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U.S.-China Tensions Rise as Pelosi Vows “Ironclad” Support for Taiwan During Controversial Trip

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U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has left Taiwan after a series of high-profile meetings with Taiwan’s pro-democracy president and other lawmakers. Pelosi’s visit made her the most senior U.S. official to visit Taiwan in 25 year and stoked tensions with China, prompting the nation to announce it would carry out new air and naval drills and long-range live-fire exercises in six areas around Taiwan beginning Thursday. The Quincy Institute’s Michael Swaine says President Biden should have done more to prevent the visit and uphold the One China policy, calling the move a “basic violation of the understanding that the United States and China reached at the time of normalization.” Taiwanese American journalist Brian Hioe rebukes Swaine’s claims, saying progressives should focus more on the desires of the Taiwanese than trying to cater to the whims of the two imperial powers of the U.S. and China, adding that the Taiwanese are not threatened by China’s retaliatory military escalation. “We cannot act as progressives or leftists seeing things in a bipolar world, seeing no other agency from any other force,” says Hioe.

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StoryJul 27, 2022A Pelosi Visit to Taiwan Could Inflame Tensions Between U.S. & China, with Little Benefit to Taiwanese
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has left Taiwan after a series of high-profile meetings that increased tensions with China, making her the most senior U.S. official to visit Taiwan in 25 years. Pelosi met with Taiwan’s president and Taiwanese lawmakers. Their encounter was partly broadcast online.

SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI: It’s really clear that while China has stood in the way of Taiwan participating and going to certain meetings, that they understand that they will not stand in the way of people coming to Taiwan. It’s a show of friendship, of support, but also a source of learning about how we can work together better in collaboration.

AMY GOODMAN: Pelosi discussed economic plans, including a possible trade deal between Taiwan and the United States, and met with key pro-democracy activists. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said she welcomed Pelosi’s visit.

PRESIDENT TSAI ING-WEN: The speaker’s presence here in Taiwan serves to boost public confidence in the strength of our democracy as a foundation to our partnership with the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, China responded to Speaker Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in part by announcing plans to carry out new air and naval drills and long-range live-fire exercises in six areas around Taiwan beginning Thursday. Taiwan said the military exercises are, quote, “tantamount to an air and sea blockade of Taiwan.” This is a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

HUA CHUNYING: [translated] The relevant actions of the Chinese military are a deterrent to the separatist forces in Taiwan and are justified. You mentioned the issue of the navigation in the waters. We have never seen any problems with the freedom of navigation in the waters. I think you should pay more attention to how U.S. warships and military aircraft have come so far right up to China’s doorstep to show off their force.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the U.S. is holding a massive military training exercise in the region with Indonesia, Australia, Japan and Singapore for the first half of August, with 5,000 soldiers on the island of Sumatra. This is the commanding general of the U.S. Army Pacific, Charles Flynn.

GEN. CHARLES FLYNN: With all of the technical and procedural aspects of this, it’s just a really important expression of our teamwork and our interoperability and our — our unity, really, as a group of nations that are — seek to continue to have a free and open Indo-Pacific.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Taipei, Taiwan, Brian Qiu Qixin Hioe is with us, Taiwanese American journalist, founding editor of New Bloom magazine. And in Washington, D.C., Michael Swaine is director of the Quincy Institute’s East Asia Program, longtime U.S.-China relations analyst. His books and briefings include America’s Challenge: Engaging a Rising China in the Twenty-First Century.

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Brian Hioe, let’s begin with you. You’re right there in Taipei, where Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, has just left along with her congressional delegation. Can you talk about the significance of this trip?

BRIAN HIOE: That’s right. And so, as mentioned, this is historic in the sense of this has not taken place in 25 years. But what is also interesting is that there has been such a large response. Under the Biden administration, there has more been the pattern of announcing these kind of visits after they take place. This gives China less of a window to react. But news of this broke much earlier, once there was a scoop by the Financial Times. And so, then, there have been weeks of discussion.

But I think that what is interesting to note, or what is significant to note, is that while Taiwan would directly be in the line of fire from China, there is actually not panic the way there was in the international world, and much discussion of. I think there’s not a lot of attention paid to that, Taiwanese and their own threat assessment of what this will lead to. And so, we’ll see about the exercises, because China claims it will only last for three days, and it does want to play them up as blockade now, but that is to be questioned.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Brian, what’s your sense of the reaction within Taiwan among the Taiwanese people to — and the government, as well, to Nancy Pelosi’s efforts? There have been some reports that even within the Taiwan government, there were concerns about her visit.

