Nancy Pelosi and Xi Jinping | Photos: AFP, AP
When the US plane tagged SPAR19 took off from Malaysia on Tuesday hundreds of thousands started following its flight path by monitoring Flightradar24 website. Even the US Air Force One seldom gets such attention when the president of the country jets off.This particular flight probably had more significance than any presidential flight of recent times though it was only carrying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The destination of that flight was the key factor: Taiwan.
At one point 300,000 people were logged on to the Flightradar24 website and it crashed. The reason for such interest was generated by a war of words between China and the United States that had diplomatic nerves jangling as both sides seemed to be heading for a military confrontation. Superpowers usually confront each other through proxies and rarely has the world seen them challenging each other directly. When they do, it brings the whole world to the edge, like the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the Soviet Union decided to place missiles in America's backyard.Asia now is probably witnessing its own version of that crisis.
Taiwan has been a flashpoint in the ties between the United States and China for decades as Beijing claims the island as its own and vowing to take it by force if needed, even though the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled the island. Washington, though accepting One China policy, opposes any military action to bring the democratically-run island under the Chinese flag. Pelosi, who is the third most powerful official in the US, is currently on a trip to Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Japan as per her itinerary. She is accompanied by a team of officials, including Indian-born Congressman from Illinois, Raja Krishnamoorthi .
Even when speculations of the team visiting Taiwan surfaced earlier this year, Beijing reacted furiously and President Xi Jinping warned his US counterpart Joe Biden against playing with fire. As Pelosi landed in Asia on Monday, words escalated to dangerous gestures by both sides. China threatened 'resolute and forceful measures', extending to military action, and the Pentagon sent aircraft and naval vessels to the area around the island, amid warnings that any accidental firing could trigger a major confrontation between the two powerful nations.
Pelosi is not the first House Speaker to visit Taiwan as in 1997 Newt Gingrich also did the same. Beijing had issued a series of protests then too, but the situation has changed now as China has built up considerable military muscle since then and the ties between the two world powers are at a low. The rise of Xi to power has seen tiffs with neighbouring countries increase and some have gone into physical confrontations, as witnessed at the Indian border not too long ago.The timing is also sensitive for Xi as he is poised to get an unprecedented third term as president during the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) conclave slated for later this year. Yet, things have not been as smooth as the strongman would have wanted.
Life has become jittery for the common people as the country's tough Covid policies often send millions into lockdowns that stretch into weeks. This has affected the economy and a credit crisis is spreading across its housing market while Beijing's crackdown on the internet sector has wiped out billions of dollars from the stock markets. All these are black clouds in the horizon for Xi, but his grip on the CCP is seemingly secure and a third term is almost assured . But this is a crucial time for Xi and not a moment to be seen as a weak leader who refused to stand up to the US.
Across in Washington, President Joe Biden is also caught in a similar bind. With former President Donald Trump's factions and Republican leaders portraying him as 'sleepy Joe' and weak, this is a situation he can't be seen as walking backwards. At the same time, forcing Pelosi to cancel her trip would bring accusations of being authoritarian as the Congress is an independent authority and White House has technically no control over it.
The visit has also seen supporters of Donald Trump throwing their lot behind Pelosi, notably former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Biden had said earlier that a visit by Pelosi is not something US military want to see now, but that rhetoric changed after shrill warning by Chinese nationalists, some of whom warned that Beijing would shoot down Pelosi's plane if she heads to Taiwan.
US lawmakers have visited Taiwan before and there is no need for China to make this one into a confrontational crisis, the White House said on Monday. Pelosi is not new to such controversies as she has a record of confronting the CCP and even visited the Tiananmen Square two years after the Chinese army violently put down a students' protest in 1989 and unfurled a banner in support of those who fought for democracy.
This time it is different as she is a high ranking official and even more importantly, China has added considerable muscle to its military. With both sides placing weapons and ships in and around Taiwan straits, there was even chatter about a third world war beginning. The only party that has displayed a sense of calm in all this has been the Taiwanese. Their government has not come out with any inflammatory statements on the situation and the social media comments from the island show no panic. 'We are used to this and Beijing has been threatening to invade us for a long time,' said one comment.
Despite this exterior calm of the Taiwanese, the people there have made clear their view of Beijing by returning President Tsai with an overwhelming majority during the 2020 election. Her opponent in the race was populist mayor Han Kuo-yu who ran on a platform of close ties with Beijing and the economic benefits it would bring. That looked like a winning slogan as though Beijing had no official control or representation in Taipei, businessmen from both sides had established thriving networks. The promise of embracing Taiwan into its fold with One Country, Two Systems practiced in Hong Kong was the carrot that Beijing dangled before the islanders.
Incumbent president Tsai was trailing in polls till troubles erupted in Hong Kong. Beijing's ruthless handling of the 2019-20 protests and Tsai's open criticism of this contrasted with her opponent's backing for the CCP. 'Young people in Hong Kong have used their lives and shed their blood and tears to show us that 'one country, two systems' is not feasible,' Tsai said, at a rally the night before the vote. 'Tomorrow, it is the turn of young people of Taiwan to show Hong Kong that the values of democracy and freedom overcome all difficulties.' The Taiwanese saw what was happening in Hong Kong - where Beijing disregarded the guarantees of non-interference under One Country, Two Systems - as a warning and overwhelmingly voted for Tsai.
Beijing responded with harsh rhetoric and undertook steps to isolate Taiwan on the global stage. It wooed nations which had diplomatic ties with the island to cut them. Taiwan was not even allowed to attend UN meetings on pandemic emergency when Covid-19 broke out in 2019. Fighter planes of People's Liberation Army started crossing into Taiwanese airspace with religious regularity while Beijing declared the strait separating the island as national waters and not an international one. Every time a Western naval ship passed through the strait, Beijing would issue a protest note, but the US Navy and others would counter with the freedom of navigation on international waters.
The US continued its sale of weapons to Taiwan, but remained silent on the question of military involvement in case of a Chinese attack, except saying it is bound to help Taiwan in case of emergencies. Washington also encouraged Nato partners to engage with the island's government and some top European nations had recently sent delegations to Taiwan for talks.
These kinds of shadow boxings have been continuing for months, but suddenly things have escalated to a different level, bringing back memories of the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union over Cuba.
At this point, it looks like Pelosi has pulled off a diplomatic coup with her visit. She has justified her trip by saying it is a time for democracies to stand with Taiwan as China is espousing authoritarianism as a better way of government, highlighting its economic progress. Beijing is seething with fury and slapped some economic sanctions on Taiwan. Beijing also has announced a live fire ammunition exercise around Taiwan from Thursday, a drill that virtually surrounds the island. With US Navy ships, including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, trawling the area, there will be sweaty palms on both sides. Pelosi leaves Taiwan on Wednesday. But she may well have created another Cuba in the Asian waters with her visit.