Speaker of the US House of Representative Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is not a casual stop during her tour of Asia. Despite the Biden administration’s supposed unease over it, the visit is, in fact, a calculated act of US state policy. However, her visit to Taiwan is part of a wider tour of Asia and slightly diminishes its significance because a visit specifically to Taiwan alone would have been a rather pointed act of provocation towards China.
It may be inferred Pelosi’s visit conveys to China US political support for Taiwan’s integrity at a time when American allies and adversaries, including China most of all, have wondered at the seriousness of the US commitment to engage in a direct military confrontation. In response, China has banned hundreds of Taiwanese exports and ordered a mobilisation to send a strong message of disapproval, forcing Taiwan to prepare for an invasion threat.
The renewed tensions over Taiwan are one fallout from the ill-advised US venture in Ukraine to curb Russia’s ability to play a major role in international relations by jeopardising the retaliatory potency of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, as a prominent and influential Democrat, seeks to affirm the readiness of US politicians to mobilise public support for military engagement over Taiwan should circumstances require.
In the uncertainty over China’s intentions over Taiwan, since the CCP is displaying growing belligerence on all fronts, the US needed to signal its national goals and intentions firmly. A setback in Taiwan would mark a historic setback for the US and underscore an overall strategic retreat in the face of its rival China. Taiwan is of major geopolitical and strategic significance because of its location and occupying the island would empower China’s naval strategy to a degree that would have a dismaying impact on all Asian nations of the West Pacific. The Sino-America struggle over Taiwan is a vivid illustration of the argument of American historian and naval officer Alfred Mahan: that command of the seas is the path to global power.
Taiwan is the biggest island in the archipelago between Japan and Southeast Asia, thirty times larger than Okinawa, where US forces are based, emphasising its significance for any power equation in the Pacific. If China gained control over Taiwan, the Chinese navy would be able to operate east of the first island chain separating it from the Pacific. It would be able to operate with hugely enhanced freedom in the ocean and thwart the ability of the US to control other nearby islands. Thus, the loss of Taiwan, peacefully or through force, would irretrievably change the balance of power in the Western Pacific. In addition, Taiwan is also valuable to the West as a technological and economic powerhouse, hosting a major global semiconductor hub the importance of which has been underlined by the recent global shortage.
An analyst has pointed out that the US strategy to deter an invasion of China has been to arm it. The US has sold 66 F-16V Viper multirole fighter aircraft to the country, augmenting it 140 F-16s. Other hardware, from M-1 tanks and Apache attack helicopters and missiles have also been sold to Taipei. An offer of the high technology fighter, the ‘jumpjet’ version of the F-35, would significantly improve the ability of Taiwan to protect its air bases from Chinese attack that would otherwise ground its fighters since these aircraft are invisible to radar.
The arming of Taiwan is a substitute for immediate US armed intervention in response to any Chinese military aggression against the island. This is a crucial issue because China is assessing the extent of US commitment to Taiwan since anti-war sentiment in the US is well known and arms transfers reduce the need for immediate US involvement by signalling Taiwanese capacity to resist. However, any Sino-American combat over Taiwan would especially be from the seas and the US navy retains the ability to inflict significant damage on any seaborne or aerial Chinese assault on Taiwan.
Some wider geopolitical calculations and regional issues affect the strategically critical Sino-American contest over Taiwan. A Sino-American condominium already exists in the Indo Pacific region and the ongoing maneuvering is about defining the contours of their respective spheres of influence. The idea that there is an unfinished agenda to determine which of the two countries will unilaterally dominate, to the exclusion of the other, is mistaken. A condominium has already come into existence and the prospect of total war to assure complete victory to either is anathema to both nuclear powers. The Chinese attempt to exercise jurisdictional monopoly over the South China Seas is an extension of the competition over Taiwan and impacts numerous countries of Southeast Asia.
China has been demonstrating its military ability to potentially exercise control over the South China Seas. But what it is failing to do is extract compliance from others in the region and beyond, who continue to defy Chinese assertions to sovereignty over the Indo China Seas through their own activities in territorial waters which they claim. In this context, Chinese naval activity in the adjacent Indian ocean, which poses a challenge to India’s comparatively modest navy is worthy of note. It underlines the vital significance of the Andaman Nicobar Islands and the possible danger that could be posed to Chinese international commerce that must traverse the narrow Malacca Straits, which is vulnerable to interruption.
In this context, the Sino-Indian border dispute has a role to play because China would ideally wish to avoid engagement on two fronts. While the US would not wish India to suffer a setback in any military confrontation with China, a Sino-Indian deadlock and continuing mutual mobilisation, rather than resolution of their dispute, is the preferred logical outcome for the US because it affects the Chinese calculus on Taiwan. Other countries impacted by any major conflict over Taiwan will likely assist the US but have every reason to be cautious because they would almost certainly be left holding the baby by the US in its aftermath. This is what happened to Cambodia and Laos, left devastated by the US at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
In a sense, India is in an unenviable situation because US goodwill and assistance on a number of levels, not least intelligence, is of great value, but its own room for manoeuvre is also limited. The US would opt for its favourite foreign policy pastime of attempting regime change if any Indian government appeared to be reaching an agreement with China.
The writer taught international political economy for more than two decades at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Views expressed are personal.
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