The skies are dark over the Asia Pacific. Not literally – the tropical sun shines as fiercely as ever as I peer out of the window in Kuala Lumpur. But the prospect of catastrophic conflict has moved into the realm of the plausible as China renews military drills near Taiwan, after holding its largest-ever exercises over three days in the area, to all intents and purposes, practising a blockade of the self-ruling island that Beijing considers to be a renegade province.
They were preparing for the worst in Washington as well. Retired US defence officials gathered last week at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, where Secretary of State Tony Blinken used to be a senior fellow, to war game a potential US-China contest over Taiwan in 2026. The full results will not be made public until December, but in the simulations thus far, the destruction on both sides was massive. “To get a sense of the scale of the losses, in our last game iteration the US lost over 900 fighter/attack aircraft in a four-week conflict,” a senior adviser at the centre told Bloomberg. “That’s about half the Navy and Air Force inventory.”
In the real world, China announced eight critical areas in which it will cease co-operation with the US, including dialogue between their respective militaries, talks on climate change, and mutual assistance over illegal immigration and crime. “War may well be impending,” tweeted Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon official whose recent book Strategy of Denial focuses on the supposed threat China poses in the region.
It would be easy to chalk all this up to Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan last week. True, it was foolish and selfish virtue-signalling by the Speaker of the House of Representatives and second in line to the US presidency, who is near retirement, and it has only worsened the situation for everyone. Ms Pelosi well knows that encouraging independence for the island is the most glaring of red lines for China, but she insisted on visiting “to support the defence of democracy against autocracy in the region and in the world”. (Presumably it was the other way round during the decades that the US supported the previous dictatorship in Taiwan, and even deployed nuclear weapons there.)
As Harvard University’s William Overholt put it: “Pelosi accomplished much in Taiwan. She stimulated cyberattacks, got thousands of businesses banned from exporting to China, shut down important cross-Strait communications tool Weibo, elicited mainland military exercises and stimulated an imminent temporary blockade.”
Ms Pelosi undermined US President Joe Biden and made him seem weak, after he said the military didn't want her to go but she went anyway. This does not demonstrate coherent American strength on the issue, especially since Mr Biden is the leader of the Democrats, the party to which they both belong.
She forced China’s president Xi Jinping into having to make a greater show of strength than he might have chosen, after he was criticised by some nationalists for not doing enough to respond to her provocation.
But perhaps Ms Pelosi was only revealing what at heart the Biden administration’s position truly is, while all concerned could claim that firstly, she was acting independently, as head of a different branch of government, and secondly, there was nothing special about it anyway. “Members of Congress travel there all the time, and a speaker of the House has previously travelled there as well,” said National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. That was completely disingenuous, as when the Republican Newt Gingrich visited in 1997 he was effectively the head of the opposition to the Democratic president Bill Clinton.
No. The Shanghai Communique of 1972, which is the foundation of diplomatic relations between the two countries, states it plainly: “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position.”
It may not have done then, but Mr Biden has come as close as possible to trashing the “One China” stance with his repeated assertions that the US would defend Taiwan if it came to war, even once comparing America’s relations with the island to those with its treaty partners in Nato. This is recklessness in the extreme. However much outsiders may have sympathy for the people of Taiwan, there is no legal basis for independence, and when the nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek retreated there in 1949 after being defeated by the communists in China’s civil war, he certainly didn’t think he was going to a different country.
Hawks like Mr Colby believe the answer is for the US to increase defence spending drastically. Many in the region that would be directly affected by conflict believe, on the other hand, that it has never been more crucial to reaffirm the “One China” policy. It was noticeable that in their statements following Ms Pelosi’s visit, nearly every member of the Association of South-East Asian Nations stressed their commitment to that position, which maintains there is but one China, whatever the current circumstances happen to be.
Sarang Shidore of the US-based Quincy Institute wrote: “Next to ‘One China’, the most common phrase in the statements was ‘stability’ or ‘peace & stability’ as also ‘restraint’ or ‘self-restraint’... If the destabilisation and/or violation of sovereignty is seen to come proactively from Washington (as in this case), it will not go down well.”
This not to say that countries in the region are explicitly taking China’s side, just that it is the US that is rashly and dangerously challenging the status quo – a compromise, moreover, that poll after poll shows has the overwhelming support of the Taiwanese population.
All participants have their own interpretation of what “One China” means, which only serves to conceal the differences. But it has worked until now. To abandon it in pursuit of some ideal of official secession that even the Taiwanese are not asking for would be a genuine casus belli for China. US officials should stop playing with fire before the whole Asia Pacific gets burned.