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China – US Relations: Takeaways from current tension- generating developments

By Shulan Primavera

The August 4 2022 Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was an ill-timed, ill-conceived and provocative undertaking which served no strategic purpose but to further irritate China thereby contributing immensely to the further deterioration of US-China relations. It was ill- timed because it occurred approximately two months before the CCP’s Congress meets which is generally expected to approve Xi Jinping’s third term as party Secretary General and as China’s third-term president.

Two months before his expected coronation, Xi Jinping cannot afford to be seen as “weak” most especially at a time when China is bent on upending “century of humiliations” and had launched wolf-warrior diplomacy to demonstrate China’s more assertive way of doing things in the international arena. Moreover, Pelosi’s insistence to go ahead with the visit despite President Biden’s plea to forgo with the visit merely added to the growing perception that Biden is a weak leader which helps explain the low 38 percent approval rating he currently enjoys.

With the 2022 mid- term elections barely three months away and with the Republicans expected to win congressional majority, explaining Pelosi’s insistence on the Taiwan visit as a function of the separation of powers between the executive and the legislative branches of government fails to clear matters.

Reports that Pelosi will no longer run as San Francisco’s congresswoman merely adds to the dismay of some observers that Pelosi merely wants to leave a legacy of further disarray in US-China relations. 2. If so, Pelosi’s stance is consistent with her decades- long stint in the US Congress. As a relative neophyte San Francisco Congresswoman during the 1989 post-Tiananmen crackdown, Pelosi made a name for herself by sponsoring a bill allowing the estimated 43,000 Chinese students in the US to extend their stay even if they had finished their studies and contrary to the wishes of the Chinese government for them to come home.

She has been an ardent supporter of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act which among others calls for (a.) one country two systems, (b.) there is but one China and Taiwan is part of it, (c.) continuing sale of military armaments to Taiwan to enable it to defend itself, (d) no official or diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and (e) Taiwan’s UN seat be vacated and given to China. The Taiwan Relations Act has given rise to the Strategy of Ambiguity which has maintained peace in the Taiwan Strait - fragile as it might have been - these past 73 years. In short, in Pelosi, Taiwan has found a most ardent supporter.

3. Strategy of Ambiguity or Strategy of Clarity? On three different occasions, Biden had declared the US will come to the aid of Taiwan if China attacks it. That’s Strategy of Clarity. On all three occasions, Biden’s White House walked back the President’s pronouncements. That’s Strategy of Ambiguity or is it? When two nuclear states are involved and the rising state believes it is capable now of retaliating back against the ascendant state, the situation becomes extremely perilous. According to the late American historian Barbara Tuchman, wars had been started by accident and miscalculation.

Now and in the recent past, it is generally believed China will attack/invade Taiwan if the latter declares independence. The Kuomintang party has disavowed independence as its goal. The reigning political party, the Party for Progress and Development , is divided on the question of independence.

While China has been provoking Taiwan by regularly violating Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) even before the Pelosi visit, the visit triggered the most dangerous four- day live missile firing tests so far stretching beyond ADIZ and the median line and reaching Taiwan’s east side thereby flying over Taiwan itself! If anything else, the live tests showed China didn’t have to invade Taiwan and merely adopt America’s shock and awe shelling as it did in Iraq in 2003!

4. Although geostrategically important, Taiwan is but one item in the overall US-China strategic competition. One cannot overlook the other developments occurring in other parts of the world which impinge on US -China relations. On the part of the US, it has taken the lead in forming the quadrilateral free and open Indo Pacific composed of the US ( to China’s far enemy and far east), Japan ( to China’s near east), Australia ( to China’s far south), and India ( to China’s west). And then we have the AUKUS - composed of Australia, United Kingdom and US.

And not to mention individual countries with whom the US maintains alliances , bases arrangements and treaty agreements. It’s no wonder then if China will feel being encircled by not too friendly countries. In his book China, Kissinger posited that China’s greatest source of fear is being encircled by hostile countries which he called “wei qi” (pronounced way chi).

This fear of being encircled was the primary reason China was receptive to US rapprochement in 1971 which led to the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979. In 1971, China felt encircled by the USSR in the north which it called the near enemy, the US in the far east which it called the far enemy, Japan in the east, Vietnam in the south and India in the west. China opted to befriend the US, the far enemy, rather than the USSR, the near enemy.

Hence, China was on the side of the US against the Soviet Union during the cold war. When US -China friendly relations start to untangle after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, when the US started to question the correctness of US policy of helping China in its “ peaceful economic rise” with the expectation that political liberalization will follow, when China hosted the 2008 summer Olympics as its “coming out party, when China was declared the second most developed economy in the world in 2009, China then in 2013 launched the US$900 billion to 1.3 trillion dollars Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the world’s largest infrastructure project.

The project entails the building of ports, roads, rails, highways, bridges, oil and gas pipelines to connect Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe like the old 16th century Silk Road that connected China to Europe thru the “Stan” countries of Central Europe. So, following the “string of pearls “ strategy, ports are being built along the Indian Ocean coast from Djibouti in Africa to Gwadar in Pakistan , Hambantota in Sri Lanka, in Bangladesh, down to the Isthmus of Kra in Thailand to circumvent the Strait of Malacca thereby shortening the route from the Strait of Hormuz to the western Pacific ocean.

In addition to its shipping and commercial value, projects under BRI may find themselves doing military use for refueling, repair, rest, and recreation of the vessels’s crews! 5. Where does the Philippines come in all these? Were it not for the accident of geography (the dawn’s crow of a Philippine rooster in Batanes reportedly can be heard in Taiwan !), expunge the misplaced sense of geopolitical self- importance of the country, the Philippines is again left with the question of how to repatriate the estimated 150, 000 OFWs once war breaks out.

This is and will be a recurring theme in our country’s external affairs. About the author. Mr. Shulan O. Primavera is a retired career ambassador. He was ambassador to Kuwait, (1994-98), Egypt and Sudan (2000-03), Indonesia (2003 - 2007) and Kuwait ( 2010-13). He was born in Lagonoy, Cam Sur and grew up and studied in Naga City.


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