Alicia García-Herrero: “The risk that Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan will lead to a military conflict is low” | International

Alicia García-Herrero, in 2016 in Shanghai.
Alicia García-Herrero, in 2016 in Shanghai.Marcio Machado (Getty Images)

The trip to Taiwan of Nancy Pelosi, the third authority of the United States, has rapidly deteriorated the already delicate relationship between the two greatest military powers. China has reacted with large-scale military maneuvers around the self-governing island of 23 million inhabitants that it considers an inalienable part of its territory, and with the freezing of cooperation with Washington on various matters. Alicia García-Herrero, a researcher at the Bruegel study center and chief economist for Asia-Pacific at Natixis, assures in a telephone interview that Beijing has no intention of the conflict leading to a military confrontation, “at least until Xi Jinping be re-elected as president. This 54-year-old Spanish economist living in Taipei believes that the repression during the last years of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong marked a turning point for part of Taiwanese society, which until then saw the model of the former British colony as a possible example to follow.

Ask. Could the visit of the president of the US House of Representatives lead to an international conflict?

Response. The risk of military conflict is, at this time, low. China has quite audaciously chosen a response that combines the economic aspects – a ban on Taiwan importing certain agricultural products -, the political – on bilateral relations with the US – and the military, involving live-fire maneuvers and the launching of missiles in seven zones that surround the island. Beijing has long measured that such exercises appear more powerful in mainland China than they may actually be.

P. President Xi Jinping has reiterated that the goal of reunification “must be completed.” Do you think that this is the great challenge that has been set for his legacy?

R. Yes, you have said it clearly and I believe you. He has two challenges that justify his remaining in power, objectives that, he says, are not achievable in just two terms. The first is Taiwan — since he came to power he has eliminated the adjective “peaceful” reunification from the five-year plans and congresses —, but he has no incentives to take those risks before being re-elected. The second is to get GDP per capita to $20,000 in 2035.

P. How does this escalation affect Xi ahead of the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in the fall, where he is expected to be re-elected?

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R. It is a key appointment for him and three factors create noise: Ukraine, the new wave of covid in China and Taiwan. Beijing has had to calculate his response to Pelosi’s visit very carefully in order not to fall into a military conflict. Yet he has taken a high level of risk. However, what happens after the November Congress is unpredictable. Xi cannot give an image of weakness, but he cannot arrive already immersed in a war with the United States either. The president is making bobbin lace to look good with the nationalists, but not crossing a border that could have a political, economic and social cost very high for China.

P. Taipei has denounced that the maneuvers represent a blockade de facto of the island. What effects can it have on world trade and the world economy given Taiwan’s strategic importance as an exporter of semiconductors?

R. I do not see that for the moment that blockage has occurred de facto. Beijing wants to give signs that this blockade is feasible, but it is the first interested in preventing it from happening, because China is the main importer of semiconductors from Taiwan. The Taiwanese government intends to calm things down on the island, but abroad it tries to anticipate the possible problem of a real blockade. Everyone wants to know if the situation will further aggravate global inflation, but commercial ships continue to leave and there have only been a few flight delays.

P. How have Taiwanese society and politicians received Pelosi’s trip?

R. For the most part very well, although we do not know how many are silent. The Taiwanese population has evolved, before there were many more unionists, older people who had ties to China, but they are fewer and fewer. Young people are clearly against reunification, as is society as a whole, especially since Tsai Ing-wen’s victory, which commands clear respect. The president decided to accept Pelosi’s visit and society has understood that there will not be many more opportunities for Taiwan to show itself, for the world to understand the situation it is in. After the start of the Chinese maneuvers, there have been more citizens – fishermen, people from the agricultural sector – who have begun to think that the visit may end up being expensive.

P. What economic and political effects will China’s cancellation of relations with the US have on military, environmental and judicial cooperation issues?

R. It remains to be seen how Washington reacts, if it tries to calm the waters or insists that military exercises are unacceptable. One thing is what China says and another what she does. It is a currency of exchange.

P. In the last five years, Taiwan has lost recognition as an independent state from almost a dozen countries. It only maintains full diplomatic relations with 13 of the 193 members of the UN, with Paraguay, Honduras and Guatemala probably being the most important. How can it affect you in the future?

R. It is a question that I have even put to the Taiwanese foreign minister. In the eyes of the US and Europe, it would not be a problem if the time came for that figure to be reduced to zero, but it would allow Beijing to go to the United Nations to open a Pandora’s box of asking ‘what is Taiwan?’

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