The following is a lightly edited transcription from The Socialist Program, released Wednesdays at 7pm ET/4pm PT on YouTube and as a podcast Thursdays at 8am ET/5am PT. Subscribe here.
Ken, we spoke a few weeks ago in anticipation of Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, what the Chinese called a “strategic level provocation.” We didn’t know with certainty she would go — no one really did until really a few hours before she arrived. But indeed, she did go, and the Chinese are carrying out live fire, massive military exercises around Taiwan. They’re announcing boycotts of important commodities coming from Taiwan that have a mainland China market. No one knows yet for sure what the fallout will be.
At that time, we talked about how Nancy Pelosi’s trip, which seems on its face to be a gratuitous (that is, unnecessary) and reckless provocation, wasn’t the rogue action of a rogue politician coming from Washington. I’m now more firmly convinced of this than ever. She’s number three in the line of succession after the president and vice president. Yet there was some talk about, ‘Well, Biden said we’re not telling her to go. We’ve advised her not to go.’
But Pelosi could not have gone without the blessing of the Biden White House or the Pentagon. If the Pentagon or the White House said to the speaker of the House of Representatives, ‘You’re not going. This is a reckless provocation. This is an unnecessary escalation,’ she would not have gone. I think the fact that she went means that for sure this was part of a U.S. operation toward China. Your thoughts?
Biden’s comments, when he said that the military didn’t think this was a good idea,and of course the number of op-ed pieces and other things in some of the American media that raised concerns about Pelosi’s trip — I think some of that is perhaps intended to convey the idea that there’s debate and there’s discussion. But I think it’s clear that an event of this magnitude, the visit of the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who’s in the Democratic Party—the same party as President Biden—this is not something that happens just sort of on a whim. She isn’t, as you say, just some kind of rogue actor, and she reached out across party lines in Congress, invited Republicans as well as Democrats to accompany her, and referred to the trip in her comments in Taiwan as a congressional delegation. All of this indicates pretty clearly that this isn’t just some casual whim of an eccentric, older representative.
This is a component of America’s policy toward China, which is a policy of provocation and demonization. It’s a policy of containment and of trying to slow or thwart China’s development and reemergence as a significant participant in global affairs. I don’t think there’s much question that this reflects and extends the posture of hostility and aggressiveness that the United States has developed toward China at least since the Obama administration, with the original so-called Pivot to Asia. This is just another expression of that, despite the somewhat muddled messaging coming out of the White House.
I want to play a clip. This is from Joe Biden’s first trip to Asia since taking office in January 2021. He’s asked directly, ‘is the U.S. prepared to use military force?,’ meaning to have a military confrontation with China over Taiwan. Let’s listen to how he responds.
We remain committed to supporting the peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits and ensuring that there is no unilateral change of the status quo.
Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?
That’s the commitment we made. [End clip]
Biden says using military force against China over Taiwan is a commitment that we made. Please explain that.
I wish I could. That certainly doesn’t reflect the realities of the legal obligations that the United States government has taken on itself, and it doesn’t reflect even the statements that have been made by previous presidents and by this president in other contexts. The idea that the United States would undertake the actual military defense of Taiwan I think remains a very problematic question.
We understand that President Biden sometimes is not as precise in his communications as one might hope that the president of the United States would be, and this perhaps was a situation where he simply went off script, he didn’t really understand the implications of what he was saying. I think that’s certainly a possibility.
But as Nancy Pelosi has said and as Democratic Senator Bob Menendez in particular said—and he’s another China hawk in the U.S. Senate—he made the point that Biden said this not just at that moment, but that he’s repeated it two other times. So since he’s become president, on three different occasions he has reaffirmed that the U.S. will use military force.
Now, you’re right, Joe Biden is famous for putting his foot in his mouth, or both feet sometimes—the man is notorious for it. But he’s repeated on three different occasions since he’s become president that the U.S. is prepared to go to war with China over Taiwan and to use military force, and he says it’s a commitment we have made. Then Nancy Pelosi in her op-ed, which again was coordinated with The Washington Post to be issued the day she arrived in Taiwan, says, ‘We have a vow to defend Taiwan.’
So you have the speaker of the House from Biden’s own party saying we have vowed to defend Taiwan militarily, and you have Biden himself saying on three separate occasions, ‘this is a commitment we’ve made’: it’s not a misspeak on the part of Joe Biden.
