All politics is local – until it isn't

By John McCarthy AO, Former Australian Diplomat

Nancy Pelosi’s unwise visit to Taiwan is unlikely to see US-China competition veer out of control, but it will leave a damaging legacy writes John McCarthy.

Years ago, one of Nancy Pelosi’s most noteworthy predecessors as Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, uttered famous the phrase: “All politics is local”. These words may have been on Pelosi’s mind when she decided to go to Taiwan.

O’Neill cut his political teeth in the Irish wards of Boston. Pelosi was the Italian American daughter of the former Mayor of Baltimore. People who succeed in those political environments continue to prosper because they remember what got them to where they are.

True, Pelosi has form on China. In 1991, she unfurled in Tiananmen Square a banner “to those who died for democracy in China” and, as some suggest, she may well have been looking to her legacy as a promoter of democracy if the Democrats lose the House in November. But politicians, particularly those of Pelosi’s stature, do not like to lose.

Polling suggests that the chances of the Democrats winning the House are currently as low as between 17 percent and 25 percent. The favourable publicity that has accrued to Pelosi in the United States on the Taiwan issue would have entered into her political calculus.

But in terms of America’s international interests, the visit was a silly thing to do.

For President Xi Jinping also domestic factors have been in play. No Chinese leader would misunderstand how merciless failure can be in the Chinese system, especially a politician like Xi, who was exiled to the provinces following the purge of his father during the Cultural Revolution.

Beset by problems related to COVID-19 and a spluttering economy, Xi faces in November the Communist Party Congress, which will inter alia decide if he has another five-year term. He cannot afford to look weak on Taiwan. This had to be an important aspect of Chinese reaction to the Pelosi visit, which was rightly described by Secretary of State Antony Blinken as “disproportionate.”

But whoever is most to blame for the crisis, the US and its allies are now in the process of weighing up just how critical this recent set of incidents is for our future security.

Although the US relationship with China began to worsen following China’s activities in the South China Sea and Barrack Obama’s subsequent “pivot to Asia” in 2012, the major changes began early in the Trump Administration, particularly with the 2018 trade war.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, preceded by the summit between Xi and Vladimir Putin, added a raft of challenges to American and other western policy, the foremost being the complexities of dealing with threats from Russia and China in two theatres at once. Our main antagonists in each theatre have achieved a proximity of interests not seen in decades.

Now the Taiwan crisis, focusing sharply as it does on the nub of Sino-American security dealings since Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, could just herald a third major change in the strategic circumstances in which the US and its allies finds themselves.

Flower arrangement at Nancy Pelosi and Tsai Ing-wen function
Floral arrangement table piece on display at meeting between US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, Taipei, Taiwan - August 3, 2022. Image credit: @iingwen, Twitter.

The fact that both major powers have put some discipline into their actions and reactions over Taiwan suggests that the current crisis will not get out of control. The problem is that it will be the backdrop to the next crisis that comes along. Mutual distrust will be greater and public opinion in each country more inflamed.

The current escalation in tension also will give rise to pressures in the US to abandon the doctrine of “strategic ambiguity”, essentially the avoidance of a firm guarantee that the US would intervene militarily on Taiwan’s behalf should the latter be threatened with invasion.

As noted by Richard McGregor, former Trump administration Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper both said in Taiwan earlier this year that the One China Policy and doctrine of strategic ambiguity should be abandoned.

Given that President Biden also has been less than precise in public statements on these doctrines, Chinese suspicions about the direction of American policy are likely to grow. The abandonment of these doctrines would significantly increase the prospect of war.

In the meantime, China’s suspension of bilateral dealings with the US, including on climate change, will diminish what slim possibilities existed for gradual confidence building in the overall relationship. Equally, any prospect of China influencing Russia on Ukraine must be drastically reduced.

Another drawback of the Pelosi fiasco has been the degree to which it has made US policy on China appear a shambles to others in the region. Even those knowledgeable about the separation of powers in the US cannot quite grasp how the visit went ahead.

While close allies such as Japan and Australia have done the right thing by the team in criticising Chinese actions rather than American ones (the Japanese having the added reason that the Chinese fired missiles into their EEZ), other regional countries such as South Korea have made known their view, although mostly indirectly, that the visit was irresponsible.

Regrettably, the countries most perturbed by the visit, including some of those on the Pelosi itinerary, are those whom the US and its allies are seeking to persuade of the correctness of their policies on China.

If there is hope, albeit remote, arising from the recent week of turmoil, it is that China and the US might now pull back from the brink. If this can be achieved, the next stage would be to move policy away from a series of episodes in crisis management to the more structured approach to the relationship initially envisaged by the administration involving areas of cooperation as well as competition and contestation.

Such an approach would require not only American political will but Chinese reciprocity. With the US congressional mid-terms and the all-important Communist Party Congress coinciding in November, we might need to be patient. Until the vagaries of domestic politics play out in both countries emotions over Taiwan will remain high.

But in the long run it will be in the interests of both Beijing and Washington to ensure all politics is not local.

John McCarthy AO is Senior Adviser at Asialink and former Australian Ambassador to the US and several Asian countries.

Banner image: US Speaker of the House meets with Taiwanese delegation, including President Tsai Ing-wen, Taipei, Taiwan - August 3, 2022. Credit: @SpeakerPelosi, Twitter.

A version of this article was also published on the Australian Financial Review on August 9, 2022.