the US and China but also many of their allies across the Asia Pacific region.

Ms Pelosi, second in the line of presidential succession behind Vice President Kamala Harris, is the highest-ranking US representative to visit Taiwan since 1997 when Newt Gingrich, then the House speaker, was there. But what bothers Chinese leaders is that Ms Pelosi is a well-known China hawk, having frequently accused Beijing of human rights abuses and commented on Tibet.

Her visit went ahead despite warnings from various organs of the Chinese Communist Party, the foreign and defence ministries and the Standing Committee of the rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress. Her visit, they warned, would "push Taiwan into the abyss of disaster and bring deep misfortune" to its people.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, in a phone call with US President Joe Biden on July 28, declared ominously that Washington should not "play with fire". Speaking with reporters earlier, Mr Biden admitted that his own military advisers thought Ms Pelosi's trip was a bad idea.

It didn't take Beijing long to produce a dramatic response. On Thursday it began live-fire drills in four locations just outside Taiwanese maritime territory -- essentially amounting to a blockade in Taipei's view. Many shipping lines and airlines have cancelled or rerouted services in the area, compounding the impact. China has also banned imports of some food items from Taiwan and exports of sand for the construction industry.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which couldn't produce an agreement on how to push Myanmar into adopting a crisis resolution plan, on Thursday urged all sides to de-escalate tension over Taiwan. Foreign ministers meeting in Phnom Penh warned that volatility caused by tensions in the Taiwan Strait could lead to "miscalculation, serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences among major powers".

I agree with some analysts' view that China's responses to Ms Pelosi's visit were an overreaction, probably because Beijing thought her presence was an endorsement of Taiwan's decades-old de facto independence.

In recent years, Beijing has dramatically intensified tensions with Taiwan including ramping up air patrols near and even over the island's air defence zone. The mainland is also squeezing Taiwan economically, pressuring global corporations to cut ties and intimidating countries that cooperate with the island.

But since the beginning of this year, a number of American political figures have visited the island in a show of support. They include a group of nonpartisan Congress members, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and former defence secretary Mark Esper.

The timing of Ms Pelosi's Asian tour, which also included South Korea and Japan, needs to be seen in a wider context. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has deepened the sense of urgency in the US, as China's military might is growing while Beijing has effectively crushed the democracy movement in Hong Kong.

"America's solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy," Ms Pelosi said in Taipei. This is a fairly normal thing for a democratically elected lawmaker to say when visiting another democratic country.

In any case, the Biden administration has clearly stated that Washington's "One China" policy is unchanged, meaning it acknowledges Beijing's position that Taiwan is part of China.

On the other hand, if Ms Pelosi had backed down and dropped Taiwan from her itinerary out of concern that it might upset Beijing, it wouldn't have done her reputation or that of her country any good.

For now, it is a hopeful sign for the world and Asia that Mr Biden and Mr Xi continue to have constructive conversations. Such talks help to forestall accidental collisions and deepen understanding.

The US and China should exercise careful judgement in reaching a compromise on Taiwan, as well as their political and economic rivalries and other global challenges. Hopefully, a face-to-face meeting between the two leaders can take place at an appropriate time and that efforts to avoid a clash will bear fruit.

Nareerat Wiriyapong

Acting Asia Focus Editor

Acting Asia Focus Editor

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