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Editorial: Poking a dragon in the eye – Pelosi's Taiwan trip is reckless and dangerous

NANCY PELOSI’S Taiwan touchdown is an irresponsible, provocative stunt which risks starting a war.

It is a depressing sign of the times that some British MPs’ response to this reckless brinkmanship is to announce their own Taiwan visit for this autumn.

The Pelosi trip and the British tribute act planned by the ever bellicose Tom Tugendhat and friends will be presented as part of US President Joe Biden’s “democracy alliance.”

British media will present Taiwan as a plucky little democracy threatened by its authoritarian neighbour, analogous to their presentation of Ukraine and Russia. 

Indeed, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is cited as a reason Western politicians must shore up their relations with Taiwan. The reasoning is utterly misconceived.

One delusion is that the build-up of Western military might deters rather than provokes a response. If the definition of madness is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results, this is a mad policy.

The US was enlarging its military presence in eastern Europe year on year before Russia attacked Ukraine, masterminding enormous military drills along the Russian border from the Baltic to the Black Sea. These drills were described by one member of the Ukrainian government in 2021 as a dry run for “the war with Russia.”

It is no justification for the Russian invasion to observe that Moscow viewed these activities as threatening and that preventing further US military encroachment was one factor that led to war.

Another is the very different status of Taiwan to Ukraine in international law. Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan is recognised by almost every government on Earth, including the US and Britain. It is even recognised by Taiwan, which is officially the Republic of China and maintains a territorial claim to the Chinese mainland.

History matters. Taiwan is a Chinese province conquered by Japan in 1895, one of the many territorial losses imposed on China in the “century of humiliation” that began with the Opium War of 1842 and ended with the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949.

Liberated toward the end of the second world war, Taiwan became the last holdout of the Chiang Kai-shek government after communist revolution swept the rest of China, with the US navy stopping the People’s Liberation Army from reaching the island. 

In Chinese eyes, reunification of the territories sundered by imperialist powers is part of the process of decolonisation. This is why the “one China” policy has always been insisted on as a precondition of opening relations with China. 

US understanding of this underpinned the normalisation of relations with Beijing in the 1970s. Reneging on it undermines the entire basis of US-China ties, taking us into uncharted waters.

Western liberals, whose sensitivity to colonialism’s long shadow is rarely acute, may dismiss all this as ancient history and say we should still defend Taiwan if it is threatened.

But when is it “threatened?” Only when Western powers pull stunts like Pelosi’s.

China has pursued a policy of peaceful reunification for decades, working to deepen trade ties with Taiwan and supporting a “one country, two systems” model similar to that applied in Macao and in Hong Kong, where it was largely successful before a hostile movement opposed to any integration with China, awash with US funding, worked to destabilise it.

China only threatens military action when Washington implies it is determined to thwart peaceful reunification. Pelosi’s trip makes a Taiwan war more, not less, likely.

It’s possible this is deliberate: as the Ukraine war has shored up European military subordination to the US through Nato, a China-Taiwan conflict might be viewed as a chance to accelerate Japanese militarisation and bring more Asian countries into its orbit.

The human cost of such a gamble would be intolerable — and it risks spilling over into war between the world’s most powerful countries.

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