Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August 2022 contributed to a stir in relations between Washington and Beijing. China has organized the largest military maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait in years, and the United States, as Joe Biden said at the QUAD summit in Tokyo, is ready to provide military response to the island in the event of a full-scale conflict being unleashed by the Xi Jinping regime. Jan Hernik, editor-in-chief of The Warsaw Institute Review, talked with Professor Salvatore Babones from the University of Sydney about Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the prospects for a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait, the foreign policy of Joe Biden’s administration and his predictions for the 2022 midterm election in the US.
Jan Hernik: On Tuesday, August 2, 2022, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan. This is an important event in the context of the ongoing rivalry between the U.S. and China in the Indo-Pacific and Beijing may give a tough response to it. How do you assess her decision to visit this place, and how will all this affect Taiwan?
Professor Salvatore Babones: First, China made it an important event in U.S.–China relations. I do not think it is an important event. Nancy Pelosi is a legislator, not part of the executive branch, and although she is a Democrat, she has no formal role in the Biden administration. I think that from a diplomatic standpoint, her visit should not have been seen as something particularly noteworthy by the Chinese government. This government is notoriously prickly, and anything can be considered as compromising its sovereignty. That is why China made a very big fuss about this visit. However, I do not think we should necessarily accept China’s anger at face value. Perhaps we should be a little more skeptical because, frankly, Beijing claims that virtually anything that any country does, of which it disapproves, is some kind of provocation to World War 3 – and that is simply not the case.
JH: Many people thought that it might be somewhat of a beginning of a serious conflict between the United States and China, and their relationship getting into a more serious phase. I wanted to ask you about Taiwan because the people of Formosa are mostly of Han-Chinese heritage. This means that they have a strong cultural background in China. Why do you think that despite this fact, Taiwanese in this area do not want reunification with mainland China?
SB: First, I think we should remember that although Taiwan might be mainly Han-Chinese ethnically, the cultural connections are not as strong as many people believe. First, there is a large indigenous population in Taiwan. It is a minority – an actual one. Secondly, the majority of the population are descendants of people who left China some 400 years ago, mainly from Fujian China, mostly from the south of this country, to settle in Taiwan, and have had very little connection with China for several hundreds of years. It is similar in many ways to the Chinese diaspora in South-East Asia and even more similar to those that are maybe mainland Chinese families. Then there was an additional influx of some 2 million refugees from mainland China due to the civil war and the aftermath of the national party’s civil war. For a long time, there were uneasy relations between the 1949s, those who came in the wake of the defeats of the war – Chiang Kai-shek’s brutal military dictatorship in Taiwan, which many people perceived as an external force that occupied Taiwan for many years. There was a lot of tension between military-centric semicolonial force occupying Taiwan and the local Taiwan Chinese who spoke a different dialect, not standard Mandarin, who had very little connection to China and, in many cases, had more connections to Japan as the metropole.
We should remember that there were some 30 years of martial law and wide terror under the KMT government in Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek. When people say that they are Han-Chinese, that means that they forget that ethnicity is not everything. It would be like me saying that Poles are Slavic, so why don’t you want to be ruled by Russia? Being Slavic does not mean that you want to be controlled by Moscow, even if the people in Moscow believe you should. So, I think that the analogy between the Poles and Russia is probably parallel to the relationship between most Taiwanese people who consider themselves ‘Taiwanese’ and mainland China. They may be from the same general ethnic settings, but they come from different historical backgrounds and heritage. In the last 20 to 30 years, a lot has changed – there are new generations, there have been more intermarriages you can no longer realistically separate, the blue families, those connected to the KMT and the green families, and those connected to local Taiwan heritage. That distinction has now broken down and at this point, the vast majority of people in Taiwan view themselves as Taiwanese, not having a strong connection to mainland China. However, there are strong business ties with China. Many business families have strong and prosperous connections, but that is business, and not culture. I find it rather surprising that people in Taiwan, a country that has been separated from China for 400 years, came to be ruled by China for 30 years by a military dictatorship. This country would not have any desire to reunite with China. I do not think this is surprising at all.
