Pulling the dragon’s tail
Dan Lazare looks at the dangerous implications of Nancy Pelosi’s provocative trip to Taiwan, and the silence of the congressional left
Here’s a quiz for US foreign policy fans. The only major political figure in the United States to criticise Nancy Pelosi’s proposed trip to Taiwan was:
A) Bernie Sanders.
B) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
C) Donald Trump.
It’s understandable if you answered ‘A’, since speaking out against imperial provocations like this one is what socialist leaders are supposed to do. The same goes if you answered ‘B’, since a firebrand like AOC can hardly be expected to hold back at such a fraught moment.
But you’d be wrong. The correct answer is ‘C’. While America’s two leading pseudo-leftists were maintaining strict silence, Trump was letting it rip. As he put it on Friday, on Truth Social, his personal social-media platform:
Why is Nancy Pelosi getting involved with China and Taiwan other than to make trouble and more money, possibly involving insider trading and information, for her cheatin’ husband? Everything she touches turns to Chaos, Disruption and ‘Crap’ (her second big Congress ‘flop’ happening now!), and the China mess is the last thing she should be involved in - she will only make it worse. Crazy Nancy just inserts herself and causes great friction and hatred. She is such a mess!!!
The references may be a bit obscure for non-US readers. “Her cheatin’ husband” refers to businessman Paul Pelosi (net worth: $135 million), who recently raised eyebrows by unloading $5 million worth of shares of chipmaker Nvidia, just as members of Congress were preparing to vote on subsidies for domestic chip manufacturers. “Flop” refers to an assault-rifle ban that Speaker Pelosi shepherded through the House of Representatives, even though it faces certain death in the Senate.
But the statement is otherwise clear. Pelosi is taking a dangerous situation and making it worse. Democrats are fouling up royally. Hence the implicit message: fire the entire lot and bring in MAGA to clean the house.
Trump’s intervention speaks volumes about an episode that is stunning in its recklessness and fatuity. While Trump is certainly no stranger to China-bashing, he is smart enough to realise that the latest showdown can only end badly for the Biden administration and that the effect will therefore be to undermine the Democrats and strengthen the ultra-right. It is yet another case of weak-minded centrists handing over power, willingly or not, to expressly anti-democratic forces.
It also speaks volumes about the incompetence of the US government from top to bottom, the fecklessness of US Democrats - five Democratic members of Congress are accompanying Pelosi on the trip - the idiocy of the mainstream-Republican me-too chorus, and the rottenness of American imperialism in general.
The White House opposes the trip but has been too timid to say so out loud. “As reports of the trip solidified in recent days”, the CNBC news network reports, “Biden’s top spokespeople have been forced to say over and over that they cannot confirm or deny the existence of any upcoming trip, and at the same time downplay its significance.” As National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on August 1, Biden has “made clear that Congress is an independent branch of government and that speaker Pelosi makes her own decisions, as other members of Congress do, about their overseas travel.”1
It’s not our fault, in other words - the decision is hers alone, and, anyway, it doesn’t matter because, hey, it’s only a trip.
All of which is nonsense. After years of rising tension, Washington is upping the ante in the most dramatic fashion possible, presenting Beijing with no option but to respond in kind. The result is a major escalation that leaves little doubt that a military clash is on the way. If it does not happen this week or this month, it will occur soon enough after.
The United States is following the same disastrous road that it did in Ukraine. After expanding Nato to the east and purposely disregarding Moscow’s security concerns, it engaged in provocation after provocation, while insisting with wide-eyed innocence that Russia had no cause for concern. Last November, to cite just one example, the Biden administration signed something called the US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership, a document committing both countries to taking back Crimea, the peninsula that Putin seized with overwhelming local support in the wake of the 2014 US-engineered Euromaidan coup.2
Imagine if Russia and Syria had entered into a strategic partnership aimed at taking back the Golan Heights, seized by Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Or if China and North Korea had entered into a strategic partnership aimed at taking back the south. There is no doubt as to what the US response would be - ie, absolutely deafening.
“Nations have a right to sovereignty and territorial integrity”, Biden insisted blandly. “They have the freedom to set their own course and choose with whom they will associate. But that still leaves plenty of room for diplomacy and for de-escalation. That’s the best way forward for all parties in our view.” That was in mid-February. Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation”, which the US did so much to provoke, followed nine days later.
Calling for de-escalation while continuing to escalate - such is the American way. Now the US is doing the same with China. Where Trump steered a hard course throughout his term, Biden insisted during the 2020 presidential election campaign that he would be just as tough. “This is a guy who doesn’t have a democratic, with a small ‘d’, bone in his body”, he said of Xi Jinping during a presidential debate. “This is a guy who is a thug, who in fact has a million Uyghurs in … concentration camps.”3 “The United States does need to get tough with China”, he declared a few weeks later.4 Biden sent secretary of state Antony Blinken to accuse China of genocide at a March 2021 summit in Alaska, imposed trade sanctions in June, and in October declared that he would defend Taiwan militarily against Chinese attack - a violation of the “strategic ambiguity” that is the official US stance. He threatened China in March 2022 with unspecified “consequences” if it aided Russia in its war against Ukraine and repeated his vow to defend Taiwan militarily in May.
