Xi seems to have not got the memo that the Legislature is independent of the Executive under the US Constitution, for his accurate surmise that Biden was unhappy about Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan led him to believe that the White House could get it cancelled, writes Prof. Madhav Das Nalapat
On 1 October 1949, CCP Chairman Mao Zedong announced that “China has stood up”. The slogan resonated with a population that had endured more than a century of turmoil and humiliation, and who were eager to leave that tragic past behind. What Mao delivered was a country whose capital controlled more than twice the land area that it had in previous eras.
The first Red Emperor annexed Manchuria, large chunks of Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet, wisely avoiding any serious effort at taking over Taiwan, now that the island was teeming with KMT troops that could be expected to put up a fierce resistance. Apart from that, there was the Taiwan Straits, a ribbon of water that continues to protect the island nation from attack by its much bigger neighbour to the west.
Hong Kong was also left alone, as Mao had no desire to enter into a conflict with the Anglo-American alliance, although soon afterwards, worry about the intentions of General MacArthur caused the CCP Chairman to order the PLA to enter the Korean peninsula in force on the side of Kim Il Sung. Behind his rhetoric of being ready to sacrifice hundreds of millions of lives should the necessity for human sacrifice on such a scale arise, Mao was a pragmatist who focused on the stabilisation of the CCP regime in China, now that he had more than doubled the size of the country.
He declared publicly that any absorption of Taiwan would take place only in an undefined and remote future, unlike the present CCP supremo, who says that the takeover of Taiwan will take place during his stint in power. A risky dare, given the potential consequences to the PRC economy were his calculations concerning the success of an invasion to go wrong.
Not that this has been the only public geopolitical gamble that Xi has made. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan may by now be aware that an unscripted President Biden is sometimes an asset but is often unhelpful to overall US interests. It was after Biden’s impromptu remarks that the US military was alarmed about a possible visit by Speaker Pelosi to Taiwan that Xi ordered a ferocious ramping up of the verbal offensive against that visit.
The expectation was that an already jittery White House, not to mention the Pentagon, would prevail over the third in line to the US Presidency and force her to cancel the visit, perhaps on grounds of health. Of course, once the PRC Ambassador to the UK had made the proposed Pelosi trip public in an interview to a fawning correspondent of the UK-based Financial Times, had Pelosi called off the visit, the reaction of voters vital to the prospects of the Democratic Party in the approaching midterm elections would be devastating to the Democratic Party.
US voters, in common with those in India, have contempt for cowards. Some of those intending on making the trip called it off once the Xi Jinping propaganda machine moved into high gear, even threatening to shoot down the aircraft carrying Pelosi to Taipei. All of a sudden, other engagements popped up on the calendars that made some of them shamefacedly cancel their participation in the Pelosi delegation, but less skittish legislators decided to accompany the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, possibly after checking up on their insurance payments.
Back at the start of the year, the NATO leadership had convinced itself that President Putin would not dare to launch a comprehensive war aka Special Military Operation on Ukraine, now that the Atlantic Alliance had turned up the screws on sanctions present and threatened directed at Moscow. That bit of bluster failed to deter Putin, and as it turned out, Xi’s bluster failed to deter Pelosi.
Xi seems to have not got the memo that the Legislature is independent of the Executive under the US Constitution, for his accurate surmise that Biden was unhappy about Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan led him to believe that the White House could get it cancelled. Hence the ramping up of rhetoric, so that once Speaker Pelosi feigned indisposition and skipped Taipei, the CCP General Secretary would get the credit for the reversal.
It seems from its rhetoric that the CCP leadership believes that PRC citizens thinks about nothing else other than the question of Speaker Pelosi defying the diktat of Xi and actually going to Taiwan to an enthusiastic welcome from that democracy. Worsening economic conditions in the PRC and the rise in arbitrary detentions are of no importance in the CCP’s mind when compared with Speaker Pelosi having the effrontery to meet with Taiwanese President Tsai.
After Trump’s ditching the Kurds in Syria and signing a surrender document with the Taliban at Doha in 2020, followed the next year by Biden following in Afghanistan Gorbachev’s example of 1988, when the last Soviet communist party leader abandoned Afghan President Najibullah to his fate, confidence in the sincerity of the US to stand by its security guarantees was on the way to becoming extinct. The Pelosi visit to Taipei has changed that perception, and not just in Taiwan. Who knows, perhaps even the tremulous President Biden may imbibe a few lessons in courage from the example set by Speaker Pelosi.