A good friend of mine, learning of the impending visit of Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, recalled Homer’s description of Helen of Troy, “The face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the towers of Ilium.” Well, Nancy ain’t no Helen of Troy, but she might nevertheless be in the business of launching warships and burning cities due to her bizarre interpretation of her foreign policy prerogatives as Speaker.
It is like watching a train wreck developing in slow motion. Witnessing the highly dangerous behavior of the Biden Administration and its acolytes in power like Pelosi, one feels compelled to ask whether the White House and Congress are now setting the stage for the elevation of China to the status of foreign enemy number one? Indeed, if one has been hanging around Washington for the past twenty-five years or so, it was hard to miss the often-surfaced bipartisan contention that China is America’s major over-the-horizon adversary, or even enemy, with its growing economy, its successful geopolitics, and its huge industrious population. I can still recall my shock at hearing Democratic Senator Jim Webb, an honorable and highly intelligent Iraq War critic, telling a conservative gathering in 2015 that the real future threat to the United States would be coming from China.
Fear of China, sometimes dubbed in racist language as the “Yellow Peril,” has a long tradition in the United States and in Europe. In the current context, the US government is certainly apprehensive about where the increasing rapprochement between China and Russia is going, summed up by Secretary of State Tony Blinken as “The deepening strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order run counter to our values and interests.” Ironically enough, that development stems from the inept US diplomacy exemplified by Blinken’s tunnel vision that most recently allowed a negotiable crisis to develop into a full-fledged war over Ukraine.
But a much more significant development stems from the Chinese success when playing at what might be called the global geostrategy game. The Chinese Silk Road project threatens to create a new economic reality for Eurasia, squeezing the US out and creating unique networks for marketing, transportation, and the contractual exploitation of third world natural resources. Again ironically, the US was once upon a time the master at creating such networks to benefit the American economy and workers, but unmanageable debt plus inflation combined with outsourcing and lack of any industrial policy means that that advantage has largely vanished. To put it bluntly, China has outcompeted the United States, and whether that constitutes a threat depends on which side of the fence one is standing on.
NATO alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, is also part of the gamesmanship, observing how “China is substantially building up its military forces, including nuclear weapons, bullying its neighbors, threatening Taiwan … monitoring and controlling its own citizens through advanced technology, and spreading Russian lies and disinformation.” Stoltenberg and Blinken’s indictment of China was followed by a NATO issued “strategic concept” document that declared for the first time that China poses a “systemic challenge” to the alliance and declarations by the heads of the CIA and MI6 that China constitutes the “biggest long-term threat to our economic and national security.”
One would not expect China to be silent when confronted by the threats from the West and, indeed, Beijing has made clear that that Washington is “playing with fire” and that there would be “consequences.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian observed that the “so-called rules-based international order is actually a family rule made by a handful of countries to serve the US self-interest,” adding that “[Washington] observes international rules only as it sees fit.”
It would be correct to describe the US-China relationship as currently occupying a low point. The result has been to create an international crisis where there was none to start with, and it goes on. There have been two more interesting developments in the US versus China saga in the past two weeks. First came a video-link two hour and seventeen minute “summit” between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Biden’s declared mission was to address those issues that impeded a more manageable relationship between the two countries, or at least that is how it was described.
The issues discussed by Biden and Xi included not taking any steps that would challenge the status quo re Taiwan as well as Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea which the US maintains have inhibited “freedom of the seas” for foreign vessels transiting the area. China has responded that it is only exercising its sovereignty and stresses that its international presence is largely derived from its perfectly legal commercial and business activity. Other issues under discussion included what to do about climate change and the evolving situation in Ukraine. The possibility of rolling back some tariffs imposed by Donald Trump apparently was not discussed.
More provocative by far than the Biden phone call, which at least was ostensibly intended to mend fences, is the decision by Nancy Pelosi to make an August trip to Taiwan, which has now been completed. It was the first visit by an American official at that level since 1997 and it sought to confirm the US total commitment to defend the Taiwanese if China were to seek to establish full control of the Island. The proposed visit had been linked to moves by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who shifted US military resources in the Far East to provide possible protection for Pelosi’s travel on a US Air Force plane if the Chinese were to attempt to block her by declaring a no-fly zone over the island. Austin ordered the Commander of US Forces in the Indo-Pacific region (aka INDOPACCOM) to send the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group into the South China Sea as a “show of force,” which was construed as a deliberate demonstration to the Chinese that they have no actual sovereignty over Taiwan.
In the event, China responded to the Pelosi visit with a live fire military exercise in the air space and in the waters around Taiwan and whatever takes place next will have to be dealt with by the Taiwanese. The Pentagon is reportedly preparing “options” if China actually does choose to invade. But nevertheless, the visit, which cost the US taxpayer \$90 million, was clearly intended to send certain signals to Beijing and those signals were not only not friendly but even threatening. Pelosi assured Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, that there would be US support despite threats from China, saying “Today the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy. America’s determination to preserve democracy here in Taiwan and around the world remains ironclad.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It is also language that is largely intended to appeal to the domestic audience in the US with midterm elections coming up in November. It always is popular to take cheap shots at Russia, Iran or China.
Interestingly, President Joe Biden, apparently supported privately by Austin, actually opposed the Speaker’s trip as it reportedly could disrupt his intention to actually meet Xi face-to-face at some point in the future. Pelosi, who lacks having any actual constitutional foreign policy role apart from approving budgets, has provided ammunition for those among the Chinese leadership who have come to believe that the United States cannot be trusted to honor any agreement made with a foreign government. The Speaker clearly had not heard about or understand the “One China Policy” and the “strategic ambiguity” that governs the relationship between China and the US over Taiwan to avoid any military escalation regarding that issue. Joe Biden, admittedly, has also muddied the waters by declaring three times that the US might have to use force to defend Taiwan if it is attacked as Ukraine was, even though he and his aides later insisted that he was not changing policy. The US, for its part, actually concedes the island is part of China, though “strategic ambiguity” has meant that Beijing has not yet sought to assert direct political control over it. Given that status and the threatening moves by Austin to protect Pelosi’s trip, one might imagine what the American reaction would be if China were openly making plans to fly its fighter jets into US airspace in order to forcibly land a senior Chinese official without an invitation from the State Department.
As always, there have been other possible developments, including reports that the US-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is active in currently unstable Myanmar (Burma), fomenting trouble to distract China in its own backyard. NED is notorious for its role in regime change operations that were once the responsibility of the CIA, including the 2014 Maidan revolt in Ukraine. China is surely aware of the American involvement in regional meddling. Pushing from the other direction, North Korea is threatening to use nuclear weapons if it is attacked by the US and South Korea, which will inevitably involve China. Pyongyang was responding to reports that Seoul and Washington are planning war games that will include a “decapitation exercise” simulating the assassination of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un.
On balance, the United States has little to gain and much to lose by ratcheting up the pressure on China and its leadership in an attempt to create the “Pearl Harbor Moment” so much desired by the neocons and the hardliners in government. On the contrary, Nancy Pelosi should have stayed home and the White House should be working even harder to identify and pursue those opportunities for cooperation between the two countries. The ongoing bipartisan framing of China as an enemy of both the United States and of NATO is not the way to go, as it will literally force the Chinese to respond in kind. If one considers what is going on with Russia in terms of disruption of international trade, just imagine what would happen if the world’s biggest economy in China were to begin its own round of sanctions and selective withholding of manufactured goods. And then there is the risk of igniting yet another needless war, one that also comes with nuclear weapons as a last resort if either side were to perceive that it was “losing.” It is just not worth it, is it? But then again, it never is.