Coral Bell, one of the finest strategic thinks of contemporary times had famously, but somewhat optimistically, advocated that peace-treaties be written without first fighting the wars. Her image of a 'crisis slide' saw the process beginning when adversaries are persuaded that there is no way out other than going to war. Thereafter it becomes an inexorable descent to the abyss of a military conflict. This simple but incontrovertible logic was extrapolated from her perception of global politics through the lens of a 'classical realist'. So, can it be argued that China and the United States are slowly but surely approaching this dangerous watershed point? Rapidly evolving events following Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent trip to Taiwan sadly point to this possibility.
What led to the Pelosi visit was probably the outcome of a complex interplay of domestic and international politics. Certain American scholars such as Graham Allison, Morton Halperin and others have opined that US policies are often the outcome of cumbersome bargaining between government agencies. Pull and pushes are exerted by different agencies upon the principal state executive to produce a certain result. So, by definition, the consequence is not preceded by an entirely rational process. Henry Kissinger had written that in the US foreign policy was but a series of moves and manoeuvres that have produced a result originally not planned for. Broadly this paradigm in decision-making has been referred to a "Bureaucratic Politics". Actors in the system, therefore, do not necessarily conform to a consensually agreed upon behaviour pattern in the State's external dealings. Speaker Pelosi and President Joe Biden represented two distinct pillars of State, the legislative and the executive, though the ultimately responsibility resides in the President, who is the embodies the US to the world beyond. They may not see eye to eye regarding many institutional, or even personal interests, and hence the outcome in the form of the Pelosi visit to Taiwan.
The visit is now over. But the dust from the storm it raised is far from settling down. There is also no telling when that would come about and if at all. The backdrop of the issue is a complex one. China has always claimed Taiwan as a renegade island-province with a destiny of union with the mainland. Now the US had shifted its diplomatic recognition of the Chinese state from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 under the "One China "principle. This generally acknowledges that Taiwan is a part of China. That also initiated an era of cooperation between the two powers, the US and China. China took advantage of the calm in their relations, tweaked its policies of socialism to achieve phenomenal economic and strategic growth and power, now being seen as the rising challenger to the sole hyperpower. Inevitably competition trumped collaboration with frequent verbal hostilities. China believed US was chipping away at the "One China" policy when thrice he stated last year that the US would fight to defend Taiwan if China attacked it, even though, the White House walked back on it. Naturally on all sides, including Taiwan, hawks and doves emerged in the governance system.
Nancy Pelosi was a hawk. An anti-China posture provided a modicum of unity across the aisle, a rarity in current US politics, and naturally as Speaker she relished the opportunity to forge it. Mid-term elections were upcoming, and popular causes were in demand at home or abroad. Besides, Pelosi was 82, an age at which most public figure contemplate leaving behind a heritage. So, despite some wariness from Biden as well as the Pentagon, she chose the option that demonstrated obvious moral, and even physical (as security was also a factor). She plumbed for the visit. When China warned retaliation, many on the US side publicly thought it was a bluff worth being called. Thus, China saw itself placed in a situation where it was damned if it reacted and damned if it didn't. It was a textbook 'crisis slide' situation as imagined by Coral Bell.
So, China reacted, and how! It reacted in three ways. First against Taiwan. Almost immediately it launched massive unprecedented live -fire military drill, for the first time, flying ordnance cross Taiwan. The manoeuvres included large number of warships, fighter jets and bombers, also featuring latest military hardware, including J-20 stealth fighters, and DF-17 hypersonic ballistic missiles. The exercises, some of which continue at writing, were conducted from six zones, encircling the entirely island, simulating a blockade in a possible future invasion of the island. The Chinese operated across the 'median line' along the Taiwan straits, which earlier they had respected, if not in theory, at least in practice, breaking an unofficially accepted taboo. On the economic and commercial side China stopped export of sand for construction and import of some kind fruits and fishes, said to be mainly from the constituency of the Taiwanese President, Tsai ling-wen, who is reputed to be pro-independence.
More significant perhaps for the world were the second set of measures directed against the US. China suspended all talks on crucial issues of climate change, cooperation on drug control, combating transnational crime and repatriation of illegal immigrants. The dialogues and working meetings between military leaders were also scrapped. A consultative mechanism on maritime military security was also ended. These actions are bound to have extremely negative ramifications for peace, security, and stability of the region. For good measure China also slapped stiff personal and targeted sanctions on Pelosi, her travel mates, and their families. Pelosi's grandson reportedly queried if that would mean his ticktock subscription is ended! The Chinese, using social media, were said to have responded that the implications extended to hundreds of millions of dollars of an investment company that Pelosi's husband was closely linked with, with huge interests in Hongkong and China. That would be a sobering thought for many! It was now a battle with no holds barred!
As was anticipated, the US felt compelled to be involved in a tit-for-tat retort. The White House declared that the country was set to conduct new "air and maritime transits" in the Taiwan Straits during the coming weeks. It reiterated the oft cited language (which could be indicative if a measured tone) that the US would "continue to fly, sail and operate where international law allows., consistent with our longstanding commitment to freedom of navigation". So, some of this is bound to happen, and it should surprise no one. Also, the second visit of the US legislators to Taiwan, less than two weeks after Pelosi's, though low-keyed, was meant to make the point that the Chinese military exercises will not be a deterrent to the US. But the circu8mstances this time round would be different and more dangerous, as the earlier 'confidence building measures '(CBMs) are no longer in place, and any accident could lead to catastrophic consequences.
It is to be noted that in some ways China, too, as its own 'bureaucratic politics'. President Xi Jinping is set to secure an unprecedented third term in office later this year that could consolidate his power for the entirety of his lifetime. His aim to bring the 'China Dream', or Zhao Guomeng, a set of complex prescriptions for 'national regeneration, is forcing him to tread a path different from the liberal economics of the Deng Xiaoping era. This entails slowing growth to spread its fruits among a wider matrix, a policy that surely would have opposition, however unarticulated within the apparently monolithic Chinese Communist Party. What would be seen in China as Xi's crowning glory would be the reunification of the mainland and Taiwan. As of now it is thought to be left to "a later generation". Should Xi perceive a burgeoning tendency on Biden's part to whittle down the "One China principle", he may decide to advance the reunification action.
So, can a war be avoided? Can the two major protagonists concerned be prevented for inexorably marching into battle, mainly because they have, by their words and actions, walled off all the pathways leading out of the battlefield? It would be much more than a huge pity if that were to happen. It would help if all parties could better understand the compulsions of the other, including the need to sometimes behave in a manner that is overtly irrational. That would entail an extremely sophisticated analysis of perceptions, and management of missteps under trying circumstances. However, it is to be expected that nations claiming superpower ranking should be capable of that. There is not much else that can be done to make the possibility of war less probable.
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