I agree with that, and I think what’s important is that it reflects the actual conduct of the United States. The United States has repositioned itself in the Western Pacific, Southeast Asia and South Asia, and taken this aggressive posture to ramp up its military provocations in the South China Sea, in the Taiwan Strait.
The problem with Biden and his communications on this is that he will say, for example, most famously when he’s speaking directly with President Xi of China: ‘Of course, the United States honors the one China policy. The United States respects the agreements that we’ve entered into. We have no wish to alter the situation with Taiwan.’ He says that on the one hand, and then he turns around and makes these statements about military engagement using very reckless and dangerous language. I think it reflects the will and intention, on the part of political elites in the United States, to push and provoke China as thoroughly as possible.
We also need to reflect upon America’s conduct historically, which is that the American government has often provoked situations in which it adopts this hostile posture, but when push comes to shove, it leads people—like the people of Ukraine right now—to suffer the consequences of its reckless rhetoric and actions while the United States sits back and tries to reap the political benefits of this kind of conduct.
The United States has been violating the formal terms of its agreements and commitments to China on the one hand, and turning around and on the other sending warships into the Taiwan Strait—which is clearly the territorial waters of China.
So I think that there’s just an overall recklessness from the Biden administration, whether it’s Biden or Secretary of State Blinken or Speaker Pelosi. All of these figures have adopted a very aggressive posture toward China.
I’m glad you put it that way and that you emphasize the issue of arrogance and hubris in U.S. officials talking their way into a corner, which ups the ante, escalates the situation, and creates a confrontation, and then when all hell breaks loose, they sit back, see which way the wind is blowing and see what kind of political reward can be reaped.
Nancy Pelosi’s op-ed about her trip to Taiwan contextualizes the trip with her recent visit to meet the head of Ukraine, Zelensky, where she shook his hand and kissed him, in this big publicity moment, and says, ‘You guys just keep fighting. We’re right behind you.’ The fact is that they care about the Ukrainians just about as much as they care about the people in the island of Taiwan, which is not one whit.
The American government, these politicians, these cynics, these war makers, these warmongers—they don’t care about Taiwanese people. They didn’t care about Taiwanese democracy. They supported Chiang Kai-shek’s bloody military dictatorship during the whole time the people in Taiwan lived under what was really fascism under Chiang Kai-shek, after the occupation of the island following the defeat of the Chiang Kai-shek and the Guomindang (also known as the nationalist forces) by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War. The Guomindang fled to what was then called Formosa by the Japanese, which is present-day Taiwan, and occupied it and imposed a military dictatorship.
And it was at that time, in 1955—when it was a complete military dictatorship and tens of thousands of Taiwanese were being killed—that the U.S. signed a mutual aid treaty, a military treaty with what the Guomindang called the Republic of China, with the capital in Taiwan not Beijing, and they acknowledged the Republic of China as the government and gave Taiwan the seat of China at the U.N. They don’t care about the Taiwanese. They don’t care about Ukrainians. They don’t care about Iraqis. That’s all just for public consumption.
I completely agree with that. That touches on aspects of the history of Taiwan, aspects of the relationship between what’s happening on the island of Taiwan and what’s happening on the mainland in the rest of China.
One of the most remarkable things in that op-ed piece that Speaker Pelosi ran in The Washington Post was in your opening, where she talks about how the Taiwan Relations Act, when it was passed by Congress and signed by President Carter in 1979, was a gesture of support for “democratic Taiwan.”
Apparently, the speaker doesn’t understand anything about the history of the island of Taiwan, because in 1979 it was under martial law. There was no democracy in Taiwan. No political party other than the Guomindang, the Nationalist Party, was legally allowed. I have friends who were grad students going to learn Chinese in Taiwan back during that period and it was illegal to go to a club and dance. The police would raid places.
People here have no conception of what life on the island of Taiwan was like until martial law was finally lifted in 1987. That’s eight years after the Taiwan Relations Act was passed. It’s just ridiculous for her to say this was a recognition and “a commitment to democratic Taiwan.” There’s no historical foundation for saying that.
Even today, the different political parties that pass leadership around in Taiwan are all representatives of wealthy elites. This is not a situation all that different from the phony democracy we have right here in the United States. This idea of Taiwan as some sort of bastion of freedom and democracy, which she goes over time and time again, is not connected to the lived realities of people on Taiwan, the vast majority of whom, as we know from local political polls there, just want things to go on the way they have been. They just want to go about their lives and pursue their own livelihoods.
