As most of America quickly forgets Nancy Pelosi's heightening of tensions in East Asia, it is important to double back to review what messages were actually sent by each entity involved in the spat.
Japan, who welcomed Pelosi as a conqueror following her visit to Taipei, found about half of the Chinese missiles fired over and around Taiwan as "punishment" actually landed in Japanese-claimed waters around small islands in the Pacific Ocean to the country's east. Japan, which sent a message of undiluted support for Pelosi's Taiwan adventure, found itself the recipient of a message of its own.
Left undiscussed was the fact that the ownership of those islands is a point of contention among Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines. But the main message is clear enough: Japan no longer has a foreign policy of its own, and is de facto an American military protectorate alongside Guam and Saipan—the Philippines of the future past.
Taiwan reassured itself it is a beloved American vassal state with a visit from mom, much like a child of divorced parents who blames himself for the breakup. Nancy Pelosi, likely a lame duck, went for low-hanging fruit by seeking to anger China greatly at little cost. With a constituency back home that is about one-third Chinese-American, Pelosi has made a career out of appearing on the scene to criticize China: after Tiananmen, at various Olympiads, over Hong Kong, and hey, why do we need a specific reason 2022 edition.
Knowing the way the Chinese often over-value symbolic acts, she committed one at the expense of Joe Biden and the United States, forcing Biden to get off his couch and dispatch an aircraft carrier to demonstrate he still held the majority of testosterone in the relationship. Taiwan, of course, ate up all the attention, and gave President Tsai the chance to play at center stage for a day or two. Imagine daddy competing with mommy to give the best unnecessary present in that post-divorce race for affection—a personal visit versus your own carrier strike group for a few days. Who loves you more?
South Korea alone sent a message of strength among the nations involved in Nancy Pelosi's magical mystery tour. Little covered in the U.S. media, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol skipped an in-person meeting with Pelosi due to his being on "summer vacation" in his nation's capital, Seoul, minutes from Pelosi's hotel. He took a phone call instead. Never mind that Pelosi was the first sitting speaker to visit South Korea since Dennis Hastert stopped by Seoul in 2002. All she got was a meeting with her counterpart, Kim Jin Pyo, the speaker of the National Assembly, and an agreement to support both governments’ efforts to achieve peace and blah blah blah blah on the peninsula. Pelosi got the message and did not mention Taiwan once in her remarks.
Korea's actions also suggest a big unspoken story. All of East Asia and beyond has to figure out a dual foreign policy: one toward the U.S.-China-Taiwan scruffle, and one toward China proper, the most populous nation on earth, with a massive military, and a contender to be the next decade's most economically powerful country.
South Korea alone seems to understand this, snubbing Pelosi as a way of reminding the United States that long after its showboating politicians go home and forget, Korea still has to make its way alone in a scary neighborhood. Seoul, well aware North Korea's only substantive diplomatic relationship is with Beijing, held to the clearest and most on-point messaging of last week. It was thus no surprise that only days after Pelosi returned home top South Korean and Chinese diplomats, Foreign Ministers Park Jin and Wang Yi, pledged to develop closer relations and (important, as China slows talks with the U.S.) maintain stable industrial supply chains at a time of deepening rivalry between Beijing and Washington.
Though nowhere near as forceful in their presentation as South Korea, both Singapore and Malaysia asked Pelosi not to go to Taiwan, saying that doing so would force them to choose between the U.S. and China.
Despite some skillful diplomacy, China still sent a mixed message of weakness, in its over-reaction, and strength, in its ability to throw together a coordinated response suggesting it could blockade Taiwan, attack U.S. assets at sea with missiles from the mainland, and tweak Japan, all at the same time. Extra points for its domestic propaganda campaign that, with exciting video, looked like a joint Tom Cruise–Tom Clancy production. The situation is a far cry from the 1995-1996 crisis in the Taiwan Strait, when a visit by Lee Teng Hui (who would become Taiwan’s first democratically elected president) to his alma mater, Cornell University, sparked real tensions between the U.S. and China.
The Pelosi affair was also a chance for China to practice large-scale drills that, under normal circumstances, would likely be seen as too provocative—a nice bonus for Beijing. It may even result in a new normal, with more aggressive military actions in the gray zones as hardliners in China are able to point to what they got away with as signs they could get away with even more militarily. As one laughing nationalist in Beijing put it when he was interviewed last week, "Thanks, Comrade Pelosi!"
The U.S. message came off as uncoordinated and was too confused to be called weak. Joe Biden made some remarks from his Covid sickbed, and Antony Blinken did the same rumbling around Asia himself. For all his gaffes in the past (three times making the same mistake is nearly a new policy in some minds) claiming the U.S. had some sort of obligation to defend Taiwan, Biden and his spokespeople stuck to the script. John Kirby of the National Security Council even made headlines for his non-news reassurance to Beijing the U.S. does not support Taiwan independence. Biden, for his part, sent the message to China loud and clear that U.S. domestic politics mattered to him (and Nancy) a lot more than whatever China thought. Shock and awe this was not.
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The American media's message was that it cannot understand world events at anything beyond a second-grade level, and it has the attention span of a two-year-old. All the complexities of East Asia get compressed into a Super Bowl-type scenario—Big Blue versus Big Red, Eagle versus Dragon, in a caged death match in the Taiwan Strait. China's carefully moderated military sparring is exaggerated into headlines speculating about a new world war, and thrusts around Taiwan morph into "attacks surrounding the island nation" and a drill which can become a blockade at any moment.
But nobody talks about what a lousy blockade surrounding the island would make for. Taiwan has no ports on its cliff-face east coast and sees the majority of its commerce come from China itself. Beijing might best mine Hong Kong harbor if it wanted to hurt Taiwan economically. Meanwhile, the massive cottage industry in American think tanks and academia that regularly rises to predict imminent war over Taiwan settled back down, waiting (no doubt) for the rough-and-ready speech about reunification coming this November with the 20th Party Conference in Beijing. Will they go to war!? Does Xi have an invasion timetable in mind?
As for that short attention span, Pelosi hadn't unpacked at home yet when the media pivoted away, leaving the last of the Chinese military tantrum to finish in a kind of void. Until next time...