Even in a world where war and its far-reaching consequences have never been far from the surface of the global discourse for a good six months now, this was a week that felt closer to some sort of tipping point than almost any other time in a generation, at least.
The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi - officially third in line to the presidency - arrived in Taiwan on Tuesday (Aug. 2) for what she called a show of American solidarity with the island, defying repeated warnings from Beijing. It all served to exacerbate the tensions that became entrenched in bilateral ties between the world's two biggest economies, following the Trump administration's adoption of a hawkish stance in almost every sphere of the relationship - all geared towards a deliberate 'decoupling' with China. That process today enjoys bipartisan support within the US body politic, and so it's safe to say the visit that lasted barely 24 hours took place at a time when US-China relations are the poorest they have been in decades.
Pro-independence elements in Taiwan, the island of 23 million with its advanced, hi-tech economy, fiercely independent press and vibrant democracy, expressed near-rapture - electronic billboards with heart emojis lit up the iconic Taipei101 skyscraper and Pelosi was bestowed with a government honour called the Order of the Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon - suitably grand, then. To be sure, the 82-year-old speaker's credentials included an impeccable record in the defence of human rights, to go with a reputation as a 'China hawk' to boot. By all accounts, her visit proceeded despite public misgivings on the part of President Joe Biden himself. She thus became the highest-ranking US official to set foot in Taiwan in 25 years.
Once diplomatic ties were finally established between Washington and Beijing in 1979, successive US administrations adopted a policy of "strategic ambiguity" on the issue of Taiwan. Under the "One China" policy, Washington recognises Beijing's position that there is only one Chinese government. However, the US maintains a "robust unofficial relationship" with Taiwan -- including weapons sales -- and does not concede China's sovereignty over the island. It calls for a peaceful resolution of Beijing's claim to Taiwan, with an unspoken commitment to come to Taiwan's aid, in the event of China resorting to force to take back what it considers its renegade province.
Chinese officials served repeated warnings containing veiled threats to call off the visit by Pelosi- although these would have only served to make it even more imperative. On the eve of her arrival, hackers (just maybe Chinese?) staged a cyberattack that took down the website of Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen's office. While she was there, no less than 27 Chinese war planes penetrated Taiwan's Air Defence Identification Zone. After the speaker left, the People's Liberation Army commenced its largest ever military exercise in the waters around Taiwan, featuring live-fire drills that will continue through the weekend.
China had stepped up military provocations over the past several months, with frequent incursions into the ADIZ. Beijing also amplified its sovereignty claims on the Taiwan Strait recently. America meanwhile, had responded by staging joint naval exercises with allies in the region and sailing warships on freedom of navigation exercises.
Through it all, China is believed to have a timetable for the reunification it seeks, determined by an assessment of whether the window for peaceful unification is closed. When the dust settles on the events of this past week, Speaker Pelosi's visit is likely to narrow China's assessment of this window - hastening its timetable.
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