JH: The comparison you used between Poles and Russians is certainly very useful for the people here, in our part of the world, to understand this situation with China.
SB: Yes, sure, and maybe also between Ukraine and Russia. Similar sort of dynamic.
JH: Yes. Another question is related to John Kirby, who said that the U.S., despite Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, still supports the One-China policy. I would like to ask why the United States still maintains this formal relationship with Beijing, but they cannot recognize Taipei as the capital of Taiwan. It might not be understandable because Pelosi went to the capital of Taiwan, showing some degree of recognition of this country with this visit.
SB: The One-China policy is a historical legacy. It rose because the U.S. insisted that Taiwan remained the center of a united China and until 1971 held a UN–SC seat including a veto power as a representative of United China. Because of this legacy, the U.S. continued to recognize a single China until it passed to the people’s democratic China as the internationally recognized government. This policy has not changed; it is still written in the U.S. Department policy. Frankly, I think it is long past its use – now there are rather two Chinas. The U.S. is very conservative when it comes to its doctrine, and so this doctrine remains in place, although is no longer operative. I am a comparativist, I am not a Taiwan expert. I might point out, for example, the Interamerican Treaty, which has the same provisions on collective defense – as NATO does – yet everybody knows that this treaty is essentially nonoperational. The U.S. is never going to intervene in a war involving Brazil, this would not be part of active U.S. foreign policy. However, it is still on paper, so I think we should understand the One-China policy in the same way. It is still there on paper, but, in practice, the U.S. treats Taiwan as a sovereign country even to the point of selling weapons to them. Even by law, it is stated that the U.S. is to sell weapons needed to defend itself. So, yes, formally there is still a One-China policy and when some official is pressed on this issue, they refer to this notion. This encourages a peaceful settlement for prosperous relations. Of course, everyone wants such a settlement, but, as realists realize, it comes down to Taiwan’s independence.
JH: When Pelosi was in Taiwan, she said that she admires the democratic values of the Taiwanese, and this is important to the U.S. Don’t you think this is not the only reason for the fact that the U.S. supports Taiwan, and that there is also an interest in the semiconductors business supplies?
SB: No, I disagree. Semiconductors are just the latest excuse for supporting Taiwan. The U.S. support for Taiwan has been consistent for the last 70 years. The only time it wavered was during the pro-democracy movement in Taiwan in the 1980s when the U.S. support for the KMT dictatorship was quite questionable. Once Taiwan became a democracy, there has been consistent U.S. support for Taiwan. Now, people try to justify this kind of support in many ways. Originally, before Taiwan became a democracy, the rationale was ‘well, Taiwan is anticommunist’ and then ‘Taiwan is a democracy’. Now, this country is just an important semiconductor manufacturer. This is not going to change; it is a frozen conflict. Again, if I can make another interesting international analogy, it is similar to what one would say about the situation in Abkhazia, in the Black Sea region. Taiwan has become America’s Abkhazia; in many ways, it is also a conflict that will never be resolved. The U.S. will provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself as well as implicit security guarantees – the same way that Russia has Abkhazia as its client state. It is de facto an independent state that will never become part of Georgia again, but which will not be recognized by other countries. It is not an exact parallel, but in many ways it is similar. China will never recognize an independent Taiwan, and as long as China does not, other countries will not. But the U.S. will not give up its client state, Taiwan. As a result, we will remain with this permanent frozen conflict.
JH: Since we talked here in Warsaw about a month ago, I know that you do not take a threat of a potential war between the U.S. and China very seriously, but I wanted to ask you about the South China Sea region, which has been a place of conflict for years. Many experts say that this might be the place of the potential source of conflict, where the conflict might start. I wanted to ask you about your assessment of this case, and if you disagree with that, where would you search for potential ways or points of conflict? If any.
