Lessons for India from Pelosi’s Taiwan visit

Updated on Aug 08, 2022 11:09 PM IST

Assertion towards China would amount not to aligning with the West, but acting according to a principle of wider relevance, namely the bully must be stood up to

US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi gestures next to Legislative Yuan Vice President Tsai Chi-chang as she leaves the parliament in Taipei, Taiwan, August 3, 2022 (REUTERS) PREMIUM
US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi gestures next to Legislative Yuan Vice President Tsai Chi-chang as she leaves the parliament in Taipei, Taiwan, August 3, 2022 (REUTERS)
ByAtul Mishra

It was a short visit. It was paid by a representative of the legislative rather than the executive wing of the United States (US) government. And she may have intended it as the last act of global statesmanship before potentially retiring later in the year. All these facts notwithstanding, US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is of considerable significance as the realms of power and principles see great churning in contemporary international politics. As a Democrat long critical of China’s human rights record, Pelosi framed her visit in terms of her support for Taiwan’s democracy. But the visit sheds light on a foreign policy question that rule-abiding States, regardless of whether they are democratic or not, confront in times of global crisis: How should they respond to bullying behaviour of States out to undermine the basic rules of international politics?

Revisionist States — especially those like contemporary Russia and China that seek to change territorial arrangements upheld for decades using military force — invariably threaten international peace and stability. World War II gave four answers about how rule-abiding States can respond to such militant territorial revisionism: Appeasement, neutrality, capitulation, and confrontation. Britain appeased Nazi Germany through the 1930s. The US was effectively neutral until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. France capitulated. And Britain under Winston Churchill — this writer being no fan of the imperialist — chose confrontation.

Here is how the policies played out. London learnt that appeasement delayed German belligerence rather than preventing it from breaking out. Washington realised that as a great power, it could not sit out a great power war, no matter how distant it was from the theatres of raging fires and deafening guns. France — were it not for Charles de Gaulle, its importance to post-War European security, and the wisdom of Churchill and Roosevelt — would have suffered much more than a humiliating occupation. It was only confrontation — led by Soviet Russia, Britain, and the US — that worked, leading eventually to the founding of the contemporary international order. The lesson? Stand up to the bully or allow it to gain strength, delay an inevitable conflict, and pay a higher price.

Decades of overall peace and stability in great power relations caused the lesson to fade out until Vladimir Putin sent his missiles across the Ukrainian skies in February. He had been saying he would redraw Europe’s map. He did in 2014. But the West did everything but confront Moscow and draw a line. Worse, some aspects of European policy amounted to appeasement of Putin. It didn’t work. Western capitals and chancelleries are gradually picking up the lesson, but it is lost on many “global intellectuals” on the Left and the Right who advocate what is appeasement in all but name.

Russia is a regional bully, but its invasion of Ukraine has extracted a global cost, especially on the three critical Fs: Food, fuel, and fertiliser. China is an Asian bully of global proportions, and Asia is now the heart and lungs of global politics and economy. Like Moscow recently and Berlin in the 1930s in other contexts, Beijing, too, has made clear that it would use force if necessary to “integrate” Taiwan. The effective response of those concerned is to believe the rhetoric and assume an invasion is inevitable. Think backwards from there and the import of Pelosi’s visit is clear: America has stood up to Beijing and stared back on this occasion. It may be no more than a moment, but it matters. It asserts American commitment to building and defending a rules-based order centred on Asia. It should strengthen the case for Japan’s revising strategic posture. And it should make New Delhi more assertive vis-à-vis China.

Between 2014 and 2019, New Delhi tried to reach a political understanding with Beijing with a view to bettering the earlier understanding whereby the territorial dispute was bracketed off from the rest of the relationship and two pathways were created for resolving the first and developing the second. In the summer of 2020, the Chinese killed the spirit of Wuhan while a virus originating there killed people in India and around the world. India regained some tactical ground in the initial months of the standoff, but the larger strategic picture has since developed to China’s advantage. The understanding on managing the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has collapsed. Political conversation is absent. Diplomatic conversations haven’t yielded much. And military talks drag on while the People’s Liberation Army digs in, on Indian territory, for the long haul. New Delhi did not appease Beijing. And the policy of top-level political engagement as it shored up its strategic profile on the borders may have made sense. But it has been insufficiently assertive for over two years, during which time Asian geopolitics has sharpened, making it difficult to keep the bilateral problem separated from the larger regional dynamics. But that is not a bad thing.

The lesson discussed above is also applicable to India. New Delhi need not view the China question in terms of democracy versus authoritarianism or the West versus China — examples of political and cultural framings in international affairs that it finds discomfiting. Assertion towards China would amount not to aligning with the West, but acting according to a principle of wider relevance, namely the bully must be stood up to. It is in India’s national interest to do so. It is also consistent with its desire to shape a rules-based Asian order and act as a leading power. The LAC should be a good place to start.

Atul Mishra teaches international politics at Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, Delhi-NCR. The views expressed are personal

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