All of this, the imposition of martial law back in 1948 and its maintenance for the next 40 years, the crises that repeatedly sprung up back in the 1950s like when President Eisenhower even threatened to use nuclear weapons against China, all the way to these present provocations that are going on today: What these reflect is exactly as you say, that Taiwan is a piece on a chessboard. It’s just a place that the United States views for its strategic value in its challenge to China.
The United States sees China, its development, its economic progress, and the enhancement of the livelihood of its people as a threat and challenge to American power and privilege in the world. American corporations and American politicians fear for the loss of that power. They fear for the erosion of their profits. They don’t want the world to change in a way that brings greater prosperity to other people, but only to one that continues to enrich themselves. That is changing—and that’s going to change no matter what American politicians do.
There’s no way that these deep historical transformations taking place in the global economy are going to be thwarted by this propaganda against China, by sending warships through the Taiwan Strait, or even by sanctions or other things that the United States might try to impose.
China is developing. It’s going to continue to develop. That’s the will of the Chinese people, and they’ve been tremendously successful. The Chinese government is supported much more enthusiastically by Chinese citizens than American politicians are here at home.
So we face this very dangerous situation where American politicians and American elites want to hold on to a past that is fading away behind them, and they’re willing to endanger people all over the world and the American people themselves in order to protect their own power and privileges.
One of the big priorities for the U.S. government since Obama announced the pivot to Asia in 2011 has been to consolidate the other non-Chinese Asian countries into an American network to create an economic, political, diplomatic and military cordon around China. This is despite that there is no visible Chinese expansionism outside of integrated trade agreements like the Belt and Road Initiative or other network- based economic arrangements. China’s not building military bases around the world or expanding its military to other areas.
This network is to contain China, or to put China in a container. Biden took a trip to Asia and tried to enlist South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and other countries into this network. A recent New York Times article argues that this trip by Pelosi has actually undermined Biden’s aggressive strategy of network building. Pelosi escalated the situation so provocatively and created a near confrontation in Asia, without consulting any of the other so-called Asian partners, and this shows that South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand or any other nation, are not real partners. They’re junior partners, or even less than junior partners. Because Pelosi visiting Taiwan ups the ante, and that could really impact those countries if there’s a military clash in Asia, in the Pacific. But they’re not talked to at all. It shows that they’re really in a neocolonial status.
Obviously, since they don’t want to be a neo-colony, no country wants to be a neo-colony, and no country wants to be a subject to American imperialism and dictated to by American politicians like Nancy Pelosi, they’re going to take umbrage at that. They’re not going to like that. They’re going to resist that. In other words, there’s a self-defeating, contradictory character of this arrogant strategy.
I couldn’t agree more with that. Even Biden’s trip where he made those statements about military engagement with China was a trip that did not yield by any means the kinds of results that he had hoped for and that had been talked about before he embarked on it. I think that recent American diplomatic efforts in the Western Pacific, Southeast Asia, and South Asia have not been going well, despite the propaganda that gets put out and the various claims that get made.
These countries are very uncomfortable. Japan and South Korea are still occupied militarily by the United States; we have thousands, tens of thousands of troops over there. So they’re in a situation that’s somewhat particular. But other countries across the region are increasingly anxious about the desperation that they see in American activities in their areas.
A very clear indication of all this can be seen in the response to the war in Ukraine. The United States talks about how this has been such a great thing because the Biden administration has reunified all of our allies and the whole world is backing us against this terrible aggression by Russia. When, in fact, if you look at a map of the world and you look at the countries that have supported the American sanctions and American aggression against Russia, as opposed to countries that have not, the vast majority of people in the world are represented in countries that have not joined in with American sanctions regime nor supported the American policies.
That includes countries that are routinely talked about by the Biden administration as if they were big supporters, like India. India doesn’t sign on to these things. Of course, India and China have their own issues and those have their historical roots, much of which are the legacies of imperialism themselves, but still this is a moment where India and China are finding more in common in the anxiety that both countries feel about American imperialism and American domination.
Pelosi’s trip included Singapore and Malaysia, countries that are not gung-ho supporters of the United States in this region. Those are both countries, especially Singapore, that have navigated a very careful relationship with China, that appreciate China’s return to prominence in world affairs, and that I think are anxious about American intentions and about how those are going to affect them.