SB: I would like to start by questioning the assumption of the question. You, like many international relations experts, take it for granted that the Southern China Sea has been a source of conflict for many years now. First, I would try to consider how many people have been killed in the South China Sea in the last 20 years. I don’t know if anyone has been killed in the China South Sea conflict, I might be missing a Filipino coast guard or a fisherman – there might be one or two people, I don’t know. However, in any case, the intensity of any conflict in the South China Sea has been extremely low. It is a site of confrontation, which is not the same as conflict. China has been confronting its neighbors very aggressively, but neighbors have shrunk to confront China in any way. Similarly, the U.S. has asserted its rights under international law to transit in the South China Sea, it is done so very aggressively by sailing ships and flying planes very close to Chinese installations near the Sea with only minor incidents. There have been situations in which China has acted inappropriately, flying dangerously close to American aircraft and sailing dangerously close to American warships. China even once stole a submersible oceanographic pod from an unarmed U.S. oceanographic investigation ship. So, China has been very confrontational, but let us not elevate that to a level of war. What China has done is inappropriate, unwise, and provocative.
JH: Yes, but this might be a symbol of China’s expansionism
SB: Yes, it has certainly been a symbol of Chinese expansionism, but there has been no conflict in the South Chinese Sea, nor will there be a conflict there. We always hear quotes about a certain percentage of world trade that passes through this sea. People know these enormous numbers, but, of course, the vast majority of that is traded to and from China. Therefore, all other countries in the region can circumvent the South Chinese Sea, if necessary. Oil shipments from the Middle East to Japan can simply go around the first line of island chains instead of going through them. It would add a few pennies per barrel of oil for Japanese trade to avoid the South Chinese Sea. The same applies for Korean trade; for Taiwan, it would be slightly more complicated, but even for this country, it would not be a big deal. It is China that would have a catastrophic economic collapse if trade through the South Chinese Sea suddenly cut off. If oil tankers could not navigate the South Chinese Sea, the Chinese economy would be ground to a halt. If Shanghai and Guangdong could not be used as export ports, the Chinese Yuan would collapse again, and Chinese exports would fall. The only country that is vulnerable to a conflict in the South Chinese Sea is China. Thus, I think it is almost inconceivable that Beijing would allow the sea to become a site of major warfare. By that, I mean, it is inconceivable that China would attempt to sink an American aircraft carrier with a hypersonic light missile. Because if it did, forget about World War 3, certainly the entire South China Sea and Taiwan would be instantly closed to maritime traffic. This would lead to an economic collapse in China that would barely be noticed in America. That is, the United States would have some shortages of consumer goods, but it would not have a major impact on the U.S. or the rest of the world. It would be catastrophic for China. Now, I do believe that China will continue to behave irresponsibly in the South Chinese Sea. This has the potential for dangerous escalation. Therefore, China could behave in such a way that might result in an accidental downing of an American combat jet. With the loss of life of a pilot and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment and technology, and property damage. And if something like this were to happen, it would certainly be an international crisis, but it would not be a war. If China accidentally causes the death of an American pilot, there would be sanctions, and a lot of increased military efforts put into the region would not result in an all-in war in the South China Sea. Although the South China Sea is indeed a very confrontational environment, I do not think there is a serious risk of outright war there and I always press international relations scholars when they use the word ‘war’. A minor confrontation, in which 1 missile is fired, is not a war. War is an all-out national effort to confront another nation to defeat it militarily, and this is not going to happen in the South China Sea, nor is it going to happen in Taiwan. Again, I remind people that the last successful amphibious assault was in Incheon in 1951. We learned from World War 2 and the Korean War that amphibious assaults require absolute air-enabled supremacy to succeed. No major amphibious assault has ever been made, I believe, in a contested air-sea region. There is no chance China can enforce absolute air-sea supremacy in Taiwan right away. They can contest it, but to have the full superiority or supremacy to launch an amphibious assault is inconceivable, at least in this century. Where would conflicts occur? I think exactly where these have occurred. That is on the China-India border – it is a very dangerous place and a place where conflict might erupt in the future. Looking further ahead, the China-Vietnam border and sea border, where I could potentially see a conflict erupting. But no, no conflict in the South Chinese Sea and Taiwan strait region, it would be very tense, yes. They might have conflict-including incidents, but they will not have wars.
