Beijing will likely continue to issue threats whenever Western politicians announce Taiwan travel plans. But countries have learnt that they can withstand Chinese threats – writes Elisabeth BRAW
.First Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, announced that she was planning to visit Taiwan. This generated enormous support on both sides of the Congressional aisle—and a great deal of anguish among US officials and ordinary citizens, who worried that Beijing might consider the visit a provocation and try to harm Pelosi, the United States or Taiwan. Then Pelosi followed through on her announcement. In the evening of 2 August, her US government plane touched down. The visit by America’s third-highest ranking politician demonstrates how much the US-China relationship has soured in just the past few years – and it’s an indication of what lies ahead.
In a phone call in late July, President Xi Jinping of China warned Joe Biden in a phone call that “those who play with fire will perish by it”. It was a clear threat. But at that point, Pelosi had already announced her desire to visit Taiwan, and there was virtually nothing the White House could do to prevent the trip from happening, especially since Pelosi leads the House of Representatives and does not report to Biden. The President could, of course, have pleaded with Pelosi not to go, but that would have sent the message to Beijing and the world that Beijing can intimidate the world’s most powerful country. Doing so would also have suggested that Beijing dictates who’s allowed to visit Taiwan. Instead, the world spent the days leading up to Pelosi’s visit anxiously watching how Beijing would react. Chinese aircraft and navy vessels, meanwhile, conducted a large number of near-violations of Taiwan’s airspace and waters. In the end, Pelosi touched down unharmed, though China immediately announced military drills around Taiwan.
The near-confrontation between the United States and its closest rival, China, is extremely dangerous. Pelosi undoubtedly created the stand-off by announcing her intention to visit Taiwan. Barring any unforeseen events, Pelosi will step down as Speaker after this autumn’s US mid-term elections, and she clearly wanted to make the trip to Asia – including Taiwan – in her capacity as Speaker.
Pelosi’s interest in Taiwan, and in democracy in China, is not new. 1991, early in her Congressional career, she visited Tiananmen Square in support of China’s pro-democracy movement. She has been outspoken in her support of Taiwan for an equally long time. And for as long as she’s been voicing such support, Beijing has loathed her. Indeed, until just a few years ago Pelosi was in fact part of a rather small group of US politicians who consistently spoke out in support of Taiwan, and of Chinese pro-democracy activists.
That set her apart from most Americans (and most Europeans), who held no strong views on China and Taiwan. But Covid-19, which spread because Chinese authorities initially refused to admit the virus even existed, radically changed public opinion on China in the United States, Europe and beyond.
China’s wolf-warrior diplomacy has further harmed the country’s global image. In Canada, for example, 37 per cent of people held unfavourable views of China in 2007; today, 74 per cent do, Pew Research Center figures show. In Sweden, the share has risen from 40 to 83 per cent; in the UK, from 27 to 69. 82 per cent of Americans disapprove of China. (Poland has remained relatively steady, with disapproval of China rising from 44 to 55 per cent.) A few years ago, Pelosi’s Taiwan plans would have encountered heavy criticism in Congress, around Washington and the country. Now she received near-unanimous support, including from die-hard Republicans.
Beijing will likely continue to issue threats whenever Western politicians announce Taiwan travel plans. But countries have learnt that they can withstand Chinese threats: earlier this year, Lithuania simply ignored such threats and allowed Taiwan to open a representative office in Vilnius. And no country can rule simply by bullying other countries. Even the developing countries Beijing thinks it can use as vassals, because it lends them money, are growing weary of the arrangement. The world has changed a great deal since Pelosi visited Tiananmen Square in 1991. Not inside China, perhaps, but all around it.