Two different victories after Pelosi’s trip

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Two different victories after Pelosi’s trip

Choo Jae-woo
The author is a professor of Chinese foreign policy at Kyung Hee University.

In the lead-up to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on Tuesday, the United States and China exchanged tense tits-for-tats, something akin to a game of chicken. On July 21, U.S. President Joe Biden tried to distance himself from her trip by resorting to the Pentagon’s description of it as “not a good idea.” In a two-hour telephone conversation with Biden a week later, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated his denunciation of last November of U.S. intervention in Taiwan issues. Warning the U.S. president not to cross a line, Xi said, “Those who play with fire will get burned.” That translated into a strong warning that if Pelosi pushed her trip to Taiwan, it could trigger serious ramifications.

Amid the escalating war of nerves over Pelosi’s trip, China kept rattling the saber toward Taipei. Following repeated infiltration of a fleet of fighter jets into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), the Chinese People’s Liberation Army conducted live shell firing drills toward Taiwan. Pelosi visited Taiwan under such circumstances to directly deliver the determination of the U.S. Congress to defend Taiwan in times of crisis. The composition of the U.S. delegation that accompanied Pelosi showed it: House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks; House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano; House Ways & Means Committee Vice Chair Suzan DelBene; House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence member Raja Krishnamoorthi; and House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees member Andy Kim.

Pelosi’s Taiwan trip earned America a political and diplomatic victory as the U.S. can strengthen relations with the state by delivering Congress’s solid position on defending the country. Biden has made pledges to defend Taiwan — three times this year alone — including the latest one in May after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Pelosi’s visit last week reaffirmed America’s resoluteness on the level of Congress.

The United States also earned a noticeable achievement on economic interests. Following the passage in the House last month of the $280 billion Chips and Science Act aimed at boosting U.S. semiconductor manufacturing and competitiveness with China, America has set the foundation to consolidate its strategic “Chip 4” alliance with South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Pelosi met Mark Liu, Taiwan’s TSMC chairman, to discuss future cooperation with the chip foundry giant.

Beijing’s unrefined political attacks also helped Uncle Sam grab a political and diplomatic triumph. After the possibility of Pelosi visiting Taiwan grew, China intensified political and diplomatic offensives since July while ratcheting up the level of military pressure on the U.S. But the move went nowhere. China not only failed to block Pelosi’s trip, but also America did not “get burned.” If Beijing had stayed cool, it might have avoided losing face in the way it did. In a poignant twist, a White House official compared China to a “paper tiger.” Ouch!

From the perspective of military strategy, however, China clearly clinched a victory over America. Xi’s hawkish military response to Pelosi’s trip proved effective. After Xi sent fighter jets and warships to the strait, the airplane Pelosi was aboard had to make a detour from Malaysia. U.S. carrier strike groups dispatched to the strait to escort Pelosi’s plane could not across the “first island chain” the U.S. had drawn to protect against China’s threat after World War II. In a nutshell, China’s anti-access and area-denial (A2AD) strategy worked.

China also proved that the Taiwan strait is not international waters in times of crisis — thanks, partly, to the U.S. government’s failures to make Pelosi’s trip public and highlight the freedom of navigation before her departure. As the strategic implications suggest, the freedom of navigation was effectively denied by China in East China Sea, South China Sea and the Taiwan strait. That could adversely affect the future of the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Quad.

When Pelosi traveled on to Seoul, President Yoon Suk-yeol only had a 40-minute phone chat with her, no actual meeting. Pelosi’s Asian tour was closely linked to Korea’s national interests. A meeting with the House Speaker is not something that can be handed over to her South Korean counterpart. Past Korean presidents met Rep. Stephen Solarz, who often visited Seoul, and even the Rev. Billy Graham when needed. Mysteriously, however, Yoon did not meet the political heavyweight of his key ally, who could help him fix his administration’s position on the alliance through her visit.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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