By – Omkar Bhole;
The Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan on 2nd August as a part of her East Asia tour. Amid several speculations as well as Xi Jinping’s stern warning to Biden about not ‘playing with fire’ over Taiwan, Pelosi did become the 1st high-profile U.S. Official to visit Taiwan after nearly 25 years. Despite China’s Defence Ministry Spokesperson Col Tan Kefei’s intimation that ‘a strong and resolute’ military response will be activated in case of Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, the 19-hours visit by the third most important figure of the U.S. government actually went through with an objective of showing support to Taiwan as USA’s democratic partner in the East Asian region. However, as expected, it sparked aggressive responses from different stakeholders in China. It was reported that over a million people at one point tracked Pelosi’s special flight in real time on 2nd August and its updates were constantly surfacing on China’s social media websites. China’s official response from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs focused on Pelosi’s Taiwan trip causing ‘serious infringement upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity’. However, several political as well as non-political sections of Chinese society reacted differently.
Build-up to the visit
Hua Chunying, Spokesperson of China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, echoing the official government position, had warned that all the consequences arising from Pelosi’s visit have to be borne by the U.S. and ‘Taiwan independence’ separatists forces. This warning was later proved to be true when China imposed several trade sanctions on Taiwan as well as announced live military drills in the vicinity of Taiwan. The official statement of Foreign Affairs committee of the CPPCC blamed the US for making unnecessary fuss about the Taiwan issue which is inherently an internal issue of China. The visit was also seen as a violation of one-China principle and provisions of China-US joint communiques, which are considered as the real “guardrails” for maintaining peaceful relations between the U.S. and China. This feeling of betrayal by the U.S. side was common among many Chinese officials as well as common citizens.
One of the former editor-in-chiefs of the Global Times, Hu Xijin, wrote that PLA aircrafts may ‘accompany’ Pelosi if she dared to keep her foot on Taiwanese land. Wang Yang, Chairman of the National Committee of the CPPCC, commented in a seminar marking 30th anniversary of 1992 China-Taiwan consensus, that outsiders are not reliable and provocation to secessionist forces in Taiwan will only bring misery for Taiwanese people. Such statements were clearly indicative that China would not tolerate Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and instead, use this as an opportunity to strengthen its hold over Taiwan. Some Chinese scholars also compared Pelosi’s visit to an earlier trip made by then U.S. House Speaker Gingrich in 1997 and suggested that Chinese response will not be limited only to diplomatic rhetoric this time as Sino-US relations have changed drastically in the last 25 years. A Global Times editorial on 29 July, 4 days before Pelosi’s visit, reiterated popular sentiment within China that “Taiwan is China’s territory and not a place where people can come and go at will.” The editorial further warned that a strong and concrete course of action plan will be devised to counter Pelosi’s “tentative” visit. PRC media also covered the views of many pro-Beijing Taiwanese political commentators who opposed Pelosi’s visit. Huang Zhixian, a Taiwanese political commentator was quoted as saying, ‘the crisis created by Pelosi’s visit may actually accelerate the unification process.’ Thus, it appeared that China had left no stone unturned in conveying its strong resistance to Pelosi’s Taiwan visit.
While analysing reasons behind Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, there were some common threads among several Chinese commentaries. These included U.S midterm elections and its significance for the ruling Democrats, saving Pelosi’s own image which was tarnished due to her husband’s scandalous behaviour, protecting Pelosi’s exchange interests with DPP and her own Sinophobia. Some articles even made a personal attack on Pelosi by calling her an ‘old witch’ and claiming that she was willing to wage a war with China for the sake of protecting her husband’s dubious investments. An article in Hexun, a Chinese financial news platform, revealed that Pelosi’s husband has stakes in an American semiconductor company NVIDIA and her meeting with TSMC chairman was aimed at protecting these interests in the light of the new Chips and Science bill. Another Chinese article also criticized Bi-khim Hsiao, a Taiwanese representative (her Twitter account read as ‘Ambassador’) to the USA, for instigating and arranging Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and called for sanctions on her too.
Shortly after Pelosi landed in Taiwan, China’s Vice-Foreign Minister Xie Feng summoned the U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns to warn about the grave consequences of Pelosi’s vicious visit. Many Chinese citizens also went to Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site, to express their discontent about Pelosi’s Taiwan visit despite repeated warnings given by the Chinese government. Many netizens also questioned the effectiveness of countermeasures that were supposed to have deterred Pelosi. However, there was a popular sentiment among most Chinese that the government should use this as an opportunity to reunify Taiwan by any means, which has become a popular trend among Chinese citizens in the last few years. Beijing has been making efforts to define these heightened tensions around Taiwan as ‘U.S.- produced crisis’ and thus, justifying China’s military and economic countermeasures for the sake of maintaining regional peace and national integrity. Many Chinese netizens also blamed the Taiwan administration for welcoming Pelosi and said that it deserves to face the wrath of 1.4 billion people and should be reunified militarily. On the other hand, the owner of a Taiwanese company Want Want Milk became an overnight sensation on Chinese social media after his open criticism of Pelosi and the US. This incident prompted Chinese citizens to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taiwanese companies and not impose a complete ban on Taiwanese products.