BRIAN HIOE: Well, I think the general public was not actually aware that this was really taking place until very recently. There is even a joke on the internet nowadays that people thought Pelosi was the name of a typhoon, that something was coming, it could cause chaos, but it was a typhoon. And so, now this visit’s happened.

But there’s also a question under what circumstances it took place. There was a report from a very pro-China media outlet, which has been reporting on — is taking funding and editorial direction from the Chinese government directly. The report claims that Taiwan tried to turn down Pelosi, to disinvite her, fearing the dangers, but that Pelosi was still insistent on going. That’s hard to say. It’s hard to know the veracity of this report. But the Taiwanese government is not in a position to say no to the U.S., even when it comes to issues that might put it in the line of fire.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like to ask Michael Swaine — here we are less than a year since the disastrous end of the 20-year U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, just six months since Washington’s efforts to expand NATO triggered the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a conflict that’s destabilized the entire world, pushed us closer to nuclear war. Why would our political leaders risk at the same time a new confrontation with China, our planet’s rising economic power and its most populous nation?

MICHAEL SWAINE: Well, that’s an excellent question. I’m not sure I know the answer to it, why they would want to do this at this time. I think the administration was not, in truth, terribly happy about Nancy Pelosi’s decision to take a congressional delegation to Taiwan at this time, but they certainly knew about it well in advance, and they could have done a lot more to try to discourage it, but they did not. And I guess, from what they’ve been saying since her visit there, that this is really no big deal, there’s no difference here between what she’s doing today and what’s happened in the past, that they think the Chinese will sort of shrug and say, “OK, well, I guess, no big deal.”

But, of course, that is not exactly what’s happening. You’ve got, if anything, the reverse. The Chinese have embarked on, as you said in your setup, a series of military actions here that rival or exceed the military actions that they took back in 1995, '96. And it's very hard to see how the Pelosi visit has helped or advanced Taiwan’s security in light of this kind of Chinese reaction.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you give, Brian, some background to the relationship between China and Taiwan? I think a lot of people are watching this all over the world. The historic background, the precise nature of the relationship between China and Taiwan, and how similar is it to Hong Kong?

BRIAN HIOE: Yeah. So, it is a sort of different circumstances, but, as you can imagine, facing the threat of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan have long seen common circumstances in each other. So, Taiwan is settled by Indigenous and Han settlers from previous centuries of migration. But as we know it today as the Republic of China, as it’s officially known, though many do not like that name, it is because of the KMT’s defeat in the Chinese Civil War. It brought with it what are the descendants of which are 10% of the population. Around 80%, 70% were from prior waves of migration. And so, there have been people in Taiwan for hundreds of years. And Taiwan was only incorporated into China under the Qing dynasty. And that’s only part of it.

So, that’s not surprising then that why people in Taiwan often have a different sense of identity from China. And the KMT, when it came to Taiwan, tried to depict Taiwan as having always been part of China. This is similar to what the PRC claims today as part of its very modern territorial claims over Taiwan. The PRC did not always, in fact — you can even quote Mao on this, Mao Zedong — make claims over Taiwan. But this issue now is contested in part because of geopolitics, because if China wants to expand its power outward into the Asia-Pacific, Taiwan is something it wants. And there’s also the desire for, for example, Taiwanese semiconductors or its resources and that sort of thing, because China is itself highly reliant on Taiwanese semiconductors for manufacturing, for its own supply lines. Even, according to some reports, they are present in the very missiles that China has pointed at Taiwan.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael, would you share Brian’s analysis of the past and the relationship between Taiwan and China?

MICHAEL SWAINE: Well, what Brian said is — as far as it goes, is fairly accurate. But I think the important point here is to understand what the larger context is of the relationship and the understanding reached between the United States and China regarding Taiwan at the time of normalization back in the 1970s and recognition in 1979. At that time, China and the United States basically reached an understanding over Taiwan, which was a very contentious issue at the time, and in order to try to neutralize that issue, the Chinese basically made a statement that they would pursue peaceful unification as a top priority. They wouldn’t give up the possibility of use of force, because they regard Taiwan as sovereign Chinese territory, and a sovereign state can exercise military force over its own territory. However, they said, “We will no longer seek to liberate Taiwan by force as our policy. We’re going to try a peaceful unification for years and work on that.” By the same token, China said, “OK, we recognize that China is the legitimate government — the PRC is the legitimate government of China, and we do not challenge the claim by China that Taiwan is a part of China.” Now, they didn’t say they officially recognized, in a legal sense, Taiwan as part of China, but they said they don’t challenge it. So, what you had here was the One China policy, peaceful unification.

