FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Beijing was full of bluster in the days leading to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Spokesmen talked of a “forceful” response, saying the US will pay a “heavy price” if this visit pushed through.

Tuesday night, Pelosi landed in Taipei after a rather roundabout flight from Kuala Lumpur. She is the first US leader of her rank to visit the island in nearly a quarter of a century. The world is now waiting to see if Beijing can live up to its bluster.

China has always been very obsessive about the Taiwan question. They consider the island a renegade province and any diplomatic event that might vest some sort of nationhood on Taiwan invites vociferous threats from the mainland.

From the very beginning, Beijing has taken a hard stance on Taiwan. Any nation that seeks diplomatic relations with her must accept the terms of a “One-China” policy. This requires non-recognition of Taiwan.

Over decades, Beijing hoped that by diplomatically isolating Taiwan, the island would be reduced to a backwater state, its economy stagnating from the lack of trade contacts. That is not what happened. Taiwan is now a prosperous economy with a staunch democratic political order.

Many nations, the Philippines included, managed to work around the One-China policy by establishing trade and cultural missions in Taipei. These missions represented each country’s business interests, performing as quasi embassies without explicitly violating the One-China policy.

Taiwan today may be considered a superpower in its own right in at least one vital manufacturing activity: the production of computer chips. Thousands of manufacturers, including those in China, rely on Taiwanese chips to run their products.

Beijing’s exasperation over Taiwan’s progress — and the island’s more assertive foreign policy — reflected in an increasingly belligerent stance. For years, China has been engaged in a massive modernization of its armed forces, especially its navy. Many fear that the final goal of this buildup is an invasion of Taiwan.

In response, Taiwan has built up its own defense capabilities, acquiring the most advanced military aircraft and missile defense systems. The island has a tough, well-trained army.

Lately, as Beijing’s verbal threats escalated and as its military provocations multiplied, Taiwanese civilians have been volunteering for more military training to help defend the island in the event of an invasion. This has been more noticeable since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Surely, Beijing has closely studied what is going on in Ukraine – especially the sanctions most industrial economies imposed on Russia to punish it for the incursion. This is to help guide China’s own strategy towards Taiwan.

China’s economy, very much more than Russia’s, is dependent on trade with the rest of the world. The world’s second-largest economy will be vulnerable to any economic sanctions imposed on it by the rest of the world. The rest of the world will be vulnerable as well to any curtailment of economic relations with China.

If Russia is valuable to the global economy because of its large energy and agricultural exports, China is indispensable because of its manufacturing exports. Many of the components of finished manufactures produced by the world’s industrial economies are dependent on parts imported from China.

The world’s second largest economy subsists on the value-added of its giant manufacturing sector. The prosperity of its huge population relies on this. Should the rest of the world curtail China’s exports, the formula that produced prosperity for hundreds of millions will fail. There will be social unrest.

The implicit social contract between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people is quite clear. The people will accept the tyranny of one-party rule only for as long as it delivers more and more prosperity for everyone. That is its only source of legitimacy – even as the government tries to whip up nationalist sentiment to reinforce its rule.

Taiwan has both prosperity and freedom. That threatens to shred the fragile fabric of legitimacy that the Chinese Communist Party needs to continue ruling the mainland. Its own people will soon ask: why can we not have both freedom and prosperity?

Beijing does not know how to use soft power. This is the reason why, whenever its foreign policy positions are defied, Beijing’s knee-jerk response is to issue wild threats.

There is a problem in habitually issuing threats. When Beijing could not deliver on its threats, it loses credibility.

Last year, when little Lithuania established diplomatic relations with Taipei, Beijing went after the small Baltic state hammer and tong. Confronted by the European Union, China eventually backed down.

When Beijing tried to force Nancy Pelosi to abandon plans to visit Taiwan by warning of a “forceful” response, the US congressional delegation went ahead with their visit anyway. The only thing Beijing could do was to hold unimpressive military exercises in waters off Taiwan.

Pelosi nearly single-handedly humiliated the moguls in Beijing. She called their bluff. She went on with her visit to Taiwan where she spoke of the virtues of freedom and prosperity, promising by the way that the US will stand by the island should Beijing try to invade it. She walked right into the lion’s den and all the lion could do was whimper.

This is not a happy moment for the government of Xi Jinping. They proved to be long on bluster and short on any real options to force Taiwan into submission.

China’s foreign policy is shaped by what is good for its business. Invading Taiwan will not be good for business.


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