JH: Alright, professor, let us speak about another doctrine of the U.S. foreign policy pertaining to Asia. I would like to ask you about Biden’s administration and its approach to this doctrine because, as we see, the U.S. is building its advantage based on multilateralism and bilateral alliances in the region. How can we explain it? Because we see in AUKUS that there are Partners in the Blue Pacific which were done mostly by the Biden administration initially, we also have the QUAD initiative, bilateral relations for instance with the Republic of Korea. I would like to ask you how to explain this rush in the Indo-Pacific, is it a rapid reaction to the economic, military, and naval growth of the PRC?
SB: You know, since the Obama administration, the “Pivot to Asia” was a catchphrase that was reflected in the advanced deployment of marines to Darwin, Australia on a rotational basis. So, the marines in Australia are not fixed. Other than that, the “Pivot to Asia” has had little practical importance concerning important deployments. The Trump administration pushed the Indo-Pacific doctrine instead. The idea of creating a single Indo-Pacific security, a space connecting the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, but the Indian Ocean as far as the Pakistan border. Pakistan and Afghanistan were always outside the Indo-Pacific. So, everything to the east of Pakistan counted as Indo-Pacific and the QUAD was a centerpiece of the U.S.–Indo-Pacific expansion, but also improved relations with India in an attempt to sell advanced American weapons to India, which is fairly a new thing. India has historically had access to U.S. weaponry. Defense cooperation goes beyond just weapons. In joint operations, the new Indian light fighter uses General Electric engines. Therefore, there has been increased cooperation between India and the U.S. that we can reasonably call ‘Indo-Pacific’ because it refers to U.S. support to India to confront China. Therefore, it draws India to the U.S.–Pacific strategy. QUAD became a centerpiece of that, and it is the cooperation between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. But the incoming Biden administration seriously downgraded this initiative. As with many things in the U.S. foreign policy, the names remained, the members remained, but they simply are hollowed out. So, it is very rare in the U.S. for an institutional form for it to simply be reversed or bent. Instead, an institutional form that had previously been very important becomes relegated to a low budget and a low priority. I think that was signaled right at the beginning of the Biden administration. It was in January or February, during his first months in office in 2021, when Joe Biden announced that his priorities for the QUAD were climate, coronavirus, and economic cooperation. In my opinion, it was a signal that he was pulling back from confronting China with the QUAD since the only reason for this cooperation to exist is maritime security cooperation and a framework to confront China. Nothing more ties together these four countries in particular, except for the fact that they have meaningful naval resources dedicated to maintaining the freedom of navigation across the Indo-Pacific. That is why these four countries are in the initiative, not South Korea, not Singapore, not Indonesia, not Bangladesh. These four countries because these are meaningful naval powers aligned – if not necessarily against China – at least aligned towards maintaining freedom of the seas in the face of Chinese pressure. When Biden signaled QUAD would be cooperating on coronavirus and climate, this downgraded the whole alliance. Because there is no reason why these countries in particular should focus on coronavirus policies and cooperation. It was either him or Blinken [I would have to go back to my notes], but certainly, somebody in the Biden administration gave a speech saying that India would use its pharmaceutical industry, that the U.S. would use its research, and Japan its manufacturing strength, and that Australia would