Wang Shushen, Director of the Taiwan-US Relations Research Office of the Taiwan Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, mentioned that Pelosi’s visit is a part of the U.S. strategy of using the ‘Taiwan card’ to distort and hollow out the one-China principle. Spokesperson of the NPC Standing Committee pointed out that the Taiwan issue is intricately linked to China’s national rejuvenation dream and thus, anyone trying to obstruct it will be facing serious consequences. Similarly, many Chinese believe that the government needs to call out USA’s bluff that China won’t act strongly on the eve of 20th Party Congress and take strong measures against secessionist forces and its external supporters.
Business community in China had mixed feelings over Pelosi’s visit. On one hand, most business people supported the government’s actions against Taiwan, some of them were also disappointed over the stock market crash caused by Pelosi’s visit. Many market indices in China fell by more than 2 per cent on the eve of Pelosi’s visit. This gave rise to discussion on social media that loss of Chinese wealth in stocks without inflicting any material loss on the US as promised earlier by the Chinese government. Some Chinese and foreign businesses also faced problems as the government put restrictions to allow only those Taiwanese suppliers who strictly adhere to One China principle. However, many restrained from talking about it publicly due to fear of backlash from the government.
Several civic groups from Taiwan have been widely reported in Chinese media for protesting against Pelosi’s Taiwan visit. These groups blamed DPP leaders and the U.S. for colluding against China and blamed Pelosi for foolishly escalating tensions in the region. Moreover, some Chinese media also popularized many op-eds written by Western scholars which also questioned the motives behind Pelosi’s adventure. China Daily wrote a commentary on few U.S. newspaper articles to claim that the failure of the President to prevent his own party colleague from ‘adopting an unwise diplomatic strategy’ indicates political dysfunction in the USA. Another Chinese article referred to former U.S. Senator Max Baucus’ argument that Pelosi’s visit has made Biden look weak in the U.S. as the visit was carried out despite Biden’s opposition. Through such tactics, the Chinese government tried to send a message that the U.S. is itself divided on shedding away its ‘strategic ambiguity’ over Taiwan and such visits will not pose a challenge for China’s reunification efforts.
Regarding the countermeasures adopted by China and its effectiveness, there were mixed sentiments among Chinese citizens and academicians. A Chinese political commentator Liu Heping described several features of China’s measures against the U.S. and Taiwan. He pointed out that China resorted to economic and trade sanctions on Taiwan whereas focused on military, judicial and climate diplomacy sanctions with regards to USA. Such distinction sent a message to the U.S. that China will not care for ‘military miscalculations’ if anyone challenges its core interests. According to Zheng Yongnian, a Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, China faces a dilemma in terms of the harshness of its countermeasures. If measures prove to be too weak, the USA will not be harmed at all and if they are too strong, it may create anti-China sentiments around the world. Moreover, if any conflict occurs out of this, the USA will seek this opportunity to strengthen Asian NATO (Quad). However, after the announcement of countermeasures against Pelosi and the U.S. government, many Chinese seemed to have expressed satisfaction. In fact, a section of Chinese society also started criticizing Hu Xijin for his war mongering statements and praised a cautious yet strong response initiated by the government. These ‘three cancellations and five suspensions” sanctions included cancelling military exchange mechanisms and suspending cooperation mechanisms in areas where the USA cannot achieve much without China’s support. Chinese IR experts believe that these measures will not only harm American interests, but also deter other countries from causing trouble over Taiwan in the future.
Social media sentiments and media coverage in China about Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan indicate rising domestic support for reunification of Taiwan by any means. Earlier discontentment about the Chinese government for allowing Pelosi to land in Taiwan has gradually changed to satisfaction after the announcement of military and non-military responses to punish secessionist forces and its foreign allies. Further, China’s efforts to gather support from the global community against USA’s misadventure have also achieved some success. Overall, China appears to have gotten an excuse to justify its aggression in Taiwan strait after Pelosi’s visit. It is estimated that China is likely to accelerate the unification process, keeping in mind internal and external factors that may affect this process. Internal factors like fear of ‘middle-income trap’, stagnant economic growth, PLA transformation and upgradation will be instrumental in determining the pace of this process. Moreover, the world is not yet ready to go through another war right now due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and post-pandemic recovery. Stephen Nagy, a Tokyo-based China analyst opines that this situation has trapped Xi Jinping between the nationalist demand for strong response and necessity of economic recovery. However, China’s countermeasures suggest that it has taken a step forward towards reunifying Taiwan and rise in nationalistic feelings within China might actually help the government to prioritize Taiwan’s reunification process over other domestic predicaments.
Omkar Bhole after completing the Graduation in History from the University of Mumbai, Omkar is currently pursuing MA in China Studies at Somaiya University, Mumbai. He has also completed 4 levels (HSK4) of Mandarin language training. His key interests are in China’s policymaking processes, India-China relations, China’s global footprint, and the Chinese economy.