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Home / Opinion / Views /  India should ask Beijing and Washington DC to exercise restraint

Was it unavoidable for US House Speaker and senior Democrat Nancy Pelosi to visit Taiwan at this juncture of heightened global tensions and in the run-up to a crucial meeting of China’s ruling party, where a leader working fervently for a norm-breaking third term at the top is already under pressure from domestic developments? The answer can only be in the negative. Has China’s response to the visit been in proportion to the deemed transgression of the norms of bilateral relations between the US and China? Again, the answer is in the negative. What happens is history, what ought to be is indulgence in counterfactuals, at least for purposes of identifying actionable imperatives.

Now that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has landed in Taipei, albeit professing faith in the One China policy, and the Chinese have scrambled jets and announced further military exercises in the Taiwan straits, the focus should be on diplomacy to contain the dispute and keep it from boiling over into politics by other means.

In Beijing, the placid practice of public affairs characteristic of one-party rule has been disturbed by the pandemic and by serious economic disruption. The Zero-Covid policy is, on the face of it, a self-inflicted policy wound on Chinese society and its polity. Why can’t the Chinese treat Covid the way other countries of similar income and institutional attainment do? That would mean mass vaccination and treatment of those who still fall ill with drugs that work against Covid, rather than protracted lockdowns of entire regions to isolate the virus and contain it where it breaks out. There are two reasons and these do not reflect well on the Chinese leadership.

One is that Chinese vaccines neither are technically good enough nor evoke popular faith, with the result that large proportions of elderly Chinese remain unvaccinated. Factor number two is the Chinese version of Atmanirbhar nationalism: to import American vaccines and medication would be to accept the superiority of western science and technology, which China disdains as a fleeting phase, slated to vanish forever, thanks to the Chinese nation’s advance under the leadership of Xi Jinping.

The net result is continued lockdowns of entire towns or town blocks, even when a handful of people fall ill with Covid. This causes extensive supply disruptions and loss of income and employment, affecting the Chinese economy and creating global supply shortages.

Another problem is China’s real estate sector, which has some of the world’s most indebted companies. A clampdown on their leverage has crippled many of them, and, alongside, an assortment of regional banks that lent their depositors’ money to these companies and now refuse to honour withdrawal demands. Beijing is slowly implementing a bail-out of the real estate sector. But with a stunted financial sector, most of household savings in China are deployed in bank deposits and real estate. Problems in these two sectors have shaken the ordinary Chang and Fang’s confidence in the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to manage China’s affairs efficiently. This is not helpful when Xi Jinping hopes for the next party Congress, the 20th, due later this year, to retain him as party leader, if not elevate him to party chairman, a post last held by Mao Zedong.

Therefore, standing up to American aggression is a priority for Chinese leaders. This helps them play the nationalism card to whip up popular support. Nancy Pelosi’s visit gives them this opportunity.

In the US, too, domestic politics drives foreign policy. Inflation, setbacks on abortion and expansive climate legislation and the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan have made Joe Biden one of the least popular US presidents at this point of his presidency. This makes it imperative for the US to strike a tough posture in external relations. While the House is outside the remit of the Executive’s policy prescriptions, Biden could have quietly persuaded fellow Democrat Pelosi to drop her visit to Taipei. Nancy Pelosi is tipped to retire from active politics after the mid-term elections and make way for a new generation of Democrats in the leadership, and make further use of her status as a successful Italian American politician by gracefully representing her country in Italy. That Biden chose friction over avoided conflict shows the calculation that some external muscle flexing would go down well with US voters.

The Chinese have decided they too would gain from making a show of standing up to American aggression. It has announced a series of military exercises in the narrow strip of water that separates the island from the mainland and in the air above. The US has sent its warplanes from its base in Japan, to escort the House Speaker’s plane.

If the net result of all this is some extremely heated air in Beijing and Washington and some literal global warming from all those military exercises asserting Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan, things would not be too bad. Both sides would leave domestic audiences a little happier with their leaders and journalists would gulp down what had seemed like a storm but ultimately turns out to be just tea.

But armed brinkmanship always carries risk, even when carried out by consummate masters of the art. If a shot fired at a non-enemy target strays and hits a combatant, it could trigger a conflict that spirals out of control. With the world economy, reeling as it is from high prices, high interest rates and volatile exchange rates and stock indices, has to suffer the fallout of another conflict apart from the one in Ukraine, especially one between the world’s two largest economies, that would spell economic devastation and a humanitarian crisis. That must be avoided.

New Delhi has reason to be happy that the US has pulled Beijing’s bluff that its writ runs unchallenged in the region, but gains nothing by making any overtly exuberant display of that satisfaction. It is time for India to raise the voice of reason and sanity and appeal to both Beijing and Washington DC to exercise the utmost restraint and diffuse the situation.

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