C.K Yeung: The Pelosi penalty

Jul 31, 2022
Nancy Pelosi 29 July 2022
Image: Chris Kleponis/CNP Photo via Newscom/Alamy Live News

What penalty will China mete out to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a Taiwan visit? The key word here is “penalty”. Anything that could remotely benefit Pelosi is off the table.

If she is anticipating any PLA military posturing that could paint her an American heroine and win her political mileage, she will be disappointed. Only counter-measures that would make her truly regret will be taken, and there are plenty such options.

Many political wise men (and women) are wrong when it comes to China. “China is a rational actor in all fields, with one exception: on Taiwan, China is an emotional actor.” So said former UN Security Council President Prof Kishore Mahbubani. He is wrong, although he has been right in his many other assessments of China. Taiwan is so important that the Chinese leadership will exercise 100% rationality towards the island. Do not expect one ounce of irrationality from Beijing.

“I think what the President was saying is that maybe the military was afraid of my plane getting shot down or something like that. I don’t know exactly,” Pelosi said in response to US President Joe Biden’s earlier comment that the US military did not regard a Pelosi visit as a good idea.

It is probable that Pelosi has been misguided by Prof Mahbubani’s “China is an emotional actor” quip. If Pelosi thinks that her Taiwan visit will irritate China into irrational actions that would put her centre stage in global geopolitics, she will be disappointed. She would be well advised to assume there will be zero military fanfare from the Chinese side to greet her during her visit. Why should China play into the hands of politicians knowing that they are playing Taiwan cards? But after her visit, it will be a different story.

China’s response to the prospect of a Pelosi visit so far can be summed up in two lines: “China will act strongly to resolutely respond to it and take countermeasures. We mean what we say”. This is the official English version posted on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website. Actually it is not a most accurate translation of the Chinese original, which when translated word for word, the last line will read as: “We say it, will do it”.

On these six words rest China’s global credibility. It will be done. The US House speaker and the President will be well advised to take this statement seriously.

Meting out penalty with military operations is but one of the many options open to China. There are financial options. Economic options. Diplomatic options. Trade options. Rare earth options. How about dumping US$93.5 billion worth of US treasury bonds on a day of Beijing’s choosing, which is the amount of US treasury bonds Japan has dumped in three months from March to June this year. Of course publicly this financial option is unrelated to Pelosi’s visit although it does hurt the US financial sector, Pelosi’s Democratic Party’s support base.

The timing of meting out the Pelosi penalty will be dictated not by what the US House speaker does do or doesn’t do at any particular moment. That is not a factor. The multi-front penalty package will be delivered in phase to serve one and only one purpose: to achieve China’s grand plan of unification. It won’t even target at Pelosi. She is not a goal. It certainly won’t target the US President. He is not the goal. Unification is.

China has said multiple times that it does not seek to compete with the US. Indeed China has gone into great pains to avoid confrontation with the US. A military intervention targeting a US jet carrying key US political leaders will only confront the US without helping unification. But a quiet sunny day post-Pelosi visit will see PLA military jets flying pass Taiwan airspace and across the island, plus Chinese naval vessels sailing across the mid-line of Taiwan Strait and then round the Island. Progressively such military manoeuvring will become a regular pattern. These are significant steps towards unification, brought forward by a Pelosi visit, without giving her any incentives.

In so doing, China can proclaim that it is responding to the Pelosi provocation, not initiating a provocation, and indeed Beijing would be seen to have delayed its response until after rather than during a Pelosi’s visit, to avoid a confrontation with the US. Nations who abide by the one-China principle but who avoid taking a stand between the US and China will find it a more justifiable response.

Beijing’s responses will take forms unimaginable by the US, with losses incalculable to the US, and consequences unbearable to the US. No doubt China will pay a hefty price too. But whatever the price, it won’t benefit the US.

With cannons roaring in Ukraine, the pandemic re-surging, climate heating, inflation rocketing, and millions staving, the world’s peoples look to the two most powerful countries to co-operate to make the world a better place for all. What positive outcome will an escalation in US-China tension serve? A lady wise enough to become the US House Speaker ought to be wise enough to make the choice.

C.K Yeung is a former Associate Vice President of Hong Kong Baptist University and currently works for a Hong Kong-based think tank.  

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