Pelosi, Taiwan and U.S. Strategy in the Indo-Pacific

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

OPINION — A senior Pentagon official last Wednesday, described a version of U.S. strategy for the Indo-Pacific region that contrasts somewhat with the hot rhetoric and competing military exercises in the Taiwan Straits and South China Sea region that preceded the arrival of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her congressional delegation in Taiwan.

Even the prospect of Pelosi visiting Taiwan emphasized the military tensions that exist between Washington and Beijing.

On the other hand, the U.S. strategy to collect regional allies in response to China’s aggressive activities has a less warlike tone as described last week by Ely Ratner, United States Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ 12th South China Sea Conference.

Ratner did acknowledge, “We see Beijing combining a strong military power with a greater willingness to take risks.” And he pointed out that “in recent months we have witnessed a sharp increase in unsafe and unprofessional behavior by PLA (People’s Liberation Army) ships and aircraft implicating not only U.S. forces, but allied forces operating in the region.”

He specifically noted the June 6, incident where a Chinese fighter plane cut across the nose of an Australian P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft that was conducting routine overflight in the South China Sea. The Chinese fighter release chaff that was ingested into the P-8 engine. Australia’s Defense Ministry described the encounter as “a dangerous maneuver which posed a safety threat to the P-8 aircraft and its crew.”

Ratner described China as “testing the limits of our collective resolve.”

Questioned on how the U.S. would deal with regional countries “concerned about China’s activities, but also cautious about confrontation with Beijing,” Ratner responded by saying that was “at the root of U.S. strategy in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific, and frankly globally as it relates to the China challenge.”

He then described what he said the U.S. was trying to accomplish vis-à-vis China as it relates to other countries in the region.

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“We are well aware that countries are concerned about PRC (People’s Republic of China) coercion and intimidation and frankly concerned about a China-led region,” Ratner said. “None of them want to see conflict and confrontation and they understand the cost of that as well.”

Recognizing Beijing has centuries of history with countries in the region, he added,  “Nor do they want to see their own relationships with the People’s Republic of China imperiled, given the very real and appropriate economic linkages and historical linkages and cultural linkages and in some instances security linkages as well.”

“Navigating that reality,” Ratner said, “is what makes this region so interesting and so complicated and so diverse and a different situation from Europe where you have a NATO-like structure that is organized around the particular threat related to Russia.”

He emphasized the U.S. was not recreating the situation in Europe.

“That’s not what we have in the Indo-Pacific, nor is what we are trying to construct,” Ratner said. “Our efforts are not about trying to pull countries into some kind of anti-China coalition. We do not ask countries to choose. We respect their ties and relationships with Beijing.”

On the other hand, the U.S. has also played a role in the Indo-Pacific and wants to continue partnering there’

“What we want to work with them (regional countries) on is their ability to protect their own interests,” Ratner said, “And we want to work with them on a shared vision for the region. And to the extent that we can thread that needle our defense partnerships can grow quite substantially, as they are.”

Ratner also wanted to make clear that Washington did not look on Beijing as an enemy.

“To partners in the region, whether it’s Indonesia or otherwise, we do understand – and it is important to us — that we are managing the military-to-military relationship with the PRC as well; trying to build the guardrails that we are trying to build; trying to establish some the open lines of communications with Beijing; that we are trying to prevent miscalculation and we’re trying to manage through crises if and when they do occur.”

Justified or not, it appears the Pelosi threat to visit Taiwan and the noisy verbal and military response it has created, may be just the kind of crisis that needs managing before it leads to a miscalculation.

Last Tuesday, The New York Times led page one with a story that the Biden administration “has grown increasingly anxious this summer about China’s statements and actions regarding Taiwan, with some officials fearing that Chinese leaders might try to move against the self-governing island the next year and a half.”

That same day, as part of Taiwan’s annual week-long Han Kuang defensive exercises, Taiwan’s  President Tsai Ing-wen watched the island’s military defend against a simulated attack on the Su’ao Naval Base, a major military port in northeastern part of the island, with its forces playing the roles of both aggressor and defender.  The drills demonstrate “the ability and determination of our military in defending our country,” Tsai told the troops afterward.

In Beijing last Tuesday, Tan Kefei, a spokesperson of China’s Ministry of National Defense, said Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan would certainly cause severe damage to bilateral military relations with the U.S. and lead to escalating tensions across the Taiwan Straits. Hu Xijin, former chief editor of the Global Times, called Pelosi’s planned visit an “invasion,” and suggested shooting down the speaker’s plane if U.S. fighter jets escort it to Taiwan.

If words were not enough, last Saturday, before the Pelosi group even left the U.S., the China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted live-fire exercises from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., near Pingtan Island off Fujian Province and just opposite Taiwan. The Chinese Maritime Safety Administration warned other nations’ ships to avoid the area.

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Meanwhile, the U.S. responded. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its accompanying strike group, which earlier in July been operating in the South China Sea, has headed back northward after a five-day rest stop in Singapore. As of yesterday, it was in the Philippine Sea, some 800 miles south-southeast of Taiwan. Commander Hayley Sims, a public affairs officer for the Japan-based US 7th Fleet said last Thursday that the Reagan “is continuing normal, scheduled operations as part of her routine patrol in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

However, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper Global Times on Monday reported the USS Reagan and its strike group were in the Philippine Sea  and  their “path and deployment is likely cooperating with Pelosi’s schedule.”

On Sunday, Pelosi tweeted that her Indo-Pacific trip will “reaffirm America’s strong and unshakeable commitment to our allies and friends,” and that “in Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan, our delegation will hold high-level meetings to discuss how we can further advance our shared interests and values.”

Taiwan was not mentioned.

At a press conference yesterday [Monday], Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian repeated a line that President Xi Jinping supposedly said to President Biden during their two-hour phone call last week, “If you play with fire, you will get burned. I believe the U.S. is fully aware of the strong and clear message delivered by China.”

Lijian added that if Pelosi visits Taiwan, “the PLA will not sit idly by” and will take “resolute and strong countermeasures” to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Ratner’s words, “We are trying to prevent miscalculation and we’re trying to manage through crises if and when they do occur,” could not be more pertinent than at this time.

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