The latest trip abroad by Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the lower house of the US Parliament, was commented on by the world media mainly for its most scandalous part which (expectedly) was a visit to Taiwan by a third person in the US government hierarchy.
The author’s view regarding the significance of this part is that the increasing of tensions between the two leading world powers provoked by it is of a short-term nature. This relationship is highly likely (and fairly quickly) to return to an “almost initial” state of balancing, which has been influenced for decades by two contradictory factors. One of these is due to increasing US-China political competition in the international arena, and the other is due to the interest of both countries in maintaining a (long-established) state of “economic interdependence”, taking all costs of the second factor into account (mainly for the US).
Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan seems to have been entirely motivated by the very difficult domestic political situation in the US itself. This visits was not welcomed even within the Democratic Party. Almost certainly both the forthcoming event itself and the format of the PRC’s response to it were one of the main subjects of an earlier phone conversation between the two presidents. Remarkably, none of them publicly reacted to this act of political provocation. However during this act and afterwards, there were repeated affirmations from Washington of its respect for the One China principle which is of crucial importance for Beijing.
In the short term, one can hardly expect any significant harsh statements from the PRC, towards Taiwan in particular. For example, it could have been a “blockade” or even “razing everything that’s on the island to the ground using missiles”. It is the case at least because Beijing has as much (or rather more) interest in keeping safe (almost) the world monopolist in the field of microchip production, which is the Taiwanese company TSMC, all its 50,000 employees, as well as the housing of the latter.
Therefore, a meaningful component of Nancy Pelosi’s entire tour should be linked to her visits to Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan. It was these countries without mentioning Taiwan that she indicated herself before departing on her tour. It was also said at the time that during her visit to each of these countries, the guest would “reaffirm America’s strong and unshakeable commitment to our allies and friends in the region”.
The first two countries are located in South-East Asia, i.e. in the most important of a number of sub-regions that make up the Indo-Pacific. Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Singapore and Malaysia fits in with the general trend of recent particular US attention, to the situation in Southeast Asia. Both countries are members of the regional association ASEAN, with which all the world’s leading actors are eager to develop relations.
As for Washington, its focus on Southeast Asia and ASEAN is motivated by attempts to counter the expansion of its main geopolitical opponent in the sub-region. Neither Singapore nor Malaysia is in a state of military-political alliance with Washington, but from some point of view they can be labelled (especially the former) as its “friends”.
The same keynote is also an element of the frequent visits of American statesmen to the Republic of Korea and Japan. In contrast to the first two, the abovementioned countries are linked to the US through political-military alliances. A perennial headache for Washington, however, is the wary state of relations between the ROK and Japan, to say the least. This prevents the long-standing American plans for creating a triple alliance, naturally, with an anti-Chinese orientation.
Seoul maintains a large and highly lucrative economic relationship with Beijing and clearly does not want the alliance with Washington to become a threat to them. There does not appear to have been any visible change under the new president of the Republic of Korea either. In fact, Nancy Pelosi arrived in the ROK for the purpose of establishing contacts between the US Congress and the new government of one of its Asian allies.
But somehow it happened that she was unable to meet any of the government officials of interest to her in that country’s capital. Apparently, they showed no desire to get involved even indirectly in the anti-China scandal that followed the guest from her previous stopover point. And the three-day visit to China by the ROK foreign minister a week later was all the more symbolic.
The aforementioned “scandal” was not scared of in Tokyo, where Nancy Pelosi received the warmest of receptions. During a breakfast held at the official residence of the Japanese government, the guest exchanged views with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on a wide range of issues, both on bilateral relations and the situation in the region as a whole. In particular, the two sides “confirmed that Japan and the United States will continue to work closely together to maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”. Fumio Kishida has “strongly condemned” the PLA military exercises near Taiwan. In addition, he expressed his hope for “Pelosi’s leadership and the support of the US Congress” in strengthening the Japan-US alliance and realizing a free and open Indo-Pacific.
It means that there have been once again reiterated the well-established mantras that have been invariably present in the official rhetoric of both Washington and Tokyo in recent years when it comes to the Indo-Pacific situation in general, around Taiwan in particular. Similar statements have been also made on the issue of the “Chinese threat” to both states.
Countering said “threats” was also the cause for he foreign tour of an equally energetic lady, namely US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who visited Samoa, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Australia and New Zealand from 3 to 9 August. All of these countries are located in the South Pacific, which Washington as well as Tokyo and Canberra have recently been paying as much attention as Southeast Asia. And this attention is due to the same reasons, i.e. Beijing’s expanding influence in the South Pacific as well.
In particular, in the spring of this year the US was very concerned about the conclusion of a framework security agreement between China and Solomon Islands. And in late May already, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited a number of countries on a ten-day trip to the sub-region, some of which appeared on Wendy Sherman’s list of places to visit two months later.
Among these “several” reasons let’s have a look at Solomon Islands. It was in this country where representatives of the two main allies of the Indo-Pacific region, i.e. the US and Japan, met again. Makoto Oniki, First Deputy Minister of Defence, spoke on behalf of the latter in Solomon Islands.
The formal occasion of the meeting between Sherman and Oniki in the country’s capital, Honiara, was the 80th anniversary of the start of the (six-month) “Battle of Guadalcanal”. It became one of the bloodiest of the entire Pacific War, in which current allies were sworn enemies. Incidentally, such metamorphoses in inter-state relations have been the rule rather than the exception throughout history. Using the link below one can see a photo of the two statesmen standing side by side during the memorial ceremony for the dead citizens of the countries that were at war at the time.
To the ceremony in question, let us make what appear to be some noteworthy remarks. First, there was also present the representative of Australia, a country that had been an active participant in the war in the Pacific in general and the “Battle of Guadalcanal” in particular. Even today, Australia remains one of Washington’s most important allies in the Indo-Pacific. Commentators on Solomon Islands’ meeting of senior US, Japanese and Australian officials again unanimously point to the “China factor” as its main motive.
Finally, no less noteworthy (to which commentators also draw attention) is the absence from the ceremony of the head of the country that hosted and (ostensibly) organised the meeting. Again, only three months earlier, the Prime Minister of Solomon Islands had reached a kind of agreement with China that caused negative reactions in all three countries. But he certainly could not deny their representatives the opportunity to honour the many thousands of servicemen whose remains rest at the bottom of the sea around one of the islands of the Solomon Archipelago.
However, the absence of the head of the nowadays archipelago country at the commemorative ceremony clearly demonstrates which of the opposing players in the Indo-Pacific region Solomon Islands leadership favours.
This peculiarity of Wendy Sherman’s visit to Solomon Islands prompted a persistent journalist to pester her with “inconvenient” questions at the final press conference. Apparently, the political science professor had a hard time finding answers.
In overall, it can be concluded that the nature as well as the outcome of the Indo-Pacific region tours by two important members of the American political elite fit into the overall process of worsening relations between the world’s leading powers.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.