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3 August 2022

Nancy Pelosi’s chaotic Taiwan trip is a symptom of US decline

To keep the global peace we are reliant on elderly Democratic Party politicians, befuddled by the implosion of political certainties.

By Paul Mason

As Nancy Pelosi’s plane approached Taiwan, the self-governing island’s presidential office was blacked out in a cyber-attack while 21 Chinese military aircraft symbolically crossed into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. Then China announced three days of naval live-fire exercises that will, starting on 4 August, virtually surround the island.

If that’s all China does in response to the US House Speaker’s trip, the world will breathe a big sigh of relief.

Before the visit, China’s foreign minister publicly warned the US that politicians who “play with fire” on the issue of Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory, will “come to no good end”. To emphasise what kind of fire Pelosi might be playing with, the Chinese military rushed train-loads of tanks and long-range artillery to the coastal areas opposite Taiwanese islands, just off the Chinese coastline. Chinese social media is awash with war propaganda.

With a shooting war under way in Europe, requiring the Pentagon to send billions in aid, weapons and material to Ukraine, why did the US choose now to antagonise China? The short answer is, it did not. America’s fragmented governance system has allowed Pelosi, a long-time antagonist of China (and investor in Taiwan), to stage a freelance trip through south-east Asia with a congressional delegation. But because, under the US system, the Speaker of the House is second in line to the presidency, and because her visit comes after months of mixed signals over Taiwan from the Biden administration, the visit offers China’s leadership a glorious opportunity to warn the world of its ultimate intent.

China’s leaders know that the US is tied down and preoccupied with Ukraine, fretful about the solidity of its European allies, and – like the rest of the West – mired in a cost-of-living crisis. Having seized full political control of Hong Kong, Taiwan is obviously the next, and much bigger, prize.

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For China to subjugate a territory whose semiconductor foundries account for 65 per cent of all global sales, and whose waters would allow the People’s Liberation Army Navy to break through the barrier of islands off China’s east coast, would mark a major deterioration in the post-1945 world order. Yet since Xi Jinping came to power it has seemed a question of when, not if.

On the face of it, then, it seems reckless for the US to antagonise China over Taiwan. Yet Pelosi’s visit has – so far – played well with both sides of America politics, and mobilised public opinion in a way the war in Ukraine has not. For Europeans nervous about their own security in the face of Russian demands for land in Ukraine and influence throughout the former Soviet bloc, this sends an ominous message. When it comes to the choice between facing down Vladimir Putin and facing down Xi Jinping, the American public, and large parts of the military-industrial complex, are more interested in the latter.

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[See also: Everything you want to know about the US midterm elections]

We’ve been here before. In the inter-war period, the US’s primary foreign policy goal, and the preoccupation of its military strategists, was to contain Japan. In 1938, however, American service chiefs agreed that the threat from Germany was so great that they had to begin planning for what became known as “Europe First”: no matter how pivotal the Pacific was for American interests, defeating Nazi Germany would have a higher priority in any war.

This was politically controversial. First, because it put at risk the jewel in America’s semi-colonial crown – the Philippines; second, because the US Navy and Marine Corps had been designed for warfare in the Pacific; third, because large parts of the US political class, and their voters, did not trust the European democracies to defend themselves.

From the outbreak of the Second World War until 1943 the “Pacific First” lobby in the US made strenuous efforts to persuade Franklin D Roosevelt to switch priorities. The president himself was not above using the threat of such a switch to force Winston Churchill to begin serious preparations for D-Day, and to rein in his ambitions to reconquer large parts of the Mediterranean before attacking Germany.

In 1941-42 the US committed decisively to the European war, even though it had been attacked in the Pacific, because it made strategic good sense. Today things are different.

The US is a declining world power, China the rising one – not just militarily and economically but as a high-tech industrial power-house. In the Second World War, both the USSR and US managed to out-produce the expanded Nazi Reich. Today, China’s industrial output is five sixths of the combined totals of the US, EU, Japan and UK.

The Biden administration has spent the past two years shutting the industrial stable door after the horse of intellectual property bolted to Beijing. It has placed export and investment bans on key Chinese tech companies, and begun the process of delisting Chinese companies from Wall Street. American politicians have begun to understand what ours only waffle about: the need for a rapid reindustrialisation programme and a plan to secure raw materials and supply chains in a rapidly deglobalising world. Joe Biden has also altered key words in diplomatic statements calling into question China’s support for ultimate reunification with Taiwan. 

And as with Roosevelt and Churchill, there’s an element of Biden calling Europe’s bluff over Russian aggression. With Germany and France prevaricating over arms to Ukraine, the Italian and Austrian right playing footsie with the Kremlin, and Hungary sympathetic to Russian aims, it may suit the State Department for European capitals to see what it feels like when the US is focused elsewhere.

The one positive factor here is that China, unlike Russia, is a rational agent. Its ruling elite know they need decades to emerge from dependency on Western markets, and to complete the transition to an advanced industrial economy. They could take Taiwan militarily any time they like: all recent wargames show China winning even if the US decides to fight. But China would become a global pariah as a result.

The West’s priority should be to deal with the irrational actor, Russia, and to find ways to accommodate and co-exist with China. Relentless arms sales, training and ammunition supplies to Ukraine, combined with sanctions that are slowly strangling the Russian economy, is the right strategy.

The worst outcome for Europe would be if the Pelosi trip and its unpredictable outcomes end up starting a new “Pacific First” debate in the US, both among the elites and the electorate. There is no Roosevelt-like figure to act as a moral obstacle and a “China First” strategy would be far more logical for America now than then.

To keep the global peace we are reliant on elderly Democratic Party politicians, befuddled by the implosion of political and economic certainties at home. Their track record of conducting geopolitics wisely, and taking the American people with them, is not a promising one.

[See also: How far will China go to punish the US for Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan trip?]

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