From the September-October 2022 issue of News & Letters
by Bob McGuire
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan provoked more controversy and condemnation than its routine content warranted. President Biden himself told the press the Pentagon considered it risky. News outlets said she was provoking China and risking World War III. Especially in light of its claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, and with Russia currently invading Ukraine with the justification that the Tsars had once ruled it.
INTERNAL STRIFE EXPLAINS FOREIGN POLICY
China, which wouldn’t have forgotten Pelosi unfurling a banner in 1991 at Tiananmen Square in support of students and workers massacred there two years earlier, responded with live fire military exercises, lobbing missiles into waters controlled by Taiwan. But that provocative posturing was more for its own citizens than to intimidate the U.S. or Taiwan. In China the 8.2% increase in GDP last year was heavily dependent on the real estate bubble that has now gone bust alongside the effects of COVID lockdowns.
Times may have changed in the half century since Richard Nixon met Mao Zedong in Beijing and the U.S. extended diplomatic recognition to state-capitalist China. But then as now, look to internal reasons in both nations for their foreign policy stances. Nixon gained a partner in extricating from the Vietnam War and China had not yet recovered from Mao’s preventive counter-revolution called the Cultural Revolution.
Nixon acknowledged that the governments in Beijing and Taipei were committed to reunification. Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Party had fled Mao’s army and took over Taiwan as a refuge. He had to be just as committed to a “one China” policy as was Mao. It was Chiang’s pretext for maintaining martial law for 40 years until 1987, cementing the invaders in power.
PROPPED UP BY TAIWAN’S SWEATED LABOR
China’s rulers have meddled in Taiwan elections against parties opposed to reunification, but its threats were empty. Capital from Taiwan was only exceeded by capital flowing out of Hong Kong as China’s working class was drafted into the world’s sweatshop. Capital from Taiwan, the sweated labor of its working class, fueled double-digit annual increases in China’s production. That made it certain that China would not invade Taiwan, even when the anti-reunification Democratic Progressive Party formed governments.
After Pelosi’s visit, Noam Chomsky referred to Taiwan as “a rock.” Presumably there were no people on that “rock” whose rights he had to respect. But China has no more claim on the people of Taiwan if they want self-rule than Russia can claim Ukraine or Nazi Germany could claim the Sudetenland or the U.S. had a claim on English-speaking Canada.
Surveys show that over 80% of the people when at home speak Hokkien, a language spoken across Southeast Asia by emigres from Fukien province. More importantly, nations by the dozens have achieved self-determination in the 77 years since Japan ceased to rule Taiwan. In any case, differences in language did not stop China from invading Tibet in 1950, or attempting to root out Uyghur languages and cultures in Xinjiang.
In lieu of invasion, China’s rulers have been offering unification under the “one China, two systems” policy. This did not hold much appeal for the people of Taiwan after the 2020 National Security Law gutted the right of free speech and assembly in Hong Kong under the same policy. This year’s polling showed just 6.5% favor eventual unification.
CAPITALISM TRUMPS POLITICS
Despite the inter-capitalist rivalry embodied in the Biden Administration’s launch in May of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity surrounding China—from Japan through Taiwan to India—the interconnectedness of capital investment ($156 billion to and from Taiwan, including companies like Foxconn that are basic to the Chinese economy) will be a deterrent to an invasion.
Pelosi, in search of negotiating production within the U.S, was in part carrying out a mission for the Administration by meeting with the head of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation, which produces over half the world’s computer chips.
If China’s president Xi Jinping has gauged the strength of opposition on Taiwan, and in light of how Ukraine has turned its own resistance into devastating defeats for Russia, then a visit from Pelosi or the economic rivalry in the Pacific will not lead to the next war.