provide support to them (because it was impossible to find something Australia could do as far as coronavirus cooperation is concerned) to promote vaccination in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific. I think it was quite a stretch to try to find something in which these countries could cooperate. Now, since then, we have seen John Kerry, the U.S. climate ambassador, insisting that solving the world’s climate emergency can only be done with China’s cooperation. So when we have Kerry talking about this, we have to bring China into the climate effort. When we see the QUAD doing maritime security, we see its mission being redefined away from military security. I think we need to reinterpret that as the Biden administration de-emphasizing a popular Trump-era policy. The Biden administration does not want to eliminate the policy because it is a real policy-people like it. But he can make it an empty shell that doesn’t do anything. That was already happening, I think in January 2021. When Anthony Albanese was elected Prime Minister of Australia, in May 2022, I think that was a definite for the QUAD because the Labor Party in Australia does not support open confrontation with China, is not into maritime security, and Albanese himself reiterated after being elected that his priorities for the QUAD were climate cooperation, coronavirus cooperation, and economic cooperation/development. Again, not mentioning maritime security and China. Since then, there have been some statements by the QUAD leaders at several summits. At the most recent summit, it was stated that the QUAD, of course, supports the free transit through the Indo-Pacific, there was a statement that they support counterterrorism, which was insisted on by India. India’s top priority is countering terrorism practiced and sponsored by Pakistan, so they put a status during the leader’s statement about countering terrorism. Anthony Albanese was very lukewarm about the QUAD, and Japan’s former prime minister who just passed away, Shinzo Abe, was a strong proponent of the initiative right from the beginning. Without Joe Biden pushing the QUAD, I do not see it having a real future as an anti-China or as a maritime security actor.
JH: This is one of the reasons the Biden administration builds or pushes forward other alliances.
SB: Well, I am not sure whether or if they have been pushing for other alliances.
JH: That is, the cooperation is underway. We have been talking about AUKUS, nuclear submarines…
SB: Well, AUKUS again has been and was a Trump administration effort. It will go forward because there are strong economic and security reasons behind moving forward with the agreement. But again, I do not think this is a major priority for the Biden administration. It was a Trump-era plan. It will continue, yes. But again, Biden is not pushing off AUKUS, and Albanese in Australia is not pushing it either because it is associated with his predecessor Scott Morrison. Now, remember that we now even have Britain’s Boris Johnson going out of office- and he was too strong a supporter of AUKUS. So, will AUKUS continue after these leaders have turned over? Yes, I think it will continue, but I do not think it will be a centerpiece strategy. I think it will just continue in the background as a legacy policy of former administrations. The Biden administration is much more focused on Europe, Blinken himself, the Secretary of State, is a Europeanist who grew up in Europe. I think he is much more comfortable with Europe than with Asia. I think that in any case, the Biden administration has had a pivot to Europe, also reflected in its support for Ukraine. It has not prioritized the Indo-Pacific in the way that the Trump administration did.
JH: Let us turn it into U.S. domestic policy. Because we have U.S. midterm elections coming, I would like to ask you how you assess the situation before the elections. Are the Republicans going to win the remaining seats, as people expect, or could we see the Democrats still competing for the seats in the House and the Senate?
