Alicia Kearns: The West has a responsibility to prevent escalation over Taiwan before it’s too late
6 min read
As tensions mount between the United States and China over Taiwan, many are quietly declaring the commencement of the fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis.
But why has the visit by the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, become such a flashpoint?
Pelosi’s visit is not the spark that lit the fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis, but it most certainly has brought tensions to boiling point and international attention to existing tensions. Her time in Taipei comes as China is preparing for its 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, where President Xi Jinping is expected to make the extraordinary step of securing a third term, after abolishing term limits in 2017.
While President Xi seeks to entrench his rule at home, the Communist Party leader is facing serious internal pressures. His fierce zero-Covid policy means China is likely to miss its economic growth targets, there's domestic unrest about extreme lockdowns especially in places like Shanghai, and a sharp downturn in the property market is also fuelling discontent. So as President Xi’s belligerent rhetoric makes abundantly clear, he cannot afford to show any weakness over Taiwan which he has consistently set out as central to his long-term success.
It would not be the first time that an external threat, or colonial interference narrative is orchestrated to enable an authoritarian to cement their position and power – and that is Xi Jinping’s only priority: to stay in power.
We owe it to the people of Taiwan to rise above the rhetoric and get on with implementing the strategic change we need at home to be stronger on the world stage
The CCP has demonstrated a wholly disproportionate response to her visit, manipulating it to create this flashpoint. Their response has been the usual diplomatic statements, but then in addition an export ban on over 100 Taiwanese food (and other) exporters, cyber attacks on Taiwanese government websites, announcements of live-fire missiles exercises surrounding Taiwan by air and sea, and increased PLA flights into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
China has not only overreacted, but placed enormous strategic importance on this visit, when it could otherwise have dismissed it out of hand as nothing more than a political stunt or low-level delegation not worthy of global attention. But we must recognise that they see this visit as a strategic move by the West, a first step that could contribute to countries feeling emboldened to formally recognise, and normalise relations with, Taipei.
Xi Jinping has decided that this visit offers the opportunity to draw a line in the sand, to prevent US and international policy further drifting away from the CCP’s One-China diktat and to demonstrate that Taiwan is a red line for his leadership. However, the CCP risks miscalculating not just in terms of military assets and movements, but also in how Congress, and in turn its friends in our Parliament and around the world, might respond.
The biggest players are undoubtedly the US, but that does not mean that the United Kingdom does not have a role to play, so how do we respond?
For that answer we should look to the government and people of Taiwan. A people who overwhelmingly wish not to rock the boat, but to be left to live in a functionally autonomous, liberal democracy. They have negotiated a way of life that gives them a great deal of freedom, albeit with the threat of the red dragon looming over them. Fears around CCP retaliation will be real, especially as they face military exercises the rest of this week. We know that when the CCP says it will act, it has a history of doing just that, and whilst Xi Jinping has shown himself to be a risk-taker, he is generally not a reckless one.
It falls to us to focus our actions on efforts that will limit escalation and prevent conflict. For now, those are: giving Taiwan sufficient clout and international support to prevent escalation, making clear that any invasion or attack would result in severe repercussions, and recognising that President Xi needs to be given an off-ramp to save face, or we risk stirring deep wounds within China of the West disrespecting China’s history and authority.
Taiwan can only defend itself with international recognition.
We should be re-doubling our efforts to support their requests for international recognition through membership of key international organisations and recognising their efforts from peacekeeping to leadership around Covid-19. This is their greatest defence, and by continuing our active support of them we prevent them from hiding in the shadows where Xi might feel emboldened to act.
Conversely, we also must not allow Taiwan to be used as a pawn in the increasingly hostile relations between China and major world powers. As part of that we must ensure channels of communication are open between the West and Beijing as one of the biggest risks we face is one of misunderstanding or misinterpretation by one side of the other’s actions.
Equally we must prepare, now, with our allies what our response would look like at varying levels of escalation or use of force by Beijing against Taipei. Responsible government requires these sorts of calculations and scoping to take place now, and for the message to be resounding in Beijing that there is no ambiguity amongst a unified international community, we would respond and defend our Taiwanese allies.
What does this mean for us at home? Whilst the ongoing leadership contest has seen China temporarily returned to the forefront of British politics, it must be the start of a meaningful and long-term strategy and systemic reform, not a flash in the pan, red-meat offering that disappears after a new prime minister is chosen.
We must invest in our long-term resilience. We need to reduce exposure and risk in strategic industries, education, information, business, tech, energy and beyond while simultaneously growing our China capabilities and broadening our supply chains in industry and society. Meanwhile, we must challenge naïve visions of a world where all cooperation or engagement can cease: diplomacy is inherently messy and complex. By becoming resilient, the UK will be in a stronger position to support our allies and lever with China.
We owe it to the people of Taiwan to rise above the rhetoric and get on with implementing the strategic change we need at home to be stronger on the world stage, and internationally to redouble our efforts to support our Taiwanese friends diplomatically. Our goal must remain preventing escalation, and that requires a meaningful investment in deterrence diplomacy.
Alicia Kearns is the Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton.
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