This is not the new American Pacific Century, using the phrase of Secretary of State Clinton from a famous article she wrote back in 2011. At that time, she was calling for a new American Pacific Century where the United States thinks of itself as the hegemonic power all across the Pacific.
But we see that falling apart in places like Singapore and in little countries like the Solomon Islands. The white post-colonial societies like Australia and New Zealand? Sure, they’re willing, to a certain extent, to sign on, especially Australia. But we saw statements recently by Prime Minister Ardern in New Zealand in which she said, ‘Let’s not get carried away with this. China’s a very important country. We may have our disagreements, but we also have a lot of shared interests.’ That’s a much more pragmatic approach.
When you see a country like New Zealand taking that kind of attitude, it suggests just how far American ambitions are overreaching and how the realities of America’s international situation are eroding in ways that simply are not being addressed.
The pivot to Asia announced by Obama in 2011 was misunderstood at first. A lot of people didn’t know what it meant because it’s vague: What does it mean to pivot to Asia? The details of what the pivot to Asia included were that by 2020, nine years after Obama’s announcement, the U.S. was planning to place 60% of its U.S. naval assets and 60% of its U.S. Air Force assets into the Pacific, meaning around China. So the pivot to Asia had an economic component and a political component, but mainly it had a military component.
When you think about U.S. history in the last 125 years, this wasn’t the first pivot to Asia. In 1898, the U.S. went to war against Spain to take over the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico and Cuba. It then seized part of Colombia and created the Panama Canal. That was all designed to create a Caribbean base that would link American northeastern industrial cities to the Pacific and to China in particular. The European powers had already sliced up China into different spheres of influence—that’s when Hong Kong was stolen by the U.K., for instance. But the U.S., even though it was late to the game of dividing up China, was there by 1898. In 1899, Secretary of State John Hay wrote the Open Door Notes as a policy. This was a pivot to Asia.
Next the U.S. invaded the Philippines, and a million Filipinos died resisting the American takeover of their country. And then the Philippines was made into a colony. Then right after World War II, right after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, the U.S. pivoted to Asia by going to war in Korea and four million Koreans died, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica—about one out of every five.
The main complaint of American pilots was that there was nothing left to bomb in Korea. They made that complaint by December 1950 or January 1951—and the U.S. kept bombing for two more years. Then the U.S. went to war in Vietnam: another pivot to Asia. These pivots to Asia are pretty bad for the peoples of Asia.
So President Obama—who won the Nobel Peace Prize, I think because his name wasn’t George W Bush; he got the ‘I Am Not George W Bush Nobel Peace Prize’—then announces the pivot to Asia in 2011 and here we are again, risking another major war in Asia and the U.S. announcing major power conflict, meaning conflict with China as its priority.
Whenever the U.S. pivots in a military way, the Chinese say, ‘Why should our rise, the Chinese people’s rise, out of poverty and underdevelopment be considered a negative or deficit for the U.S.? Why can’t it be a win-win? Why can’t our peaceful rise out of underdevelopment and poverty be considered a good thing rather than an existential threat?’ And the Americans denounce this as simply propaganda.
What’s the logic here for U.S. policymakers? The Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, now this pivot to Asia. What’s the logic here?
I think there’s a very straightforward logic, but it’s not the logic we prefer. It’s been played out and demonstrated repeatedly in the relationship between the United States and Asia. Your narrative picks up in the 1890s with the American war with Spain and taking the Philippines and Guam. Even that is only a successive stage in a process that goes back much earlier.
As early as the 1840s or so, the United States had passed legislation that gave itself the right to go out and take territory on islands across the Pacific that were useful for refueling or restocking American naval ships or were seen as potential sources of vital chemicals, things like potassium, nitrates and others.
This was a policy that really went back to the very origins of the republic. The wealth of Asia and of China was a huge attraction. The whole modern history of Western civilization is grounded on this quest for access to, and then control of, the wealth of Asia. In the 19th century, the United States became a part of that.
At the outset, the U.S. is occupied considerably with its own domestic imperialism, with the conquest of indigenous peoples and the expansion of its territory on the continent. But by the end of the 19th century, those very 1890s that you’re talking about when Hay wrote the Open Door Notes, the Pacific became the great new frontier. We overthrew the independent monarchy of Hawaii in 1895 and annexed it in 1898. We purchased Alaska from Russia at bargain basement prices back in the 1860s. So this thrust into the Pacific, this pivot to Asia has deep historical roots.