Now, what’s happened since that time is there’s been a steady erosion on both sides in the level of their apparent commitment to those original pledges. And Nancy Pelosi’s trip, this latest trip, represents yet another movement away from the different understandings and stipulations and procedures that were basic to the One China policy that the United States had been pursuing for years. She flew over to Taiwan on an official U.S. military jet, that looked like Air Force One. She described her visit in Taiwan as an official visit. She publicized it in a very major way, unlike Newt Gingrich, who went as speaker of the House 25 years ago to Taiwan. Newt Gingrich went to Beijing first. He stopped in Taiwan very briefly and then moved on. The Chinese didn’t like it then. But now what Pelosi has done is much larger scale than this, much higher publicity, much more the trappings of an official visit. And that is really a basic violation of the understanding that the United States and China reached at the time of normalization, as I say. And there have been a lot of other developments over the years —

BRIAN HIOE: I’d like to cut in here, actually. So, can I ask —

MICHAEL SWAINE: — that have moved Taiwan closer and closer to the U.S.

BRIAN HIOE: Can I ask, actually, why we are talking about a 50-year-old agreement without talking about the wishes of the Taiwanese people in the slightest, justifying that the present actions China takes are somehow justified towards Taiwan because of these two imperial powers — the U.S. and China — deciding on the fate of Taiwan? I think there’s often a misperception that Taiwanese people are irrational, pursuing independence at all costs, even if this means regional conflict. But I think that if you look at the way Taiwanese people vote, it’s pragmatic, the path that they think will avoid conflict, will allow to retain their democracies. And so, I don’t know, then, why we’re talking about 50-year-old treaties by imperial powers, as though this were the left-wing or progressive position here.

MICHAEL SWAINE: Well, the point here is not so much what the Taiwanese themselves are saying in this regard. What I was just saying was about the United States —

BRIAN HIOE: So, then, it doesn’t matter, huh?

MICHAEL SWAINE: — and U.S. policy. The issue here — my point is the One China policy and the peaceful reunification agreement and understanding provided Taiwan with decades of stability and development. And that sort of relationship —

BRIAN HIOE: Under authoritarian rule, though, backed by the U.S.

MICHAEL SWAINE: — should continue. It should continue. And right now shifting on both sides, by both the Chinese and by the United States, away from this original understanding is actually weakening security for Taiwan. It’s undermining Taiwan’s own security. The Taiwanese don’t want changes in the status quo. They want a continuation of the status quo, and that’s not what they’re getting. They’re not getting that with Nancy Pelosi.

BRIAN HIOE: So, will that occur? I mean, you look at the fate of Hong Kong. You look at increasing Chinese threats directed at Taiwan. Even if Taiwan — you just claim as though if it do nothing, and then things would be all right. That’s not the case. China actively tries to undermine Taiwan. For example, there are Taiwanese that are kidnapped by China. For example, Lee Ming-che was one of the people that Pelosi met with today. Obviously this is political stunt, but there’s that. You look at the police crackdown in Hong Kong, the detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and these do not offer alternatives that Taiwanese people think of as peace. China is a power that is expanding. It wishes to expand. It wishes to challenge the U.S. It is modeling itself after the U.S., even using anti-terror discourse drawn from the U.S. war on terror. And so, then, why do you think that China would simply allow Taiwan to let live? That’s not how imperial powers work.

MICHAEL SWAINE: I don’t generalize to imperial powers, across the board, they all behave as such. I don’t want to get into that kind of argument, because you get into all kinds of exceptions when you talk about that. But in this particular case, I think the issue is what best serves Taiwan’s security interests over time. If you assume that the Chinese have absolutely —

BRIAN HIOE: And so, have you talked to Taiwanese people about what they think is best in their interests?

MICHAEL SWAINE: If you assume that the Chinese have absolutely no interest whatsoever in maintaining — in avoiding a conflict over Taiwan, that they’re just basically preparing to attack Taiwan, seize it and hold it, then we are in a different kind of situation from what we have been in for the last many decades. And I would not assume that the Chinese are developing or focused primarily on a policy of invading, seizing and holding Taiwan. They’re not stupid. They understand that that would be a huge roll of the dice. What they would prefer to do is to establish a relationship with Taiwan that was one in which Taiwan became increasingly inclined towards dealing with the mainland in some political way and could resolve the situation peacefully. That’s what they’d like.

