US-China Relations and Nancy Pelosi’s Visit to Taiwan:The Foreign Policy Implications for Nigeria
Bola A. Akinterinwa
United States relationship with the Peoples’ Republic of China has always been fraught with suspicions and competitive challenges. Of these challenges, the question of Taiwan appears to be the most critical, especially from a Euro-American perspective. The criticality of the question is best explained by two conflicting strategic interests that have a politico-economic and militaro-strategic character. At the politico-economic character level, the Western world wants Taiwan to be geo-politically and sovereignly detached from Mainland China, while China only accepts the rule of ‘One Nation, Two Systems,’ that is, non-negotiability of the territorial integrity of Mainland China and Taiwan, but freedom for Taiwan to continue to operate its capitalist system of economic governance and co-exist with the socialist system in Mainland China as an integral part of Mainland China.
True enough, China ruled over Taiwan for over 1000 years before Japan did occupy Taiwan for fifty years, 1895-1945. However, following the end of World War II in 1945, when Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces, China reclaimed Taiwan. In the same vein, when the Chinese intermittent civil war that began in 1927 ended, Chairman Mao Zedong founded the Chinese Communist Party and the Peoples’ Republic of China in 1949. This new development compelled the defeated nationalists (The Kuomintang) to flee from Mainland China to Taiwan. It was these defeated Chinese nationalists that laid the foundation for the agitation for an autonomous, self-determined democratic Taiwan nation since then.
At the strategic interest level, Taiwan is of geo-political importance to both China and the United States. Taiwan is required by the United States to contain China, while for China, Taiwan is needed for national sovereignty purposes. Geo-politically, Taiwan is only 112 miles from the coast of Mainland China. It is the world’s largest producer of semi-conductors which are mostly used in smart devices. In fact, the Taiwan Semi-Conductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) produces chips for The Apple and many other technology companies across the western world. In this regard, in preparation for a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the US House of Representatives recently passed the Chips and Sciences Act, the aim of which is to facilitate more conductor production on US soil.
Besides, Taiwan is an island in which China and the United States are particularly interested. China does not want the closeness of United States influence in its territorial waters. True, the island is useful for military deployment purposes, and therefore, not in the interest of China to have the United States’ presence through Taiwan in its neighbourhood. It is against this background that the visit of Nancy Pelosi took place on Tuesday, 2nd August 2022.
Nancy Pelosi’s Visit to Taiwan
Nancy Pelosi’s visit was controversial before, during and after it took place. The controversy is essentially defined by conflicting strategic fears. First is the fear of possible domino effects of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Can the war be taken as a likely model for China in its attitudinal disposition towards Taiwan? In other words, can China decide to invade Taiwan in the mania of Russia? The world has not been able to deter and has avoided any direct military confrontation with Russia? If China invades Taiwan, can the international community muster the necessary courage to also stop the imminent Chinese invasion?
The second strategic fear by the West is also explained by Xi Jinping’s reported new vision which is perceived to be hegemonic. When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he expected Chinese ‘global dominance’ by the year 2049 to coincide with 100 years of the founding of the Communist Party rule. The West have generally tried to contain this ambition in different ways, and by so doing, they have created new political lulls that are driven by mutual suspicions and new challenges.
Thirdly, as noted earlier, Taiwan is populated by about 23 million people who fled Mainland China following the defeat of the Nationalists at the end of the Chinese war. Thus, in terms of indigeneity, culture and lifestyle, they are Chinese, except in politico-economic ideology. However, the Western world is trying tooth and nail and by manu militari, to win Taiwan to its side, by preaching the gospel of plural democracy and westernisation, but to which China has consistently shown a vehement opposition. China is unconditionally claiming sovereignty over the island and is not prepared to negotiate.
Indeed, no one is disputing the fact of Chinese origin of Taiwan or the fact of Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. What is in dispute is the agitation of the Taiwanese self-declaration as an independent, democratic country. Taiwan is claiming its own leadership, political system, national constitution, and military. And without whiff of doubt, the Western world has actually been aiding and abetting this agitation all along. In fact, there was the US-Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 that was done under President Jimmy Carter to provide military assistance, especially defense weapons, to the Taipei authorities in Taiwan. Consequently, in light of the foregoing, many observers have thought that Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was ill-timed and not in the US national interest.
Before the visit, the Chinese Foreign Ministry threatened that Pelosi’s visit would be considered as a hostile act of aggression and that Pelosi’s visit would surely attract counter measures. Many Chinese were against this type of threats. For them, the threats are not serious enough. Some of them have reportedly asked the Beijing government to shoot down Pelosi’s aircraft. This suggestion of shooting down Pelosi’s aircraft is extremist, most unfortunate and uncalled for. However, the suggestion clearly shows the extent of Chinese animosity towards Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Apparently in consonance with this animosity, Beijing has announced some trade sanctions against Taiwan and has also said that there would be targeted missile drills around Taiwan after the visit of Pelosi.