SB: The midterm elections are of course Congressional elections, but it still must be noted that Joe Biden is the least popular president in U.S. history. As for Kamala Harris, she is the least popular VP in American history. Incredibly, Joe Biden is less popular at this point in his term than Donald Trump in his time. The most recent poll in May shows that Trump easily beats Biden in the popular vote. Not just in the electoral vote, but also in the popular vote. If the elections were held today, Trump would have even more support in beating Harris, should she be the Democratic candidate. In light of that and the stress on the U.S. economy, GDP decline, whether the National Bureau of Economic Research wants to declare an official “recession”, the fact is that the economy has been declining for six months now. There is inflation hitting rapidly, as it has not been seen since 1980 or 1981. There is a lot of economic stress in the U.S. There is also a lot of social stress over issues in the Supreme Court like abortion, gun control, and continued allegations of institutional racism. It is hard to imagine that the Democratic Party can survive these midterms. Now, the structure of the elections means that every single seat is up for grabs in the House of Representatives. Everybody expects a massive Republican victory in the House of Representatives. It is worth remembering that although Donald Trump lost the 2020 elections, Republicans actually won in the House of Representatives, which is extremely rare. This means they have a strong president in the House. It is almost inconceivable that, given the national trends, Democrats retain the majority in the House. The Senate is more up for grabs because only 1/3 of Senators are reelected every 2 years for the 6-year cycle, and most of these Senators are Republicans. So, you cannot replace a Democratic Senator if Democratic Senators are not up for reelection. So, I am not a close enough expert/observer on U.S. state-by-state political races to know what will happen in the Senate. But it would take an absolute act of God for the Democrats to retain control of the House of Representatives. It is virtually inconceivable at this point that it would happen. This has major implications because getting control of one House of Congress will give the Republicans control of the committees and the investigative machinery of Congress. So, we will see an enormous number of investigations started by Republicans investigating the Biden administration and greater scrutiny of the Biden administration in House committees. This will definitely change the tenor of the dynamics for the next 2 years up to the 2024 presidential elections.
JH: So, the success of the GOP in the 2022 midterm elections might lead them to the success of the presidential elections?
SB: No, no, that is guessing too much about the end of the conclusion. It might lead to much more aggressive scrutiny of the Biden administration. Right now, the Biden administration faces very little scrutiny in Congress and very little scrutiny in the press. The only major news organization that puts any pressure at all on the Biden administration is the Murdock News Corp. So, Fox News, the New York Post, and to some extent, but less, the Wall Street Journal. The rest of the U.S. media fairly supported the Biden administration out of fear over the return of Donald Trump, who is lying low. But once a Republican-controlled House is bringing out subpoena powers bringing out actual evidence related to potential malpractice even in the policy area, that will dramatically change the news environment in the U.S. Everybody knows that there will be an investigation over the Hunter Biden connections with the Chinese businesspeople. But there is also going to be an investigation of the withdrawal from Afghanistan that has not been properly analyzed because Congress, you know, has no incentive to hold the Biden administration accountable. Once the war in Ukraine is over, there will be an investigation of the conduct of the war and whether it was conducted properly and effectively. You know there will be a series of investigations bringing information to light that right now is kept in the darkness because there is no political interest in bringing it into the light. I personally think it is the best, the U.S. system works the best when different parties control the different branches of government and are therefore able to act as a check on each other.
JH: Yes, certainly this is the case for U.S. politics. Alright, professor, thank you very much for the interview.
SB: Can I go on record with one other thing?
JH: Yes, of course.
SB: It is my firm opinion that the Democratic Party has intended ever since 2020 that Kamala Harris would take over after the 2022 midterms. That is, the Democratic Party promoted Kamala Harris as their VP candidate because many people in the Democratic Party wanted to ‘make history’ by having the first African American female president and also a Democrat. They have been surprised by Harris being so wildly unpopular, yet I still believe that sometime between November 2022 and January elections, Joe Biden is likely to resign, and it is likely that Harris will become president despite her unpopularity. I think this that has been planned in the works, as I said, since 2020. I think it will still happen and that we might see President Harris by January, for good or for bad, in 2023. I am pleased to go on the record with you with this. We should be thinking about what Harris as president might look like. I think the Democratic Party had the decency to make this move to prove in the 2 years her ability to run the country. Clearly, the Democratic Party is now concerned by that prospect and views her as not being their best potential candidate. And there have been many calls for her to step down as VP, quiet calls, but nonetheless, people floating the idea. I think this is simply inconceivable. Kamala Harris will not step down. And if she does not step down, the only alternative is for her to step up, and so I do sincerely believe that in January, Harris will be the president of the U.S.
JH: We will make sure to put it in writing. Thank you very much for your expertise and for your time, professor. It was an honor for me to talk with you about the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. policy, and all the topics we discussed today. Thank you very much.
SB: It is very flattering that you consider my opinions to be noteworthy and I appreciate your interest.