On top of Iris Hsueh’s list of concerns who lives in Taipei are COVID-19 restrictions, electricity prices, and the latest news on Taiwanese pop stars, if honest. Nowhere on that list is the proposed visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and possible Chinese backlash.
“Whether she comes or not, it won’t really change anything,” the 37-year-old saleswoman speculated. “I think China would think it was a provocation, but I also don’t think they would escalate any actual military behavior because of this.”
When asked what her circle of friends thought about the standoff, which prompted the deployment of a US aircraft carrier group to the Taiwan Strait and China for live-fire exercises on Saturday, Hsueh said realistically, “I don’t think they really care.”
With tensions erupting between the two superpowers – risking the region’s worst crisis in a quarter century – people in Taiwan generally appear to be responding with collective disregard, distracting their attention with things like the summer heat wave and local elections. Not the specter of war.
Such is life on the autonomous island of 23 million people that has long been the focal point of an explosive geopolitical confrontation. The threat of Chinese military action has loomed for so long that few seem to raise eyebrows when Beijing erupts, as Chinese leader Xi Jinping did Thursday in warning President Biden in a call that “those who play with fire will die because of it.” .
While the invasion of Ukraine has heightened fears around the world about a potential Chinese attack, many in Taiwan still view Beijing’s hostile threats as largely vociferous.
“The CPC is playing the same old tricks,” said Yisuo Tzeng, a research fellow at the National Defense and Security Research Institute in Taipei. “They make a fuss about nothing.”
Pelosi, a frequent critic of human rights abuses in China, left for Asia on Friday. Its itinerary includes allied countries of the United States Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. As of Saturday morning, no plans had been revealed about a stopover in Taiwan. Biden said the Defense Department advised against visiting her.
The grudge over the trip highlights how strained US-China relations have been in recent years, and how persistent Taiwan remains, its most dangerous flashpoint. Pelosi would not be the first female House speaker to visit the Democratic-controlled island. Republican Newt Gingrich made the trip in 1997. But China under Xi is a stronger and more assertive country than it was then, and it is determined to dominate Asia in a way befitting a great power.
Standing straight in its path is Taiwan, a teardrop-shaped island roughly the size of Maryland located less than 100 miles off the coast of mainland China.
Formerly known as Formosa, it was captured by the fleeing Chinese Nationalist government after it was defeated by the Communists in 1949, in the Chinese Civil War.
Beijing considers Taiwan part of China and, after calling for peaceful reunification for years, has warned that it would take the island by force if necessary — especially if it formally declared independence.
Washington changed diplomatic relations to communist China in 1979, adopting a “one China” policy that recognizes, but does not endorse, Beijing’s claim to Taiwan. To deter China from invasion, the United States supplies Taiwan with defensive weapons and maintains a policy called strategic ambiguity designed to leave China guessing whether or not U.S. forces would defend the island if it was attacked.
While this approach has cemented the peaceful status quo for more than four decades, it has become more difficult with the rise of Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
Xi has linked Taiwan with his grand project to bring back patriotic youth, marking the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party last year, with a speech that called unification a “historic mission and an unwavering commitment.”
Much of China’s military planning and modernization is directed toward the conquest of the island. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force tripled the number of sorties it conducted around Taiwan in the first half of this year compared to the same period a year ago, a tactic aimed at stimulating and depleting the territory’s air defenses.
In June, Beijing said the sea between China and Taiwan, known as the Taiwan Strait, was not considered international waters, claiming sovereignty over the waterway and challenging the US Navy’s presence there.
Beijing also accused the United States of obfuscating the “one China” policy when cabinet officials and members of Congress visit Taiwan with increasing frequency. On three occasions Biden has made statements suggesting that the United States has ignored strategic ambiguity by vowing to defend Taiwan by force, but the administration has backed away from the comments each time.
Tension between the world’s two largest economies is showing few signs of abating. Xi will become less constrained after the 20th Party Congress later this year when he is expected to secure his third five-year term in office, the first Chinese leader to do so since Deng Xiaoping imposed two terms in 1982. Biden’s ability to maneuver is also limited. also. Because of the bipartisan enmity of China, one of the few issues on which rival lawmakers agree in a highly polarized political climate. The call between the two leaders on Thursday made no offer.
Taiwan is in a cycle of escalation, and its voice is often drowned out by the clamor of Washington and Beijing. The government led by President Tsai Ing-wen has said little about Pelosi’s visit – although analysts say its appearance does not provide a tangible benefit to the province and may be more trouble than it’s worth.
said Shelley Rieger, a leading Taiwanese expert at Davidson College, using the acronym PRC China. “Taiwan is stuck in the middle.”
“Unfortunately, I don’t think the Taiwanese government is in a position to speak frankly with US officials,” Rieger continued. The United States is the primary defender of Taiwan, and American officials have shown a lot of ego and arrogance in the relationship. Offending US leaders by pointing to the negative side of their decisions is not something Taiwanese officials can really do.”
Taiwan generally views visits by high-ranking US officials and politicians as a political boost to the ruling party and a demonstration of much-needed international support. Beijing has isolated Taiwan so diplomatically that only a dozen, mostly small, countries have recognized it. China also thwarted Taiwan’s bid to join the WHO assembly during the outbreak.
Chen Kuan Ting, CEO of the Taiwan NextGen Foundation, a think-tank politically aligned with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, said Pelosi’s visit “will certainly encourage the people of Taiwan, as you basically say you are not alone.”
This is important because since Russia invaded Ukraine, confidence in Washington’s willingness to send troops to defend Taiwan has waned in an invasion scenario. A poll conducted by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation showed a 30% drop between last October and March in the number of respondents who believed the United States would come to the island’s aid.
Many in Taiwan say Pelosi cannot back down, worrying that another cancellation (initially she postponed a trip to the territory in April after she tested positive for COVID-19) would send a signal to Beijing that it could coerce and intimidate Washington.
Taiwan is a democratic country. We have the right to welcome any friend who supports us, said Freddy Lim, the pro-independence lawmaker who met Pelosi in Washington in June and urged her to visit Taiwan.
Beijing, which views Pelosi’s visit as a challenge to its sovereignty over Taiwan, said it would respond forcefully to her arrival. Analysts say China could impose sanctions on the US lawmaker, test missiles, or in the most provocative scenarios, scramble fighters to try to overturn its planes. Doing nothing would make the Chinese leadership look weak, a problem that China has been facing after threatening Taiwan for years.
“To have the same effect of pleasing Taiwanese people, Beijing is forced to be more threatening,” said Ja Ian Chung, a professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. “This cycle may continue until Beijing either has to follow through on its threats or its bluffs are called out.”
The last time tensions were so high in the region was in 1995, when then-Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui caused a stir in Beijing by visiting the United States, in violation of diplomatic protocol. China, which also wanted to send a warning to pro-independence groups ahead of Taiwan’s upcoming elections, responded by conducting a series of missile tests in the waters off the island. The standoff ended when the Clinton administration deployed more warships to the Taiwan Strait than has been assembled since the Vietnam War.
Not many in Taiwan expect the same strong US response — not when the Chinese military has advanced enough to inflict serious damage on the US Navy.
But in a country where sirens and military exercises abound, few seemed alarmed by the latest crisis.
Pelosi’s visit will increase intensity [Beijing’s] “Diplomatic remarks,” said Su Liu De Sheng, 23, a political science graduate student at National Taiwan University. “But the military risk has always been great.”
Yang reported from Taipei, Taiwan and Pearson from Singapore.