During the visit, Pelosi met with the Taiwanese President, Tsai-Ing-Wen, in Taipei and noted that the world ‘faces a choice between democracy and autocracy’ and assured Taiwan of continued US support. This statement of support means little because the US policy on Taiwan is quite ambiguous. On the one hand, the United States accepts the ‘One China Policy’ but is simultaneously still aiding and abetting the separation of Taiwan unofficially. Thus, Pelosi’s statement of support for Taiwan is quite questionable.
And without jot of doubt, China’s mania of response to the visit of Pelosi is unexpected. It suggests another US foreign policy miscalculation after that of Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the context of Russian invasion, the Washingtonian authorities were clearly advised to avoid NATO’s expansion towards Russia but deaf ears were turned to the advice. In fact, Russian invasion was expected but not at the time it did occur. The current misunderstanding between Pelosi’s America and the Chinese on the visit is not in any way different. Pelosi was advised not to travel to Taiwan at this material time but she refused, apparently acting under the rule of separation of powers. But, how do we explain the rule of separation of powers when strategic interests are stake? Who is more correct, Joe Biden or Pelosi in the quest to promote the national interest of the United States?
President Joe Biden noted earlier in the year that the United States would give active support to Taiwan should China decide to attack Taiwan. However, President Biden did not support Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Pelosi has gone to Taiwan to project US values of democracy, rule of law and transparency in political governance. She already left the country but the visit has generated a fresh military tension which has the potential of another inter-state war from the perspective of the Western world or a civil war, from the angle of the Chinese government and people. Even if President Joe Biden has condemned Pelosi’s visit, an anti-thesis, so to say, there is no disputing the fact that the United States has confused the Sino-American environment of 25 years ago when the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, visited Beijing and the environment was friendlier than what obtained during Pelosi’s visit. By then, Honourable Gingrich was a Republican. Pelosi visited as a Democrat. 25 years ago, China was not yet talking about global dominance or US decline. Under Xi Jinping, the story is a little bit different, etc.
All along, US foreign policy efforts have been aimed at controlling and containing the emergence of China as another major superpower. This is why, in the eyes of Joe Biden, the visit of Pelosi negates his spirit of economic and diplomatic strategy of containing Chinese power and influence in Asia. In containing China’s power, President Biden has been arming Australia with nuclear-powered submarines within the framework of the AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom and United States) project. AUKUS’ objective is to enable Australia become the seventh nation to operate nuclear-powered submarines, after the US, UK, France, China, India and Russia, by building a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia. This is why relationship between Australia and China has also become more challenging than ever before.
Although there is no disputing the fact that AUKUS project will strengthen the defence partnership among the three signatories, the mutual animosity between them as a collective, and France, as the initially contracted provider of Australia’s nuclear-powered subs, has not been helpful. Indeed, France is seen to be friendlier with China while the AUKUS wants to fight China more frontally. As the Canberra, Washington and Westminster authorities put it, the indo-Pacific AUKUS pact is to ‘defend our shared interests in the region’ and ‘bring us closer than ever’ in terms of security, technologies and defence-related science.’ Besides, Joe Biden has also initiated a regional economic pact just to checkmate the increasing economic power of China in the Asian region.
As noted by Jane Perlez, ‘the fear is that the trip, which will also include stops this week in South Korea and Japan, is an unnecessary provocation that distracts from the allies’ efforts to counter China’s military might and economic clout (vide her “Pelosi’s Taiwan Visit Risks Undermining US Efforts with Asian Allies,” The New York Times, August 3, 2022). In this regard, China’s policy attitude is simply to dominate the Asian region. And true enough, China has considerably invested financially and diplomatically for this purpose, persuading all the Asian regional leaders that the United States is a distant and declining power with a broken political system, while China is their natural partner by geographical location, political propinquity, and territorial contiguity. But what is the implication for Africa in general, and Nigeria, in particular?
Foreign Policy Implications for Nigeria
As good as the foregoing arguments and intentions are on both sides, the major source of concerns is the gradual militarisation of the Taiwanese geo-political environment, which now has the potential to precipitate another type of Russian invasion in Taiwan. The invasion is already in the making on both sides. Japan, in sustaining the US policy strategy on China, ‘has also moved troops, anti-aircraft artillery, and surface-to-ship missile defence batteries to the country’s southern islands…’
Before then, China had banned Australia’s exports of wine, lobsters and coal following its government’s call for an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19. In fact, China still maintains its economic sanctions on South Korea for allowing the United States to deploy, in 2017, a missile defence system, called Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), which largely relies on AN/TPY-2 (Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance). The THAAD is ‘a missile defence radar that can detect, track and discriminate ballistic missiles.’
