The prospect that US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi might visit Taiwan during her Asia tour, which began on Sunday, attracted much attention and analysis in international media. Pelosi touched down in Taiwan on Tuesday evening, putting an end to the speculation.
Her visit is a boon for Taiwan. It will help attract increased attention and support for the nation on the international stage.
US President Joe Biden last month expressed concern over Beijing’s reaction to a visit by Pelosi and attempted to block it from going ahead. Biden’s objection puts the cart before the horse.
It was the provocative interventions from Chinese officials that enraged US politicians and elicited bipartisan support in the US Senate, where senators have expressed views such as “China has no right to wag its finger,” “America must not show weakness” and “if we cower [in the face of China’s threats], the international community will lose trust in America.”
Some hawkish commentators and politicians have suggested that the visit presents the US with an opportunity to call Beijing’s bluff. China’s efforts to thwart Pelosi’s visit certainly appear to have had the opposite effect of what Beijing intended.
Reacting to rumors about Pelosi’s visit, Hu Xijin (胡錫進), a former editor-in-chief at state-affiliated tabloid the Global Times, has made a number of bellicose remarks, including that Chinese fighter jets could escort Pelosi’s plane and even take out US military vessels in the area.
Hu’s rhetoric is irresponsible, although clearly designed for a domestic audience, to satiate the wild fantasies of generals and hardliners in the upper echelons of the Chinese military and the Chinese Communist Party.
Hu’s comments do not warrant a moment’s attention. Nevertheless, some Taiwanese media outlets have fallen into the trap of the “Hsu Chun-mei effect,” a phenomenon named after entertainer Hsu Chun-mei (許純美), who achieved a meteoric rise from total obscurity in 2004 and sustained her TV career by making increasingly outrageous comments that were picked up on and amplified by media organizations.
In contrast to Hu’s fiery rhetoric, Chinese officials opted for a slightly more nuanced, multifaceted response, warning that “if the US accidentally triggers a conflict, it will be entirely responsible for any consequences.”
The operative word here is “if,” which suggests that Beijing does not intend to cause trouble. Beijing is not ruling out that something might happen, but it says that it would be a result of human error on the part of the US. This allows Beijing to create tension and preserve the aura of a “wolf warrior,” thereby saving face, but also stopping short of a concrete threat.
By saying that Washington would be “responsible for any consequences,” China is putting the ball in the US’ court.
Beijing is signaling that “our guns are ready and loaded, we are serious, but we are not trigger happy and do not wish to ignite a conflict.”
Asked whether Beijing would issue a military response to Pelosi’s visit, Chinese officials have been careful not to escalate their language.
Instead, they issued a concise and succinct reply: “We stand ready and waiting for any eventuality.” Although the phrase “stand ready” sounds harsh, it contains no specific threat. While sounding serious at first glance, it really implies a passive stance, with the word “waiting” indicating that Beijing is prepared to allow the US a little room to maneuver.
In other words: “We’re ready and waiting for you to arrive, but we have not committed to confrontation.”
By signaling that it is ready to attack, or pull back, as needs dictate, Beijing showed Washington that it is giving itself some wiggle room, and unless it is provoked, it is prepared to make a subdued response.
This explains why, prior to the speaker’s arrival in Taiwan, Pelosi’s team was careful to make it a relatively low-key visit, so that Beijing would be provided with an off-ramp.
Her team’s decision not to officially schedule the visit beforehand, and to sandwich it between visits to Malaysia and Japan, prevented China from taking concrete steps to frustrate the visit and avoided the prospect of military confrontation. If Pelosi had made Taiwan her first port of call, and arrived directly from the US, that would have been a different matter altogether.
As it stands, Beijing might take action on the diplomatic front by issuing “severe condemnations” of Taipei and Washington.
However, Beijing will nevertheless be careful over the way it issues such condemnations. If China oversteps the mark, it could touch a raw nerve and provoke Taiwanese, who are to elect local government representatives in November. If Beijing angers Taiwanese with a bellicose stance, an anti-China mood could easily morph into an anti-China vote at the ballot box.
Chinese officials are aware of this and are likely finely calibrating their response to ensure that they do not end up handing Taiwan’s pan-green camp an election landslide.
As Taiwan is an electoral democracy, China knows that it must beware of the law of unintended consequences. As the Chinese idiom goes, it should “refrain from shooting at the rat for fear of breaking the vases.” This instantaneous feedback mechanism is one of the many strengths of a democratic system.
Chuang Jung-hung is an online news editor at the Liberty Times, the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper.
Translated by Edward Jones
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