There is a common logic to it, which is gaining access to and control of wealth. The pursuit of profits is a structural imperative of the capitalist system.
The United States is in many ways remains the premier capitalist society and economy in the world. We are at the heart of a global system of capitalism that isn’t just a matter of the nation of the United States, but is an international, imperialist system. What that means is that capital will go wherever it can to maximize its profits and return on investment, and for much of history that has meant Asia.
Asia has been a source of tremendous wealth, and the United States has steadfastly and consistently pursued that. When I teach about Secretary Hay’s Open Door Notes, I always refer to those as the Equal Opportunity Imperialism Notes because they were designed to prevent other countries from establishing exclusive areas of economic exploitation. We wanted access to every place for economic exploitation.
That’s why the United States was an opponent of European colonialism under President Roosevelt. Roosevelt understood that European colonies were a barrier to American capital, so he supported independence for Indonesia and India, for example. Neither of those came in his lifetime, but he supported them because he wanted to break down the exclusive policies of European colonial empires so that American capital could go wherever it wanted. That has remained kind of the litmus test of American foreign policy. It remains that today. Where can American capital go to pursue its profitability?
If a country is open to American capital and throws itself at the feet of American capital and says, ‘Come on in and take what you need, give us the crumbs from your table,’ that’s a great country. It doesn’t matter what its political situation is. Look at Saudi Arabia: America makes billions of dollars and we don’t care about the repressiveness of that regime. We don’t care about their policies of assassinating their political opponents. We don’t care about cutting off the hands of people who shoplift. All we care about is the profitability of American investments, American economic trade, etc.
But a country that resists American capital, a country that says, ‘We’d rather conduct our own affairs in our own self-interest to develop our own economy and take care of our own people,’ they’re going to be targeted. And again it doesn’t matter what the nature of that political system is, it could be a representative democracy or a liberal political society. It doesn’t matter. They’re going to be demonized, targeted, and labeled authoritarian, autocracies or something else. We have a whole list of names that American politicians love to trot out, but regardless they’re going to be seen as enemies and unfree societies.
What matters about freedom is freedom of capital, freedom of capital flow—and that is the underlying principle of American foreign policy. ‘You’re either with us or you’re against us.’ When the United States thought that China was going to throw itself at the feet of capital, become a capitalist country, have regime change or a color revolution, then we had this much more constructive relationship.
Now that it’s very clear that China doesn’t intend to do that, and that it’s seeking its own path and trying to build its own socialist future, they’re the worst enemy possible. This is because they don’t just throw their doors wide open and say, ‘Come, take whatever you want,’ even though there’s plenty of American investment in China. Those are the criteria by which American policy is calibrated, and we can see that in the implacable hostility that has emerged as China’s autonomy, independence and self-determination has become an increasing reality over the last couple of decades.
Let’s go back to the Taiwan issue and Nancy Pelosi’s visit. She wrote an op-ed, which was coordinated with The Washington Post such that it was published within an hour of when she landed in Taiwan, showing that whatever their differences with Pelosi (if there are any), they certainly still made their portal available for her explanation of this reckless act.
Pelosi wrote that the United States “made a solemn vow to support the defense of Taiwan” in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. “In the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) accelerating aggression, our congressional delegation’s visit should be seen as an unequivocal statement that America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, as it defends itself and its freedom.”
What is the aggression, Ken? What is the aggression that China is carrying out against Taiwan? Never mind the fact that the U.S. acknowledges that Taiwan is part of China, which it has done repeatedly, in 1972 and 1979 and subsequently in the different communiques, starting with the Shanghai Communique. So if China was actually carrying out a military or police action against Taiwan, it would actually be an internal matter in China because China has sovereign control over Taiwan, which the U.S. policy acknowledges.
But let’s leave that one aside for now. What is she talking about in her op-ed about China’s “accelerating aggression” against Taiwan?
She’s talking about this idea that China is defying American wishes, that China is not simply rolling over and saying, ‘You take what you want, you do what you want, and we’ll just accommodate ourselves to you in whatever ways you think are necessary.’ As China has become more self confident, it has become more self assertive and it is taking its place in the world.
