Written by Ian Inkster.
So, China warned of ‘resolute and strong measures,’ and Speaker Nancy Pelosi left Taiwan without incident on her way to the rest of East Asia. She may well have infuriated parts of the Chinese regime when she said: ‘Make no mistake: America remains unwavering in our commitment to the people of Taiwan – now and for decades to come.’ Nevertheless, there is still no hint of any change in US policy, which will not recognise Taiwan as an independent entity, never mind a nation. No pathway has been opened. Indeed, the Western media made more noise than Taiwan itself.
Many Taiwanese citizens recognised that it was all rhetoric and puff as per normal, even if the government took its usual opportunity to emphasise the potential power and intrusion of the mainland. Of course, the fear must be that a truly ‘unintentional’ mistake could be made in any such sensitive situation when serious repercussions could ensue in hours, if not minutes. But that is not how the media puts things.
Indeed, the news is not so much fake as massively overdone, to the detriment of due process and peaceful accommodation. These elements which are being damaged are part of the multi-generational compromises that have been managed and massaged between Taiwan, China and the USA since 25 October 1971. On this date and under US initiative and pressure, the international community recognised the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as ‘the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations and removed what was termed ‘the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek’ from the forum, ushering in years of relative diplomatic isolation. However, readers of Taiwan Insight will be foremost among those who recognise that even before 1949, much had gone on, making that uneasy settlement inevitable.
But can we always recognise rhetoric? And can it explode into tragic danger all too easily? The answers cannot readily be deduced logically, as so much depends on personalities amongst the power mongers, the possibility of a random incident, and the vagaries of the gaps between politicians, diplomats, and military forces. History can best be our guide, and so far, the trends have been firmly against warfare in this region – Taiwan is not Afghanistan, and it is not Ukraine. A fairly basic historical knowledge shows this repeatedly.
The basic circumstances are clear– the USA has such overwhelming military might in all elements of land and sea and air, and China has such a commanding territorial advantage and vast numbers of fighting men and women who are readily mobilised and can move across land frontiers. An outbreak would be such a mess as impossible to forecast using conventional ‘military’ analysis techniques. These are very different wars; the most that can be hazarded are horrendous casualties amongst Chinese civilians and massive losses amongst Chinese and US (and western allied) fighting forces. I have always drawn optimism from the relative (if not entire) absence of terrorism or guerrilla warfare in East Asia in modern times, both within nations and, more importantly, between them. It suggests a Chinese reality that differs from the Western press or social media rhetoric.
But the rhetorical noise that came with Pelosi’s visit does have other implications of real importance even if there had been no reaction by China. Moreover, the global implications should be clarified, given the militant response across Taiwanese waters.
However worrying the Chinese reaction to Pelosi, the reaction of the USA and Europe to the visit is clearly indicative of the need of the most powerful democracies to initiate a public commotion over foreign events whenever they can, and China is presently the most obvious target, followed – more reasonably – by Russia.
Measurable declines in market and cultural freedoms in the West–together with the extreme difficulty of mounting effective programs of social and economic reform within them—is what has led to present populism, and this has, in turn, taken the path of distracting civil society attention from internal contradictions and confusions and moving it towards the parlous activities of foreigners. In this state of things, lots of noise is a good thing.
This is dangerous as this global distraction technique is replacing the established pathways of diplomacy, multiplying governance by ‘strongmen,’ and increasing the probability of any untoward miscalculation—such as could occur when the Taiwan Straits are crowded with grand-standing military, naval, and aircraft forces—escalating into warfare.
Democracies are increasingly at a watershed position where they can just about sustain satisfied upper and middle classes earning a decent income within systems of overall declining efficiency and increasing confusion of ultimate political aims, cultural mores, and social values. In the face of such degeneration, Distraction Capitalism has become prevalent. This is especially in countries like the US, where ‘as long [as] distraction is cheaper than reform, it will remain favoured within the power elites of populist democracy.’ Moreover, as ‘distraction in the direction of the “foreign other” is established, it surely will become increasingly difficult to shift.’
And this is what forms the global reaction to the Pelosi visit, one that shall be forgotten within a short time by most people, even within the USA, only to be replaced by similar distractions of similar calibre. However much they distract in the short term, the focus on personalities, the supposed offences of the ‘other,’ and threats from the foreign do not generate welfare and happiness overall, whether within or beyond the capitalist democracies themselves.
In this view, the Pelosi visit becomes just one example of a global populist tendency in democracies to substitute the rhetoric of foreign aggressions for the reality of domestic policies. It requires nothing of substance, no effort whatever, to ease or improve Taiwan’s actual position. But this does not mean we might treat it lightly, as an example of a passing global satire. On the contrary, it is a small event in the more global move towards greater populism, cynicism, and civil confusion, led by powerful nations.
The difficulty of more meaningful internal change is a huge obstacle for America. Without a doubt, a conjunction of forces dampens the emergence of more rigorous or radical internal socio-economic policies. First, the US government does not have much leeway in moving the budget in more progressive directions. Second, embedded commitments to defence and social security crowd out the competing social and economic claims that would arise with more radical policy packages. The latter are not easily accepted in a system where the political classes are decreasingly trusted by civil society. Third, high national debt levels (in contrast to the high-growth middle- and lower-income nations) further reduce the space in which to move.
Moreover, the increased political power of large corporations within modern capitalism means that the regulatory and financial environments are not conducive to transformation, and tax revenue comes disproportionately from lower income groups – despite the talk of the financial difficulties of energy and other large industries; generally, the pandemic and the supply shortages arising from the Ukrainian-Russian war, have seen significant increases in profitability and shareholder returns in many areas of oil supply, basic utilities, and associated banking and property interests.
Thirdly, the ‘checks and balances’ integral to the US political system, designed originally to prohibit extremes, now serve to inhibit reforms, weakening action as it stimulates rhetoric and short-termism, very well illustrated in the presidency of Donald Trump.
Within all of this, Taiwan represents a relatively small but highly successful fraction of a rapidly changing portion of our world. All the indications are that initial post-pandemic recovery will be centred more in East and South Asia than in the older Atlantic-based economies. But size matters, and it will take time to tell the tale. In the meantime, Taiwan might best maintain its own balanced uncertainty, one generated in 1942-49, retained after 1971, and successfully managed since. The endgame may lie more in the hands of the USA and mainland China, and there seems no good reason to try to hurry the process. Modern Taiwan’s massive compromise is unsatisfactory and seems perpetually in imminent transition, but warfare is much worse. Let Pelosi and sundry others come and go.
Professor Ian Inkster is a global historian and political economist at the Center of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, University of London, and a Senior Fellow in the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham, UK. Previous work includes authorship of thirteen books on global dynamics and history, focusing on industrial and technological development, and the editorship of History of Technology since 2000. Forthcoming books are Distraction Capitalism: The World Since 1971 and Invasive Technology and Indigenous Frontiers. Case Studies of Accelerated Change in History with David Pretel. Contact: twitter@inksterian.
This article was published as part of a special issue on “US-Taiwan-China: What’s next?”.