Harald Simeon Buchmann, Intellisia Senior Research Fellow
Let’s look at the Western narrative first: On August 3rd the US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi landed in Taipei, despite fierce threats even of a “military response” by China. Pelosi thereby defied China’s threats and exposed them as empty words while giving a strong show of solidarity between “democracies”, stating that the US “stands with Taiwan”. Many Western media and commenters even claimed, China threatened to start a war, or to shoot down Pelosi’s plane, but nothing happened. As a huge number of Chinese have watched these events, and the US successfully “humiliated” the Chinese government, in combination with other “unrest in China” Western media are hyping up, this could lead to massive unrest in a year when China was hoping for calm and peace.
Now look at the objective facts: the 82-year-old Speaker of the House, who most likely won’t be a leading politician in five years from now anymore, broke written commitments by the US, not to maintain high level diplomatic exchanges with the “Republic of China government” on Taiwan, exposing to the world how little contracts signed by the US are worth. China announced a “military response”, not a war, nor to shoot down her plane. Just minutes after her arrival in Taipei was confirmed, Xinhua spelled out the nature of the military response: live fire drills in six locations, crossing the “median line” between the mainland the Taiwan, and coming as close to the main island as 10 nautical miles, what Taiwan authorities in the past had declared “territorial waters”. The 6 locations are on all sides of Taiwan, showing that the PLA is now capable of encircling and blockading Taiwan, should there ever be a need. More importantly, the PRC thereby makes the statement that there is no de factor sovereignty of Taiwan, a point that Western commenters often point out, when asked about the question of an independent country Taiwan. If Taiwan was an independent country, PRC troops using live fire in its territorial water would be a casus belli, a reason for war. Will Taiwan or the US try to stop these exercises? That is very unlikely, as it would lead to a war the US is most likely to lose, and currently can’t afford.
How to interpret these two narratives: The US has successfully held a photo op, nothing more. She “threw down the gauntlet”, daring China to fire a first shot, but de facto she has achieved nothing of substance. Because China threw that gauntlet right back at the US, by conducting live fire drills that clearly signal: we don’t respect any “sovereign territory” of any alleged country Taiwan your media like to talk about. Now it is up to Nancy Pelosi and the US to spell out, just what exactly “solidarity” and “standing with Taiwan” mean, because obviously they don’t mean defending any national sovereignty of the island. When the PLA “infringed” on those “territorial waters”, the US did not come to help. Yes, it is likely that the Europeans will follow the US example and also send high level diplomats, but equally China now has a precedent for live fire drills much closer to the Taiwan island than in the past. China can repeat such drills anytime. Each time China conducts such drills, the US and Taiwan authorities will be extremely nervous, and they have to be. On the other hand, China doesn’t have to be nervous if European diplomats follow Pelosi in visiting Taiwan, they won’t change anything in the status quo. And the best part of it all, is that this massive strategic improvement of China’s position happens with almost no protest from the West. As the US commentator Carl Zha noted on Twitter: “when everybody was expecting World War 3 to break out, now nobody will care that China will conduct the unprecedented largest military exercise around Taiwan island.”
The only rationale that could explain why the US would make such a gambit, is if they expected a strong destabilizing effect on China. It is perceivable that they believe their own propaganda of alleged “instability” in China. There recently have been loud complaints by some Chinese about local events, as is virtually always the case, and as expected in a country the size of China. But to imagine Chinese society as a whole was “unstable” grossly misjudges the relevance and scale of such local events, as China is extremely stable, both socially as well as in the macroeconomy, with low inflation, no stagnation, and a stable currency. Looking at the scale and violence of farmer protests in Holland, or trucker protests in Canada, it would make much more sense to worry about the stability of Western democracies than of China.
Apart from the stability, even more important is the fact, that there was no humiliation of China’s government, since the event in the end helps speed up the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland, as foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying pointed out on August 3. Just as Pelosi’s statements of a “beautiful sight” regarding the violent riots of Hong Kong in 2019 helped convince the people of Hong Kong that those riots were intended to hurt their city for the interests of a foreign nation, leading to more popular support for stronger legislation against such riots, her visit to Taiwan this time gave China an opportunity to improve its strategic disposition in the region.
One of the most well-known antique text in China and worldwide is The Art of War by Sun Zi. In one passage Sun Zi explains that leaders should never enter a war rashly or start a fight based on emotion. Emotions can change from anger to joy, but dead people can never return to life. Chinese have far too much wisdom to let the US dictate their agenda, and trick them into an unnecessary war. There isn’t a Chinese who wouldn’t understand this logic. Therefore, the measured and strategic response of China to a short-sighted and emotion-focused provocation by Pelosi is getting overwhelming support in the Chinese public.
(Contributed by Harald Buchmann, Intellisia Senior Research Fellow, for Guangming Online)