President Xi Jinping’s wolf warrior diplomats excel at withering rhetoric when they want to belittle and dismiss people whose words and deeds, as they so often say, have “hurt the feelings” of all 1.4bn people in the People’s Republic of China.
Xi had ample opportunity to instruct China’s diplomats and its state media apparatus, which acts as a hagiography machine for the president, to do the same when it came to Nancy Pelosi’s expected visit to Taiwan.
Pelosi may be House Speaker and second in line to succeed America’s 79-year-old president, but that will probably change in just a few months if the Republicans do as well as expected in November’s Congressional midterm elections.
Beijing could have dismissed Pelosi as a lame-duck Speaker and ally of an unpopular president engaged in a feeble act of transparent grandstanding, and reminded the world how she unrolled a tiny banner in Tiananmen Square in 1991 to protest against the eponymous massacre there of pro-democracy protesters two years earlier.
Instead, Xi’s administration has decided to imbue Pelosi’s overnight stay in Taipei with a historical import greater than the unofficial two-week, four-city US tour taken by Taiwan’s then-president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1995. During the trip, the pro-independence leader met dignitaries including House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
President Jiang Zemin, who Xi has relegated to second-tier rank in his effort to position himself for lifetime dominance over the Chinese Communist party, responded to that slight by launching missiles that splashed into waters near Taiwan.
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.
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.
China’s military is exponentially more powerful than it was during the last crisis in the Taiwan Strait 27 years ago. But is it ready to test its capabilities against its most formidable rival should there be an accidental encounter?
As for Xi’s dream of taking Taiwan, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated that it can be hard enough for one of the world’s largest military forces to defeat a much smaller foe even when the nations are not separated by a wide body of water.
Xi, however, long ago dispensed with his predecessors’ dictum that one should “hide your brightness, bide your time” until your superior capabilities were assured.
He has called China’s unification with Taiwan “a historic mission and unshakeable commitment of the Chinese Communist party” that “cannot be passed from generation to generation”.
On Taiwan policy in general, and this crisis in particular, Xi has painted himself into a corner.