President Xi in dangerous waters after Pelosi row

China’s naval operations near Taiwan could turn a diplomatic dispute with the US into a full-scale crisis

President Xi Jinping is playing a dangerous game that could quickly escalate into a global crisis.

The autocratic ruler of China has shown he has become vulnerable to world events in a series of bewildering blunders at home and abroad.

Those “safe pair of hands” appear to be distinctly shaky. Especially after the tremors from Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan this week.

As the US House Speaker, she had every right to visit the democratic island in an unbridled show of support for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Her brief stopover in Taipei was within Washington’s “deliberately ambiguous” cross-Strait policy towards China.

For Xi, it was a time to show state-craft. He did the opposite by telling President Joe Biden in a video call last week that the United States was “playing with fire” if Pelosi went to Taiwan.

“China’s image abroad has declined significantly in the past four years, a sharp reversal from the relative popularity it enjoyed,” Joshua Kurlantzick, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a discussion paper released last month by the CFR. 

“Moreover, the aggressive ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomatic style that has become popular under President Xi has drawn the ire of smaller countries in East and Southeast Asia. In many parts of the world, China has its lowest public perception in decades,” he pointed out.

A bigger slight demands a bigger response, so Xi is now rolling out the guns of August.

Tom Mitchell, the Financial Times Beijing bureau chief

Gaffe-prone decisions:

  • The year started off with Xi’s bromance with “best friend” Vladimir Putin just before the Winter Olympics in Beijing.
  • He even backed Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine by refusing to condemn Putin’s war.
  • At home, his “zero-Covid-19” policy triggered protests during the two-month lockdown in Shanghai.
  • It later spread to other cities.
  • The fallout from the strategy has seen the economy tank and unemployment soar.
  • In Hong Kong, Xi’s draconian National Security Law has sparked an exodus
  • More than 250,000 people have left the city since 2019.
  • On the global stage, Xi’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy has left China isolated as it threatens the democratic rights of Taiwan.

What was said: “A bigger slight demands a bigger response, so Xi is now rolling out the guns of August. On Tuesday, Chinese jet fighters flirted with the median dividing line that they and Taiwan military aircraft have traditionally respected, while China’s two aircraft carriers left ports in recent days,” Tom Mitchell, the Financial Times Beijing bureau chief, wrote in a commentary.

Rough seas: “At least one of the latter is likely to head for the same general region that the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier is passing through after visiting Singapore last month. On Taiwan policy in general, and this crisis in particular, Xi has painted himself into a corner,” Mitchell said.

Delve deeper: House Speaker Pelosi is despised by China’s ruling Communist Party government for her stand on human rights, her support for free speech in Hong Kong and her outrage over the imprisonment of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang.

Today the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy.

Nancy Pelosi, the US House Speaker

Democracy v autocracy: “Today the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy. America’s determination to preserve democracy, here in Taiwan and around the world, remains ironclad,” Pelosi said in a short speech during a meeting with President Tsai.

Big Picture: In response, the naval and air force wings of the People’s Liberation Army will conduct live-fire drills in six large exclusion zones around Taiwan. They will last until the end of this week, threatening to turn a diplomatic row into “a full-scale crisis.”

Statement of intent: “China will take all necessary measures to resolutely safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity. All the consequences must be borne by the US and the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. 

Talking tough: “Based on information about the PLA drills from August 4 to 7, the six locations have already encircled the island of Taiwan. It could be a series of unprecedented military exercises aimed at realizing reunification by force and also to fight against the external forces that could interrupt [that] process,” Lu Xiang, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the state-controlled Global Times.

China Factor comment: With the Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier group in the region and Japanese defense forces on standby, these are tense times. “There is always a chance of unintended accidents and escalation among Chinese, Japanese and American forces in such a situation,” Tetsuo Kotani, of the Meikai University, told the Japanese Times.