Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan threatens to undermine US efforts with Asian allies

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The Biden administration has spent months building an economic and diplomatic strategy in Asia to counter China, strengthen its alliances and assure friendly countries that the United States stays in the region for the long haul.

The president has sent senior military officials to forge new partnerships and paid attention to a small country in the Pacific, the Solomon Islands. He has launched a plan to arm Australia with nuclear-powered submarines and signed a regional economic pact. He visited South Korea and Japan in May and invited the two countries to a NATO meeting for the first time, to emphasize that Asia was not forgotten as the war in Ukraine raged.

Chairman Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan now threatens to undermine White House pressure, leaving allies to question the damage the president’s united front has done in Asia.

The fear is that the trip, which will also include stops in South Korea and Japan this week, is an unnecessary provocation that distracts from the Allies’ efforts to counter China’s military might and economic clout.

While US allies have remained largely silent on the visit thus far, there is a feeling among America’s friends that they stood in the cold as China threatened the United States and Taiwan, the self-governed island that China claims as its own. .

The treatment of Ms. Pelosi’s visit was worrisome because, intentionally or not, it showed China’s power and diminished the role of its allies, Seong-Hyon Lee, a South Korean fellow at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies told the Harvard University.

“The mere fact that China’s possible response becomes a heated debate in Washington reveals China’s rise in status,” said Mr. Lee. “Washington’s hesitation has been widely read in the region. This is very poor signal diplomacy coming from Washington to its allies and partners in the region.”

Despite the short-term economic problems, Beijing has invested deeply, financially and diplomatically, in long-term plans to dominate the region.

China continues to tell its Asian neighbors that it is their natural partner through geography and cultural commonality. It tries to convince them that the United States is a distant and waning power, with a broken political system, that will lose its influence in Asia.

The Chinese Navy has steadily expanded its patrols and military exercises in the South China Sea, sending more advanced ships. His military planes have harassed US allies fighter jets in recent months. In May, Australia complained that a Chinese fighter jet had dangerously intercepted one of its surveillance planes.

Given China’s economic and military might, allies want talks with Washington, something they didn’t seem to get during Ms. Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan.

Australian Foreign Secretary Penny Wong suggested this on Wednesday when she called on all parties, not just China, to withdraw.

“All sides should consider how best to help de-escalate current tensions, and we all want peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” said Ms Wong.

Mr Biden’s assurances about Asia in recent months have been reassuring to countries dealing with China’s wrath.

A favorite expression of that anger is trade boycotts for what China sees as bad behavior. Just hours after Ms. Pelosi’s arrival in Taiwan, China imposed economic measures on the island in retaliation.

In the past two years, China has banned Australian exports of wine, lobster and coal after the government called for an international investigation into the origins of Covid-19, which first surfaced in China. The Chinese government still maintains economic sanctions against South Korea for allowing the United States to deploy a missile defense system known as THAAD in 2017.

When the new South Korean leader, Yoon Suk-yeol, recently said he might consider a second part of the system, China threatened more sanctions.

China’s economic bans and growing authoritarianism have damaged its position in South Korea, where a record 80 percent of the population now has a negative view of the country, according to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center.

“China ranks first among South Korea’s most hated countries,” said a retired general, Shin Won-sik, who is now a member of the National Assembly. “About ten years ago, South Koreans had the same opinion about China as they did about the US”

In response to the threat from China, he said, South Korea and Japan, which have had frosty relations in the past, have agreed to resume trilateral military exercises with the United States.

Japan, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of Washington’s China strategy, has increased coordination with the United States on Taiwan. Japan’s Ministry of Defense has also relocated troops, anti-aircraft guns and ground-to-ship missile defense batteries to the country’s southern islands, some of which are near Taiwan.

Public opinion in Japan has turned resolutely against China and support for Taiwan has grown, giving Washington the opportunity to take advantage of closer Japan-Taiwan relations. But Japan also wants to avoid any unnecessary new friction between the United States and China.

The trip was “not a strategic advantage for us at all,” said Ryo Sahashi, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo. “We strongly support democracy in Taiwan and we also appreciate the US efforts in the defense of Taiwan, including arms sales to Taiwan.”

“But this is completely different,” he added. “What we really want to see is a quieter environment that really allows us, Japan and the United States, to enhance our security partnership with Taipei.”

Across the region, the United States has made strategic efforts to embrace the allies in a more cohesive coalition, with military and diplomatic underpinnings.

A year ago, Australia agreed to a historic defense pact known as AUKUS with the United States and Britain to acquire nuclear propulsion technology for its planned submarines.

During a visit to Australia last month, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, reaffirmed Washington’s policy of fortifying Australia with new weapons. “Chinese military activity is noticeable and statistically more aggressive than in previous years,” said Mr Milley during his visit.

Australia, along with the United States, is spending money and diplomatic capital to counter growing Chinese influence on the Pacific islands, a strategically important area in the event of war with China.

It’s a complicated position to navigate. The economies of many of America’s allies in the region, including Japan, South Korea and Australia, rely heavily on China. About a third of Australian exports go to China.

Despite poor diplomatic relations, Australian sales of iron ore, an important commodity for Chinese industry, rose last year. Now wine and coal exporters are trying to get their products back on the Chinese market.

There has been a flurry of high-level discussions to try and restore relations. Australia’s new defense minister, Richard Marles, met his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, in Singapore last month.

Ms Wong met with Wang Yi, her Chinese counterpart, in Bali, ending a two-year diplomatic freeze. She has done her best to say that China and Australia are not enemies.

As countries now prepare for the fallout from Ms Pelosi’s visit, heightened tensions between the two superpowers have ultimately raised questions about the authority of the US president.

“It doesn’t say much about Biden’s influence that he can’t convince his own party’s speaker,” said Alan Dupont, a former defense intelligence analyst for the Australian government, noting that the president had said the military was not thinking the visit was a good idea.

A previous Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, visited Taiwan 25 years ago. But Mr. Gingrich was a Republican and President Bill Clinton was a Democrat, a political situation that made the trip more defensible. Mr. Gingrich visited China and met its then-leader, Jiang Zemin, before heading to Taiwan today via Japan, an unthinkable schedule.

The Chinese military was also much weaker at the time, only beginning to modernize its forces, which now include a much stronger array of missiles and a vastly expanded navy.

Even in Australia, a democratic country with raw politics, where people knew that Ms Pelosi was a powerful figure, it was unfathomable that Mr Biden failed to persuade her to cancel, Mr Dupont said.

“An unnecessary crisis,” he said. “An own goal, the US has put itself in this position.”

Ben Dooley reporting contributed. Jin Yu Young contributed translation.



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