In the meantime, the Pentagon labelled China “our most consequential strategic competitor” and a “growing multi-domain threat”.5 Now, whether it admits it or not, the administration is following up with a direct challenge to the One China policy that has been the foundation of US-Chinese relations for half a century.
Much has changed since the last time the US and China went to the mat over Taiwan in the mid-1990s. Intense military modernisation has resulted in a Chinese navy that is now 20 percent bigger than that of the US. The people’s republic has assembled a formidable range of hypersonic missiles known as “carrier killers” for their ability to wreak havoc on the high seas. Oriana Skylar Mastro, a China security expert at Stanford, recently pointed out that, where the US has two air bases within approximately 330 miles of Taipei, China has 39 within a slightly larger radius of 500. China also has the capability to target US communications satellites, while relying on more reliable fibre-optic cables at home. It also has enough military, economic, and political clout to see to it that otherwise pro‑US countries in the region remain on the sidelines if worse comes to worse.6
To be sure, the Chinese navy has never been tested in combat. But firepower on this scale is more than enough to make up for a lack of experience. In 2018, a congressionally-mandated assessment concluded that America would face a “decisive military defeat” in the event of a showdown. The Pentagon has held 18 war games designed to simulate a real conflict over Taiwan as closely as possible, and in every single instance the US has lost.7
China, of course, is also a nuclear power with a stockpile of warheads somewhere “in the low 200s,” according to Pentagon estimates, and a hundred or so ICBMs capable of reaching the American mainland.8 That’s 75 percent less than the US total, but still enough, needless to say, to impose levels of damage beyond imagination.
So the options range from conventional warfare, in which the US is likely to face defeat, to a nuclear holocaust in which the concept of victory or defeat is meaningless. So why is America behaving so rashly?
One reason is constitutional breakdown. Washington has carried separation of powers to extremes, so it is no surprise that an aging China-basher like the 82-year-old Pelosi has gotten it into her head to make foreign policy on her own. The rest of the world may find it hard to believe, but it is true: US government is a multi-headed hydra that speaks with multiple voices that often conflict.
Another reason is incompetence. As anyone who has noticed Joe Biden’s vacant expression in recent months will agree, America’s aging chief executive has effectively gone AWOL. He has a poor grasp of the issues, he blurts out statements that aides have to walk back, and he falls asleep at international conferences.9 “The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now,” he said two weeks ago about Pelosi’s upcoming trip. “But I don’t know what the status of it is,” he added - as if that was someone else’s responsibility. Biden should make up his mind as to whether or not he wants to stick with the One China policy. But instead he has chosen an incoherent policy in between.
There is also hubris - the sense that America is invulnerable and must never back down. Finally, there is the “imperial overstretch” that historian Paul Kennedy described in his classic 1987 study, The rise and fall of the great powers. After a utopian interlude in which “the indispensable nation” thought it could create its “own reality”, leaving it to others “to just study what we do” (to quote Madeleine Albright and Karl Rove respectively), reality has arrived with a vengeance. The Russian war machine is grinding on in eastern Ukraine, economic sanctions are backfiring, and the global economy is suffering from inflation and recession - a combination that the war did not cause but which it has certainly intensified. Governments are falling in Britain, Italy and Bulgaria, as Europeans wrestle with the consequences of continually deferring to a group of mindless neocons in Washington.
And now the same laptop bombardiers are stumbling into an even worse debacle that cannot help but summon up memories of 1914. Last time around, it was the Americans, French, and British who picked up the pieces at Versailles. The question now is who will pick up the pieces after the US.
Christina Wilkie ‘White House struggles to insulate Biden’s China policy’ CNBC, August 2 2022: www.cnbc.com/2022/08/02/white-house-struggles-to-insulate-bidens-china-policy-from-pelosis-taiwan-trip.html.↩︎
US State Department, November10 2021: www.state.gov/u-s-ukraine-charter-on-strategic-partnership.↩︎
Joe Biden ‘Why America must lead again’ Foreign Affairs March-April 2020: www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again.↩︎
Jacqueline Feldshcer ‘China tops threats in new defense strategy’ Defense One March 29 2022L: www.defenseone.com/policy/2022/03/china-tops-threats-new-defense-strategy/363754.↩︎
Oriana Skylar Mastro ‘Biden says we’ve got Taiwan’s back. But do we?’ New York Times May 27 2022: www.nytimes.com/2022/05/27/opinion/biden-taiwan-defense-china.html.↩︎
Graham Allison ‘Could the US lose a war with China over Taiwan?’ National Interest October 29 2021: nationalinterest.org/feature/could-us-lose-war-china-over-taiwan-195686.↩︎
‘Military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China 2020’ Department of Defense: media.defense.gov/2020/Sep/01/2002488689/-1/-1/1/2020-DOD-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT-FINAL.PDF.↩︎