Is Pelosi’s Trip Strategically Justified?

The Cross-Strait tensions have been decades in the making, and Pelosi’s decision to defy stark threats and warnings from Beijing marks a new milestone in reorienting the pattern and boundaries of strategic calculations by both Beijing and Washington. By rooting to the core objective of the visit to bolster and defend democracy and in displaying a solidified front as a message to both Beijing and Moscow, it presents as a dependable moral principle that the current international law and order will be steadfastly defended by Washington and the West, justifying the costs and blowback.

Despite the growing calls for her to skip the Taiwan stopover, even with White House’s apparent distancing from her intention,  the trip needed to proceed for two pertinent factors. The US cannot be seen as kowtowing to the demands and threats from Beijing, less inviting greater future precedence and will be perceived as weak in the eyes of not only Beijing but the rest of the allies and containment team which will exert greater uncertainties in the long game. As the same stance taken in disregarding Beijing’s demands and actions in the South China Sea through the continuing execution of the Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations, this move is strategically warranted although facing complex calculations. Secondly, a strong message has to be sent to Beijing that Washington stands resolute, determined and consistent in its approach of standing up to China’s increasing intent to change the regional order and undermine the rules-based system.

This is also projected to be a signal to the unyielding defence of democracy amidst the persistent onslaught by forces of autocracy, compelled by the crisis in Ukraine. It will be banked upon by Washington as the symbol of solidarity to this cause, realising that the expected chain effects of Beijing’s retaliatory moves will be offset by the eventual stronger chips and cards that will allow America to dictate the pace and phase of the confrontation. This visit is not a cause to the growing tensions, rather the effect of decades of tug and tussle in a controlled and tacit spectrum of affairs between the two powers. Both parties understood the potential openings to be derived from the eventual blame game, with each party accusing the other of being the one that instigated the greater tensions and thus, justifying the eventual second move to kickstart the assault on the status quo of managing the situation of Taiwan.

Beijing is pinning hopes on Washington to be the first to create provocations, with Pelosi’s trip being used as the needed pretext for Beijing to initiate the greater strategic and bellicose actions in forcing Taiwan’s hands with starker threats and deterrence. The harsh response with offensive measures as seen in the largest military manoeuvres including firing of ballistic missiles and incursions into the median line during the first day of the counter-measures of retaliations, form the start of the intention by Beijing to force a shift from previous norms of military tools and purpose, to one that is meant to force greater conformation and realisation by Taipei that a full-force invasion and reunification is an  executable option by Beijing without any time frame set, with the intention to strike greater fear and deterrence to the Taiwanese. By using Pelosi’s trip as the persistent pretense, it now gives Beijing freer hands to mount a more comprehensive and greater options on the table to exert considerable force and other cards in strengthening control and grip over Taipei.

The responses are also needed as a timely distraction from the current internal crises of economic and financial squeezes and the discontent on the Covid-zero policy, and to galvanise national resolve by  the reliance on growing patriotism and nationalist sentiments of the people.  It risks backfiring on the future stability of the internal order and the fate of the party, realising that the strategy to sow sentiments of unyielding hypernationalism and patriotism will risk overheating and creating a different challenge and demand which will be a challenge for the CCP to bear.

Ties with other countries and options for managing cross-strait ties and other regional stances will be affected by the forceful public intention and demand, although so far it has been used as a positive card in giving national credence and moral high ground to the actions by Beijing in its competition with Washington. The recent call between Xi and Biden reinforced the sentiment and public demand card, with Xi highlighting the call for reunification with Taiwan is the wish of the more than 1.4billion Chinese people and warning Biden not to play with fire. Xi needs the unequivocal responses both to meet internal demand at the public and party levels, in riding out a difficult year for him personally in managing his crises and to cement his leadership grip in the party Convention come this Fall.

Washington is relying on the counter strategic game of pouncing on Beijing’s strategic missteps and miscalculations stemming from this saga. Realising that Beijing needs to act tough and to execute overwhelming responses to pacify the growing sentiments and demands of the populace, these bellicose military responses have been closely watched and also seen as worth the costs of the visit. Uncle Sam will play the waiting and blaming game for Beijing’s first overstep and mistake in these actions, and will thus possess the greater pretext of placing the blame on Beijing as the protagonists and giving the moral and principle ground to exert more containment measures. It further gives credence to Washington, arguing that it has repeatedly assured Beijing that it has no intention to change the status quo and will stick to the agreed policy, a point further reinforced by Taiwanese Premier Tsai-ing Wen herself together with Pelosi during their joint press conference in Taipei. For Beijing to act dangerously in response to this trip will then be seen as an act of unnecessary escalation and confrontation with provocations to change the stakes at play. On a different contextual spectrum, the looming mid-term elections justified a stronger push to ascertain the readiness and tough stance on China by the Democrats. Pelosi herself remains a China hawk, with a track record spanning decades on standing up to democracy and human rights and criticising China on its track record.

Beijing is in a quandary, juggling between the need to show defiance and to send a forceful message to Washington on one hand, and to ensure that its credibility and cards on the Taiwan issue stand solid without going overboard and backfiring. Despite a chorus of sentiments and rhetoric, Beijing is meticulous in not being drawn into the trap by Washington and risks a higher conflict and confrontation with colossal damages. It cannot afford for these military responses to be perceived by Washington as the bare intention to change the agreement and policy as agreed upon. It will risk Washington to be compelled and to have the pretext to have stronger justifications for a tit for tat measure in changing the One China Policy in return, thus creating a no holds barred affront. Unless a clear, decisive and quick victory for Beijing should it be ready to risk this all-out confrontation by abandoning all conventional norms and status quo and in invading Taiwan with resounding outcome, Xi is not projected to bear the political costs and impact of this calculation should it turn south. Beijing will also remain wise not to fall for the baiting trap by Washington, what more to risk so much at stake for the actions of a visiting figure that is deemed as unworthy to risk the greater cards at play. For now, Beijing will play the strategic patience and balancing game and continue to test the responses and resolve of Taipei.

The visit has been condemned by those aligned to Beijing and some fence sitters, as one that is provocative and unjustified in escalating regional tensions and risks. For both Beijing and Washington, the hard truth remains that both are banking on this as the beginning of a changing contextual reality in giving them the higher cards and options on the table in the future. A full scale island invasion or greater assertive moves in the region in the future will be justified by Beijing, in tracing the roots of the causes to this ,among others, and will pin blame on the Americans as the provocateurs. Washington’s options too, remain wide, by galvanising the clear message that has been sent to both allies and enemies through this visit that the ideals and standing of international rules-based order will be steadfastly preserved, and that any future risky manoeuvres taken by Beijing will be met with a morally justifiable and value-based responses in upholding the pillars of democracy over autocracy.

Assurances of integrated and comprehensive support remains the core message, especially to Taiwan and this alone is seen as a worthy pursuit notwithstanding the costs of the trip. A new spectrum of tactical competition has begun, and it requires more than threats and deterrence to determine the path and pattern of the conflict, it needs wisdom and strategic foresight by all the players in playing both the short and long game with both conventional and new tools of war and diplomacy.

[Photo by Office of the President of Taiwan]

*Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than nine years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis. He is a regular contributor in providing Op-eds and analytical articles for both local and international media on various contemporary global and regional issues. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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