Consequently, in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, what will Nigeria’s policy stand be? True, Nigeria has a ‘One China Policy and Two Systems.’ It is for this reason that the Government has not allowed Taiwan to have a diplomatic mission in Abuja, but a Trade Mission located in Lagos. Even when Taiwan fraudulently tried to open a diplomatic mission in Abuja, China complained about it and the Government instructed that Taiwan should promptly relocate its Trade Office to Lagos. But this is not the real problem. The concern is that Nigeria-Taiwan relations cannot be likened to Nigeria-China or Nigeria-United States relations.
If China invades Taiwan, can Nigeria support the United States to the detriment of its relationship with China, especially bearing in mind Nigeria’s heavy indebtedness towards China? In the same vein, can Nigeria afford the luxury of supporting China against the United States, especially that the United States has recently adopted a policy of sanctioning any African country that does not support its international position? The US Bill on those countries that either voted against or abstained from voting against Russian invasion is a case in point.
The best option for Nigeria in the event of any invasion of Taiwan is therefore to apply Nigeria’s principle of non-alignment in such a way that Nigeria will not be a friend of one and the enemy of the other. If the United States wants to sanction Nigeria for not taking sides, it will be easier to defend Nigeria’s sovereignty and political independence. For taking side with the United States and the United Nations by supporting the UNGA resolution condemning Russian invasion of Ukraine, Nigeria should still expect yet to be disclosed Russian sanctions.
Secondly, the environmental conditionings of political governance in Nigeria is generally fraught with crises and conflicts and many of the conflicts are not different from the Taiwanese agitation for an independent identity. Taiwan, though of the Chinese ethnic stock, does not want to be part of Mainland China, be it in terms of politico-administrative or geo-economic terms. In the thinking of the Taiwanese, the objective is total detachment while relationships with the Mainland China should be sovereignly determined after achievement of political sovereignty. This is what and why the Beijing authorities are preparing to go to war for. There is therefore the need to draw lessons from the Sino-Taiwanese emerging war for Nigeria.
In this regard, what is it that can be done to avoid war in Nigeria apart from the issue of deepening situation of insecurity in the country? The main issue raised by Taiwan’s agitation for independence is sustainability of the principle of self-determination. Self-determination is a critical principle of international law, derived from customary international law, and commonly enshrined in several international treaties. It can apply within the context of an existing sovereign State, in which case we talk about internal self-determination, and it can also be outside of a state, and we then talk about external self-determination. When it is about internal self-determination, the issues bother more about opting out of an existing recognised sovereign country. When it is about external self-determination, it is more associated with decolonisation, political independence for dependent territories.
Cases of internal self-determination include the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, the independence of Abhkazia from Georgia, the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia and South Sudan from Sudan. While these cases are already faits accomplis, the agitations for self-determination in Nigeria remains a wish and struggle which is made difficult by the Position of the United Nations and the principle of uti possidetis juris as enshrined in the 1963 OAU Charter and readopted by the Constitutive Act of the African Union.
The main issue of concern is well articulated by Professor Carlson Anyangwe: ‘the right of self-determination is an enabling, ongoing collective human right applicable in colonial and certain post-colonial contexts. The case-law on self-determination shows that while the African Commission readily upholds the right of internal self-determination, it always declines claims of external self-determination. The dubious reasoning of the Commission is that this variant of self-determination is unavailable in post-colonial Africa because of its incompatibility with the principle of territorial integrity’ (vide his “The Normative Power of the Right to Self-determination under the African Charter and the Principle of Territorial Integrity: Competing Values of Human dignity and System Stability (2018) 2 in African Human Rights Yearbook, pp. 47-71).
And true enough, the principle of uti possidetis juris, adopted in 1810 by Latin American countries to prevent unnecessary territorial disputes following their accession to national sovereignty was, for the same reasons, adopted in 1963 by African countries in their OAU Charter. Thus, based on Article 1, Chapter 1, Part 2 of the UN Charter which has it that the purpose of the UN Charter is ‘to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace,’ there is no doubt that it is the aspect of external self-determination that is referred to. Internal self-determination is not rederred to. By implication, like Taiwan is trying to opt out of China, the Yoruba and the Igbo ethnic stocks are contemplating opting out of Nigeria for various considerations. They are most likely to have international support. Has Nigeria any anti-self-determination foreign Policy? To what extent can foreign policy defend the constitutional provision of indivisibility and indissolubility of Nigeria in light of the legality of the principle of self-determination in international law? Without doubt, if China invades Taiwan, with the same attitudinal disposition towards Russian invasion of Ukraine, another precedent would have been laid and the same attitude should be expected in Nigeria if the agitation becomes more violent.