Now, the Chinese have not been doing things that make that more likely. I’m not letting the Chinese off the hook here. I’m saying that the Chinese themselves have also been doing things that have been changing the status quo. Yes, they have been raising concerns in Taiwan and in the United States. And the United States has, in turn, responded to this by doubling down on deterrence. So what you have on both sides now is a heavy emphasis on military deterrence, heavy emphasis on worst-case outcomes, very little real communication about Taiwan and where Taiwan’s status lies and how you can stabilize the country. You’ve got this posturing going on and this positioning going on between both sides that is not serving the interests of Taiwan at all.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: If I can, if I can ask Brian, following up on this issue of the rest of the world not taking into account the aspirations of the Taiwanese people: If the Taiwanese people do wish, the majority of them, for independence from China, is it the responsibility of the United States to defend Taiwan’s viewpoints? Why should the United States be the country that is constantly the policeman of where democracy is expressed in the world?

BRIAN HIOE: Well, has it been? I mean, the U.S. backed authoritarian dictatorship in Taiwan for decades under Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo. And now, in the present, Taiwan is a geopolitical chess piece for the U.S., to be traded off perhaps, or it raises stakes for negotiations. That was very visible under Donald Trump. You know, some idealized him in Taiwan. And then, now, the present, the view from Americans is that, “Well, we should just fork over Taiwan to China,” that this is the way to keep peace. It seems very convenient logic for people from an imperial power in order to always maintain this.

So, what is the outcome that we hope for? It is not conflict on either side. There will be enormous losses, Taiwanese or Chinese — more Chinese perhaps, in fact, based on some of the estimates — of an invasion. So, how do we avoid this outcome? But we cannot assume that China will be an active rational actor here, when it’s increasingly authoritarian. Xi Jinping’s interests are not those of the Chinese people. For example, provoking a crisis, losing an enormous amount of — tens of thousands of young people, that might be the way for Xi to maintain power. It might be the way to expand power for him. It cannot be, then, just assuming that the CCP will act rationally, always just hoping for Taiwan to become willing to join with China, because what we see is that it takes a velvet glove approach sometimes, offering economic incentives; at the same time, it tries to set examples, which we see in Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, authoritarian repression, drilling in the South China Seas, territorial claims disputed with other Southeast Asian countries in the area. And so, there is that. This world is not just that of between the U.S. and China. And we cannot act, as progressives or leftists, seeing things in a bipolar world, seeing no other agency from any other force. We need to think of ways out of this binary. And I don’t see that happening.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like to follow that up, Michael Swaine, this issue of that we shouldn’t see this as a bipolar world. Where are the rest of the nations of the world and the United Nations when it comes to the issues of Taiwan and China and a One China policy?

MICHAEL SWAINE: Well, what we see is that the majority of countries in the world have either not challenged or have explicitly accepted some variation of a One China policy — that is, that they have recognized that Taiwan is a part of China, or they have not challenged that point. America and its closest allies have adopted very similar positions on that. Very few countries in the world recognize Taiwan as an independent state. There are a small handful countries, primarily in Central America. Most countries do not see Taiwan as a sovereign, independent state, and they don’t want to get embroiled, however, in the China-Taiwan conflagration or confrontation. They want to have good relations with both China and with Taiwan, so they don’t want to backstop actions that could really upset the stability of the situation now and lead to crisis or conflict. But, unfortunately, that is the direction in which we’re moving because of the kinds of calculations and the worst-casing and the zero-sum sorts of approaches that are being adopted by both the United States and China.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. I thank you so much for being with us. Of course, we’re going to continue to follow this issue. Michael Swaine, director of the Quincy Institute’s East Asia Program, and Brian Qiu Qixin Hioe, Taiwanese American journalist and editor of New Bloom magazine, speaking to us from Taipei.

Next up, Senate Republicans reverse themselves again, after being humiliated by both comedian Jon Stewart and U.S. vets, and they agree to join Democrats in passing a bill to aid U.S. vets poisoned by the Pentagon’s use of toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ll talk about the impact of these burn pits on both U.S. vets and on Iraqis. Stay with us.

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