American elites, and Pelosi as a classic embodiment of this, can’t conceive of a world in which other countries pursue their own self interest, develop their economies and enhance the livelihoods of their people. They can’t conceive of that as anything other than an erosion of their own power and a taking away of their privileges.
They see it as aggression because they see it as China chipping away at the fortress of their wealth and power, rather than trying to understand it as a historical process in which China is trying to take care of its own people, its own needs and interests and its own economic thinking.
If you look at the Taiwan issue in a historical context, there was a civil war in China for 27 years between the nationalist forces led by Chiang Kai-shek (the Guomindang) and the Communist Party forces led by Mao Zedong. In 1949, after the reopening of that civil war following World War II’s conclusion, the Communists won. Chiang Kai-shek and his forces flee to the island of Taiwan, take it over and basically create a military dictatorship there.
The Chinese Communist Party could have pursued Chiang Kai-shek, invaded that island and probably taken control of it right then and there. Whether China was going to reunify with Taiwan through peaceful reunification or militarily would be a matter of the historical civil war that is in some ways unfinished, because the defeated nationalists took refuge in Taiwan and the Chinese communists didn’t chase them out. In a way, it’s a suspended civil war, or a civil war on hiatus.
But China declared later, unequivocally, that they were not going to seek military reunification, meaning conquering the island, but that they were going to reunify Taiwan peacefully as they did with Hong Kong.
So when Nancy Pelosi talks about the continued aggression against Taiwan, has there been some change in China’s policy regarding the peaceful reunification of Taiwan? Because I’m not aware of that change.
Quite the contrary: Xi Jinping has been very consistent and very clear in his statements that this issue, the status of Taiwan and the relationship between the local authorities on the island and the rest of the government, is an internal question. It is a question that has come down from history, that’s how that’s how it is referred to, exactly as you said. This is a legacy of events that took place over 70 years ago. It’s the result of a massively successful popular revolution that established the People’s Republic. And it was only the concentration of military forces, the remnant nationalist forces, at least the vast majority of them, that occupied the island of Taiwan after suppressing widespread local opposition.
Then the United States imposes its naval forces in the strait to try to block any effort by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to come across. This was a moment where history got put on hold, and that legacy comes down to us today.
But the government of the People’s Republic has been very clear that their intention is not to invade, take over and launch some sort of military campaign. What would be the point of that? Why would that be a good thing for them to do? It would damage the people and the economy of Taiwan. It would damage people and the economy on the mainland. It wouldn’t be a good thing for anybody. The people on both sides of the strait are Chinese and they share a historical identity. They share a common culture.
Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders have been very clear that this is a problem that needs to be resolved by the Chinese on both sides of the strait in their own way, in their own time. China’s not the one that’s pushing this. China is not the one that’s saying, ‘We’re tired of waiting. We have to resolve this right now. You guys get ready because we’re coming.’ That’s not what the Chinese are saying. The Chinese have continued to say what they have said for many years, which is that they want to resolve this peacefully and see the reunification of the country and the reintegration of Taiwan.
As with Hong Kong, the idea of one country, two systems can be applied in Taiwan as well. Nobody on the Chinese side is talking about invading. Nobody’s talking about forcing Taiwan to adopt a political structure that’s identical to much of the rest of the country. This is something that comes down from history and needs to be resolved by the Chinese themselves, when that’s doable.
There have been points where convergence between the two sides has seemed to be well advanced, and there have been other points—certainly we find ourselves at a nadir right now—in which the tensions have deepened. But nonetheless, it’s a long, ongoing historical process, and the Chinese recognize the depth of history and the way some of these things just take time.
So it’s not China that has been aggressive or destabilizing. It’s this new attitude stemming most clearly from the Obama administration through the Trump administration, and now certainly reaching new heights under the Biden administration of the United States trying to upset the apple cart, provoke China and trigger something that will allow the United States to inflict damage on China, whether it’s economic or military.
This is where the aggression lies. This is the posture where change is coming from. It’s not something that the Chinese are doing; the Chinese have not changed their posture.
Our show today is called Pelosi Leaves Taiwan: What Comes Next? That is the most pressing issue, and Ken, I want to ask you about what comes next, because this was a historical moment. It was the first time in 25 years that a speaker of the House came to Taiwan, but it’s quite different from the last time.
Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich went to Taiwan in 1997, but Democrat Bill Clinton was president at that time—so that could be viewed as Newt Gingrich thumbing his nose at the sitting president of the United States. But here it’s Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, and President Joe Biden, a Democrat. Obviously her visit is in conjunction with the White House.
In the op-eds of Pelosi and Senator Bob Menendez, another China hawk, they make the argument that her visit and the so-called reassurance of the military defense of Taiwan is necessary in order to clarify the strategic ambiguity that was deliberately created by the United States when it recognized that Taiwan was part of China but simultaneously adopted the Taiwan Relations Act, which meant that the U.S. would continue to send weapons to Taiwan.
There’s this “strategic ambiguity,” which is a deliberate diplomatic language ploy. What they’re saying is that we have to vow and show our support for Taiwan, because otherwise it allows China to continue with its “propaganda to reinforce its ‘one China’ message,” as if the idea that there’s one China and Taiwan is part of it is now being described by American political leaders as a propaganda tool or ploy of the Chinese state.
That would be like the idea that the United States recognizing sovereignty over Hawaii (which the U.S. annexed) is a message by the United States, rather than the reality that Hawaii is now technically a part of the United States. It’s one of the 50 states. It’s part of the sovereign entity called the United States of America. But now U.S. politicians in the last couple of weeks are talking about Taiwan, or China’s assertion that it’s part of China, as a message from China rather than as an established fact.
I think it would have been a mistake for China to have taken some dramatic military action when Pelosi was in Taiwan, because it would have played into Pelosi’s hands. But it’s clear that the U.S. and Pelosi’s strategy was to defy China and have de facto recognition of the so-called independence of Taiwan by making this visit. If China does anything that’s overt, the U.S. will call China an aggressor and up the ante more. If China does something that’s restrained or perceived to be passive, then China will seem to have succumbed to American threats—in which case Nancy Pelosi’s visit will be followed up by others. Why wouldn’t a China hawk from the Republicans like Senator Marco Rubio go? Why wouldn’t Japanese nationalists start to visit and meet with the Taiwan authorities?
China is now confronted with this situation where if they take overt action, they’re called the aggressor, and if they’re restrained, it will accelerate or embolden the acts of the imperialists and their apologists and supplicants. It seems to me that this is a real turning point, an inflection point.
I believe without hyperbole that this was designed to be an inflection moment in the escalating campaign of major power conflict against China. That’s why even if there’s no immediate outbreak of military hostilities, I believe we’re one step closer toward it.
China’s response has been very measured. They have been absolutely clear and consistent in their statements, in their condemnation and portrayal of this and in their recognition of it as a provocation, as an effort to spark more intensive conflict. They have also resisted what must have been in some ways a strong temptation to take some sort of interventionist action with Pelosi’s visit. They didn’t do any of that, even though there was some speculation about possible gestures that they might make.
Now, after Pelosi has departed, the PLA is going to carry out these military exercises in six clearly delineated spaces that encircle the island. Some of the Chinese press has referred to this as a de facto blockade for the moment. It’s only going on over a three-day period. On the one hand, I think it is designed and intended to be a demonstration of capabilities. A demonstration that they can do this, that this is not the China of 1997, which was the last time that there was significant tension over this (though not as high as this) when the U.S. sent two carrier fleets through the Taiwan Strait. I don’t think we’re going to be seeing that this time, at least I certainly hope not. But these exercises they’re carrying out right now are demonstrating the enhanced capability of China to take care of its own security concerns.
Of course on the other hand, under international law and under the agreements that the United States is formally committed to, all of this is taking place in what are China’s territorial waters. The waters around Taiwan are part of the waters of China. So the idea that this is somehow an aggressive action is not consistent with the legal or political situation in reality, even though it may conflict with this fantasy discourse that politicians like Pelosi, Rubio and others are putting out. So for now China is being militarily very restrained and measured in its response. They’ve imposed some economic penalties on Taiwan.
There’s two audiences for all of this. One, of course, is Taiwan itself—sending a message to the political elites in Taiwan that they should be careful of how they flirt with the United States. If they think that they can control the United States, they may want to think again because the U.S. is simply using them. But the bigger audience, of course, is American political elites. Here the Chinese are demonstrating that they can respond effectively, they can impose costs on Taiwan and they can demonstrate their military capability.
I also don’t think that these three days of exercises are going to be the end of this. We’re going to see an enhanced sensibility or sensitivity on the part of China around these military concerns. I agree very much with you that Pelosi has set the stage for a very dangerous future, a future in which the U.S. clearly intends to continue its provocations and try to up the ante.
