Despite Beijing’s unprecedentedly harsh warnings, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan as many of us in Japan had fatalistically expected.
She made it “unequivocally clear” that the United States would “not abandon” the island democracy. China, in response, unilaterally established six sea and air zones surrounding Taiwan and began military exercises after she left Taipei.
Beijing had warned that her trip would have a “severe impact” on China-U.S. relations. While 25 Republican senators reportedly support her, her critics such as Tom Friedman of The New York Times criticized the visit as “utterly reckless, dangerous and irresponsible.” Similarly, pundits in Tokyo seem to be either divided or ambivalent over the significance of her Taiwan visit.
Editorials of major daily newspapers in Japan are divided. While the conservative Sankei wrote the visit showed “solidarity of democracy,” the liberal Asahi called Pelosi’s attitude “disappointing.” The Nikkei, an economic daily, merely stated that “The most important thing is to avoid conflict. Both sides should seriously consider establishing a crisis management mechanism with Taiwan in mind.”
I do not consider Pelosi’s Taiwan visit as “utterly reckless, dangerous and irresponsible” in the short run. It was rather a fixed game for each party — Pelosi, Xi Jinping and Joe Biden — all of whom could take advantage of this so-called Taiwan crisis caused by the visit to enhance their reputations by playing tough on the sensitive issues.
All politics is local. It is politically logical that while Pelosi wins votes, Xi can ensure his third term and Biden can avoid becoming a lame duck.
That said, from a long-term or strategic point of view, Friedman is right in that Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan may prove dangerous — not because she was reckless or irresponsible, but because Beijing tends to make strategic mistakes about every five years.
Looking back over the past decade, China’s foreign relations have been compromised by the Chinese Communist Party Congress, which has been held every five years since the 1990s. Due to the enormous political sensitivity surrounding the national convention in Beijing, nationalistically driven domestic politics often prevails over sound and reasonable foreign policy.
The first example was the deterioration of Japan-China relations in September 2012 when the Japanese government acquired additional ownership of part of the Senkaku Islands. The purchase was a desperate attempt made by the then-Democratic Party of Japan-led government to prevent the then governor of Tokyo from purchasing and using the islands as a political tool.
Unfortunately, it was the year of the Communist Party Congress. Naturally, Beijing overreacted and bilateral relations deteriorated. If the convention had not been held that year, the Chinese side might have been more flexible and the subsequent general election of Japan’s Lower House and the come-back of Shinzo Abe as prime minister probably would not have happened.
The next party congress was held in the fall of 2017, when Donald Trump’s administration came to power. Xi, entering his second term, attempted to promote good relations with Trump, who had repeatedly criticized China. Trump, who was no diplomat, was successfully entrapped by China’s “smile diplomacy,” and for a time he “sealed” his criticism of China — although it did not last long.
The 2022 Communist Party Congress will be a critical time for Xi, who will seek a third term in office. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan just stepped on the dragon’s tail. Although her Taiwan visit as House speaker was by no means the first such in history, Beijing might have felt that Xi was publicly insulted. If so, the domestic politics would make it more difficult for Xi to do the right thing.
They say history does not repeat itself but sometimes it rhymes. Like China in the past decade, Japan also made similar but equally serious strategic mistakes in the 1930s. Many in Japan at the time believed that the best foreign policy was a cooperative diplomacy based on cordial relations with the United States and Britain based on the principle of mutual noninterference.
The turning point that led to Japan’s international isolation and confrontation with the U.S. was said to be the Manchurian Incident of 1931. The Great Depression of 1929 also changed the fundamental conditions for international relations. The Sino-Japanese War, which began in 1937 and the 1940 Tripartite Pact between Japan, Germany and Italy was also a direct cause for the inevitable war with the United States.
Many historians in Japan agree that the nation’s alliance with Germany and Italy strengthened its diplomatic position and succeeded in bringing the U.S. to the negotiating table. However, the start of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union in June 1941 and Japan’s subsequent occupation of French Indochina marked another turning point.
In each of those critical junctures, however, Japanese policy makers never failed to make strategically sound judgments. In the Foreign Ministry, for example, there were still advocates for better relations with the United States and the United Kingdom, even when a group of “reformists” rose to prominence who wanted to partner with Germany and Italy to compete with the U.S. and the U.K.
In fact, as early as in 1940 there was little chance of military victory for Japan and the political leaders were betting on “a fortuitous chance” that conditions would eventually improve. Finally, with the Hull note, presented to Japanese diplomats by U.S. Secretary of State Hull in November 1941, which demanded Japan’s total withdrawal from China, then-Prime Minister Hideki Tojo decided to go to war. Simply put, Japan cornered itself.
As I wrote in my previous columns, “The worst kind of mistake in politics is a fatal mistake that is not only irreversible but also extremely detrimental to the nation,” and that “fatal mistakes are often made out of intuition, coincidence or misjudgment.” To make matters worse, politicians often make such strategic mistakes either in turns or in a series that is sometimes unstoppable.
I sincerely hope that China learns lessons from Japan’s strategic mistakes in the 1930s. Tokyo had many opportunities to change its policies, but strong nationalist sentiment at home prevented Japan from making sound and reasonable foreign policy decisions. We must neither allow Beijing to repeat similar mistakes nor let history “rhyme” again in the 2020s.