Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited Taiyi, Taiwan — which China considers an integral part of its land — on 2 August, inflaming decades-long regional tensions.
The visit sparked Chinese anger, as Pelosi has much bad blood with Beijing. 30 years ago, when she was just a member of Congress, she voiced her support for the demonstrators of Tiananmen Square in the heart of the Chinese capital and raised a banner honouring those killed in it during the suppression of protests in 1989.
Ignoring stern warnings from China, Pelosi arrived in Taiwan to convey the “support of her government and meet with human rights activists.”
Her visit is a continuation of her decades-old activism as a critic of the Beijing government, especially on human rights issues. The visit also highlighted the ability of Congress to move independently and take tougher stances than the White House in dealing with foreign issues.
China believes that US officials visiting Taiwan would send signals of encouragement to the pro-independence camp on the island, given that it sees Taiwan as part of its territory and has never ruled out the use of force to bring the island under its control. Taiwan, however, rejects China’s claim to its territory, saying only Taiwan’s people can decide its future.
Before the controversial visit, China threatened escalation, with Spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Zhao Lijian saying the visit would lead to “extremely dangerous developments and consequences.”
Although analysts doubted the feasibility of China’s threats, in terms of gain and loss, Beijing has lost strategically. Rather, it can be said that Beijing’s reaction — which did not go beyond the military exercises around the island — revealed China’s limited ability to act against American hegemony.
This is because the most that Beijing has done was to impose “sanctions” on Pelosi and her family in response to her “malicious” and “provocative” actions as a result of her visit to Taiwan.
At a time when the world is bidding farewell to the unipolar system that remained firmly established for nearly four decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s, everyone believed that China was one of those powers that would have a large share in the legacy of the US at least in the southern region of Asia.
Some believed that Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan would reveal Beijing’s ability to confront US plans; that it would be an opportunity for China to announce itself as a political, military, and economic power ready to play its new role in the world, similar to the Russian position in Ukraine.
However, the lacklustre reactions on the part of China brought catastrophic results and took China back steps.
Despite all the Chinese threats, Pelosi completed her two-day visit and China lost face, making it clear to the whole world that economic power alone — no matter how great it may be — can be mitigated as long as there is no willingness to use its military prowess.
There are many examples of this; there is Germany and Japan — both of which have much economic potential, except that they remain mere numbers as long as no one protects them.
China indeed fired 11 ballistic missiles in the vicinity of Taiwan, but Washington considered it a mere “exaggerated reaction” to Pelosi’s visit. It is almost as if Washington was saying: “There is no consoling Beijing.”
* Hatem Sadek is a Professor at Helwan University