What the U.S. would like to do is provoke a military clash, a situation in which the U.S. isn’t going to pay the price (at least that’s their hope and expectation) but one like Ukraine where the local people will be the ones who suffer, and a situation that will impose costs on China, which the Americans hope will halt its development and turn back the tide of history. That’s a foolish, reckless, dangerous enterprise to be embarking on, but it does seem to be the way that American politicians are going. They just can’t conceive of a different way to operate in the world than this aggressive, disruptive, destructive kind of attitude.
So I certainly agree that this is an inflection point, a point beyond which I don’t see the future clearly. Though we’ve gotten through this moment of crisis with Pelosi’s visit, these remain very dangerous times and the path forward is complex. I think the Chinese are doing the very best that they can in coping with this. They have to attend to their own concerns. They don’t want to be drawn into the kind of counterproductive arms race that, of course, was problematic for the Soviet Union. They really want to concentrate on taking care of the needs of the Chinese people and helping other developing countries around the world to pursue their own course of independent, non-imperialist-dominated economic improvement. But it is a dangerous time and a dangerous future that lies before us.
There’s a new conservative South Korean president, and in a couple of weeks at the end of August, the United States is going to resume war games with South Korea. These massive war exercises had been suspended after Trump met twice with Kim Jong-un—there were still military exercises, but not of these massive kinds that the U.S. was doing biannually or twice a year with South Korea and U.S. military forces, with tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of troops and aircraft. They’re going to do it again in North Korea, and of course, these drills are not just off of North Korea’s waters, they’re also off of China’s waters because North Korea and China share a border.
Word has just come out (the Pentagon obviously leaked this) that these exercises will include the simulated invasion of North Korea and the simulated assassination of the head of state of North Korea, Kim Jong-un.
Can any of us imagine if North Korea or China was carrying out simulated invasion war games not too far from the United States? If they carried out exercises of not only simulation of the invasion and destruction of the country, but of the targeted killing of the head of state? What would be the reaction by the United States? It would be viewed not as a reckless provocation but really the basis for actual war.
This is the kind of hubris and arrogance where America can talk and act aggressively as if there’s nothing bad that could happen to America or Americans because all the bleeding and suffering is going to be done somewhere else. It won’t be done by all these privileged people like Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and most of the bureaucracy in the Pentagon who are the so-called intellectuals of the capitalist imperialist state and are carrying out this kind of arrogant planning for war.
The last time the U.S. was at war with Korea, it also involved China. One million Chinese came in and drove the U.S. back. The U.S. threatened China and North Korea. The Joint Chiefs of Staff in May 1953 unanimously agreed that they were going to start dropping nuclear bombs all over China and North Korea if the Chinese did not successfully pressure the North Koreans to sign the armistice agreement, which was eventually signed on July 27th, 1953, a few months later.
But as the Chinese said, those who play with fire will perish by it. Some people in the American media took that as hyperbole or even an act of aggression by China to be complaining so loudly. But the American ruling class and its imperial foreign policy establishment are playing with fire.
There’s a very important subtlety in the comment that came out of China and in President Xi’s message with President Biden. We’ve seen the rendition in the media, ‘Those who play with fire are going to get burned,’ and sometimes that’s taken to mean that if the United States continues its aggressive activities then China is going to burn the United States.
But, in fact, what President Xi said was slightly mistranslated. It isn’t ‘Those who play with fire are going to get burned;’ it’s ‘those who play with fire will burn themselves.’ This is very important, because the United States is playing with fire. The United States is taking these very provocative, reckless and dangerous actions out in the world (and not just with China, but especially with China). The consequences of that won’t necessarily be that China is going to do something that is unprovoked or aggressive. But whatever the consequences may be, and they may be economical, political or potentially military (and we certainly hope that it doesn’t go to that level), we need to understand that these are consequences that American elites have brought upon themselves, and sadly, upon working people in America as well.
It is we, the American people, who will suffer the consequences of the reckless policies that are being pursued by government leaders, and that’s not something that they’re willing to acknowledge. They always want to blame the other side for everything, even though it’s changes in American policy, the pivot to Asia and all of these provocations, that cause the destabilization and are the only aggression going on. It’s these U.S. policies and provocations that will trigger the consequences we all have to endure.
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