Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan late Tuesday night, her tallest building – the iconic landmark Taipei 101 – lit up with words of welcome, flashing “Thank you” and “TW ♥ WE”
While Pelosi’s visit delighted Taiwanese, it enraged Beijing and angered the region about what China might do in retaliation. From the Philippines to Singapore, countries fear that the status quo is turning from tension to conflict.
“What countries in this region know is that China can’t do anything – it will look weak,” said veteran Singaporean diplomat and scholar Kishore Mahbubani. “China has no choice but to react,” he said, adding, “at the same time, China does not want to start World War III.”
China sees Taiwan as a breakaway island that should be ruled by the mainland. The United States follows an intentionally vague “One China” policy, which views Taiwan as an independent entity that should eventually be integrated into China.
Pelosi has long been a critic of China and an advocate of Taiwanese democracy. She was the first House speaker to surrender in 25 years, as US officials generally shy away from any move that could spark military conflict – China versus Taiwan, and possibly the United States.
Southeast Asia is particularly feeling the pressure of living in the shadow of the US-China rivalry. “Governments will be very careful” in talking about relations across the Taiwan Strait, “for fear of China’s reaction,” said Manila-based maritime expert Jay Batongbacal.
He says the region does not want to become “an arena of great power conflict” and countries would not want to be seen as taking sides.
For this reason, Southeast Asian governments have stuck to moderate statements about the importance for the United States and China to avoid “any miscalculation and further escalation of tensions”, as the said the Philippine Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Indonesia called on “all parties to refrain from provocative actions that could escalate the situation.”
China announced new live fire exercises in six locations near Taiwan within hours of Pelosi’s arrival on the self-governing island of 23 million. His military maneuvers have restricted the airspace and waterways around Taiwan, and an anxious region is watching.
Japan complained to Beijing that the area overlaps its exclusive economic zone, while Taiwan called the move a “challenge to international order”.
Actual drills – more aggressive than regular drills – should have been anticipated, according to Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, a government research agency. She calls Pelosi’s trip “dangerously provocative” and says it came at a time when tensions were already high in the region.
Anwar says Russia invades Ukraine: “We are all very nervous.” The prospect of China moving into Taiwan, replicating events in Europe, hangs over Asia, she says.
Anwar says the visit to Taiwan by a senior US official flouted the one-China policy that many countries adhere to when doing business with Taiwan, but refrain from sending their most important personalities. “It’s a question of face for China”, she says, and it “spits in their face”.
Anwar wonders about the endgame for the United States: “Do they want an open war with China over Taiwan?
Because war is so “unthinkable,” says Renato Cruz de Castro, a professor of international studies at De La Salle University in Manila, regional governments don’t tend to play on Taiwan’s geostrategic importance. His own government is instead focusing, he says, on more manageable issues such as how to evacuate Taiwan’s 142,000 overseas Filipino workers in the event of armed conflict.
Across the South China Sea, Beijing flexes its muscles, accused of intimidating fishermen, interfering with other nations’ vessels and claimed occupying islands by its smaller neighbours, including Vietnam and the Philippines.
“Being embroiled in a US-China conflict over Taiwan is high on the list of worries for most US allies and partners,” says Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Pelosi’s visit, he says, “will be viewed, at best, as unnecessarily risky for most regional governments.”
That said, countries in the region “don’t want the US to appear as a paper tiger” – which he said would only encourage further “bullying” from China.
But Batongbacal believes Pelosi’s visit was neither reckless nor worthy of China’s threat of military action, which he called “excessive” and “disproportionate”. Beijing, he says, is “highlighting what should be a minor event.”
Pelosi provided China “an opportunity to incite” a confrontation, he said, and China’s rhetoric sounded like “it was wasted on a fight.”
This is an outcome that no one wants.
“There will be no winners in a military conflict,” says Anwar. “We’re way too integrated now. If you disrupt trade in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, the whole economy of Southeast Asia will be destroyed.”