Top of the list of concerns for Iris Hsueh living in Taipei are COVID-19 restrictions, electricity prices and, if she’s honest, the latest news on Taiwanese pop stars. Nowhere on that list is the proposed visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and the potential Chinese reaction.
“Whether she comes or not won’t change anything,” the 37-year-old saleswoman speculated. “I think China will think this is a provocation, but I also don’t think they will escalate their current military behavior because of it.”
When asked what his circle of friends thought of the standoff, which prompted the deployment of a group of US aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait and China to conduct live-fire military exercises on Saturday , Hsueh replied in a matter-of-fact tone, “I don’t think they really care.
As tensions erupt between the two superpowers – risking the region’s worst crisis in a quarter-century – Taiwanese on the whole seem to be reacting with a collective shrug, occupying their attention with things like the summer heatwave and local elections. rather than the specter of war.
Such is life on the self-governing island of 23 million that has long served as the focal point of an explosive geopolitical standoff. The threat of Chinese military action has loomed so long that few seem to raise an eyebrow when Beijing lashes out, as Chinese leader Xi Jinping did on Thursday when he warned President Biden about to call that “those who play with fire will perish by it”.
While the invasion of Ukraine has heightened concerns around the world about possible Chinese aggression, many in Taiwan still regard Beijing’s bellicose threats as largely bluster.
“The Chinese Communist Party is playing the same old tricks,” said Yisuo Tzeng, a researcher at Taipei’s National Defense and Security Research Institute. “They are making a fuss for nothing.”
Pelosi, a frequent critic of human rights abuses in China, left for Asia on Friday. Its itinerary includes US allies, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. As of Saturday morning, no plans had been revealed regarding the stop in Taiwan. Biden said the Pentagon advised against his visit.
The resentment over the trip underscores how U.S.-China relations have deteriorated in recent years and how firmly Taiwan remains its most dangerous flashpoint. Pelosi would not be the first Speaker of the House to visit the democratically-ruled island; Republican Newt Gingrich made the trip in 1997. But China under Xi is a much more powerful and assertive country than it was then, and he is determined to dominate Asia in a dignified way. of great power.
Taiwan stands immediately in its path, a teardrop-shaped island the size of Maryland located less than 100 miles off the coast of mainland China.
Formerly known as Formosa, it was taken over by the fleeing Chinese Nationalist government after its defeat by the Communists in 1949 in the Chinese Civil War.
Beijing considers Taiwan part of China and, after years of urging peaceful unification, has warned it will take the island by force if necessary, especially if it formally declares independence.
Washington changed its diplomatic relations with communist China in 1979, adopting a “One China” policy that recognizes Beijing’s claim to Taiwan, but does not endorse it. To deter China from invading, the United States supplies Taiwan with defensive weapons and maintains a policy called strategic ambiguity designed to keep China guessing whether or not American troops will defend the island if attacked.
While this approach has fostered a peaceful status quo for more than four decades, it has deepened with the rise of Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
Xi harnessed Taiwan to his grand plan for national rejuvenation, marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China last year with a speech describing unification as “a historic mission and an unwavering commitment”.
Much of China’s military planning and modernization is geared towards an invasion of the island. The 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 pushing and exhausting the air defenses of the territory.
In June, Beijing said the sea separating China from Taiwan, known as the Taiwan Strait, was not considered international waters, claiming sovereignty over the waterway and contesting the US Navy’s presence there. -down.
Beijing has also accused the United States of blurring its “One China” policy when Cabinet officials and members of Congress visit Taiwan with increasing frequency. On three occasions, Biden made remarks suggesting the United States had removed strategic ambiguity by pledging to defend Taiwan forcefully, but the administration backtracked on his comments each time.
Tension between the nations with the world’s two largest economies shows few signs of easing. Xi will be less constrained after the 20th Party Congress later this year, when he is expected to secure his third five-year term, the first Chinese leader to do so since Deng Xiaoping imposed two-term limits in 1982. Biden’s ability to maneuver is also limited. by bipartisan enmity for China, one of the few issues on which rival lawmakers agree in an otherwise heavily polarized political climate. The call between the two leaders on Thursday offered no offers.
Taiwan is caught in the cycle of escalation, whose voice is often drowned out by the din of Washington and Beijing. The government led by President Tsai Ing-wen has said little about a visit by Pelosi – though analysts say his appearance brings no tangible benefit to the territory and may be more inconvenient than it’s worth .
“Taiwan’s agency in the US-PRC-Taiwan triangle has varied over time, but right now the drivers are the US and China,” said Shelley Rigger, a top Taiwan expert. shot at Davidson College, using the People’s Republic of China acronym “Taiwan is stuck in the middle.”
“Unfortunately, I don’t think the Taiwanese government is in a position to speak frankly with US officials,” Rigger continued. “The United States is Taiwan’s main defender, and American officials have shown a great deal of ego and arrogance in this relationship. Offending American leaders by pointing out the downsides of their decisions is not something Taiwanese officials are really able to do.
Taiwan generally views visits by senior US officials and politicians as a political boost for the ruling party and a show of much-needed international support. Beijing has diplomatically isolated Taiwan to the point that it is recognized by just over a dozen, mostly small, nations. China has also thwarted Taiwan’s bid to join the World Health Organization Assembly during the pandemic.
A visit from Pelosi would “certainly encourage the people of Taiwan, basically saying ‘you’re not alone,'” said Chen Kuan-ting, chief executive of the Taiwan NextGen Foundation, a politically aligned think tank on the Ruling Democratic Progressive Party.
This matters because since Russia invaded Ukraine, confidence in Washington’s willingness to send troops to defend Taiwan in an invasion scenario has diminished. A survey by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation showed a 30 percent drop between October and March in the number of respondents who believe the United States will help the island.
Many in Taiwan say Pelosi cannot afford to back down, fearing another cancellation (she originally postponed a trip to the territory in April after testing positive for COVID-19) will send a signal to Beijing that she can coerce and intimidate Washington.
“Taiwan is a democratic country. We have the right to welcome any friend who supports us,” said Freddy Lim, an independence lawmaker who met Pelosi in Washington in June and urged her to visit Taiwan.
Beijing, which sees Pelosi’s visit as a challenge to its sovereignty over Taiwan, said it would react strongly to his arrival. Analysts say China could impose sanctions on US lawmakers, test missiles or, in the most provocative scenario, scramble fighters to try to turn its plane back. Doing nothing would make Chinese leadership look weak, a problem China faces after threatening Taiwan for years.
“To have the same effect of intimidating the Taiwanese people, Beijing is forced to be more threatening,” said Ja Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore. “This cycle may continue until Beijing has to follow through on its threats or its bluff is called.”
The last time tensions were this high in the region was in 1995, when then-President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan sparked an uproar in Beijing by visiting the United States, breaking as well as diplomatic protocol. China, which also wanted to send a warning to pro-independence groups ahead of the upcoming elections in Taiwan, responded by conducting a series of missile tests in waters off the island. The standoff ended when the Clinton administration deployed more warships to the Taiwan Strait than had been assembled since the Vietnam War.
Many in Taiwan don’t expect the same heavy-handed response from the United States — not when the Chinese military has advanced far enough to inflict massive damage on the US Navy.
But in a country where air raid sirens and military drills occur regularly, few seemed fazed by the latest crisis.
“Pelosi’s visit will add to the intensity of [Beijing’s] diplomatic remarks,” said Su Liu Di-Sheng, a 23-year-old political science graduate student at National Taiwan University. “But the military risk has always been high.”
Yang reported from Taipei, Taiwan and Pierson from Singapore.