US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan on 2 August 2022, accompanied by a delegation of five Democratic Party members from the House of Representatives. This was the first visit by a US House of Representatives speaker in over 25 years. Pelosi addressed parliament, met with senior ministers, dignitaries and officials and held a bilateral meeting with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, before leaving Taiwan on 3 August 2022. China did not take the news of the visit well and launched a plethora of full-scale military exercises in and around the Taiwan Strait.
Let us look at the background of the current standoff and juxtapose it to what happened to the Dalai Lama when he tried to attend the 80th birthday celebration of his friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in 2011.
In 1945, following Japan’s defeat in World War 2 (WWII), Taiwan was remanded to the Republic of China on behalf of the allied forces. Subsequently, China formed the Taiwan Provincial Government to govern Taiwan Province. The origins of Taiwan’s attachment to China derive from the colonial Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT) , which was based in Nanjing before relocating to Taiwan following the Chinese civil war and was the dominant party in China from 1928 to 1949. The question of Taiwan’s sovereignty was perceived as an unsettled dispute from an ongoing civil war. The policy of The People’s Republic of China (PRC) toward Taiwan has been shaped by the rivalry between the Chinese Communist Party and the KMT. Irrespective, the south-east Asian nation has been governed independently from mainland China since 1949 despite the PRC having claimed ownership of the island for more than 50 years the PRC has claimed ownership of the first-island-chain.
The PRC has dubbed Taiwan a renegade province and points to history to justify Taiwan’s origin as a Chinese province. However, Taiwan points to the same history to strongly dismiss these claims. Taiwan points out that it was never part of the modern Chinese state that was formed following the revolution in 1911 or the PRC that was formed under Mao in 1949. Nonetheless, Beijing asserts that there is only “One China” , a standing point that the US government has historically done little to quell. When the US government made a move to recognise the PRC and derecognise the Republic of China in 1979, the US government acknowledged the PRC as the “sole legitimate government of China” (5). Washington conceded that Taiwan was a part of China, hence reinforcing China’s claim to Taiwan.
Additionally, the PRC claims Taiwan is bound by the 1992 Consensus, an agreement reached by the PRC and the KMT, which ruled Taiwan at the time. However, both sides dispute the contents of the consensus as Taiwan believes it was never meant to question Taiwan’s legal status. However, as President Xi Jinping stated (6), the consensus “reflects an agreement that “the two sides of the strait belong to one China and would work together to see national reunification””. The current leaders of Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party, refute the consensus. Despite President Xi Jinping voicing the PRC’s long-standing proposal for Taiwan to be incorporated into China via the “one country, two systems” formula, like Hong Kong, Taiwan remains steadfast in its absolute independence. The country’s “One China policy” i.e. that China is a sovereign state and People’s Republic of China (PRC) is its legitimate government and Taiwan is part of China. This definition arguably, extends beyond Taiwan and sends a cautionary messaging to all territories contemplating and independence from China. Tibet’s history, conflict and consequent dealings with China almost mirrors that of Taiwan. Tibet is a region on the Tibetan Plateau in Asia, spanning almost halfway across China’s territory. It is the cultural homeland of the Tibetan people and other minor ethnic groups. Tibet is the highest region on earth, just north of the Himalayas. Tibet has been occupied and ruled by China since 1951. The Agreement of the Central People’s Government and Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, otherwise known as the Seventeen Point Agreement, actively legitimised the PRC’s claims to Tibet and justified the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) aggressive military invasion of Tibet in 1950.. The document is the only agreement signed between the PRC and a minority people. The mere existence of a fully functioning independent region in the mainland made signing the agreement imperative to the PRC. Before the agreement, the three provinces that constituted Tibet were self ruling since the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. The central province was led by the Dalai Lama in Lhasa. The principles of “cho-si sung-drel” or Buddhist politics and religion together, were the regions governing values. The two other provinces, Amdo to the northeast and Kham to the east, had rulers who were faithful to the Dalai Lama.
The Seventeen Point Agreement was forced onto the Tibetan people via coercion. The PLA had invaded Kham and Amdo, so the Dalai Lama moved to the South of Tibet in search of refuge. The Dalai Lama’s autobiography details how the Tibetan negotiator sent to the Chinese signed the Agreement, without the Dalai Lama’ consent. The book also mentions how fake Tibet seals were used on the document. The Agreement alleged that Tibet had sought help from the PRC to drive out imperialist forces. Clause one of the Agreement states; “The Tibetan people shall unite and drive out imperialist aggressive forces from Tibet; the Tibetan people shall return to the family of the Motherland – the PRC.” Rather than liberating the Tibetans, the Agreement was a tool to consolidate China’s hold on the region. Despite the Agreement gesturing towards Tibetan autonomy, six clauses of the Agreement referred to efforts to ensure Chinese national security forces on Tibet’s frontier.
The imposition of China’s communist reforms created conflict between the China-India border as well as within neighbouring Tibetan provinces, resulting in an uprising in Kham and Amdo in 1956. Civilian refugees and Tibetan guerrillas fled to Lhasa where they formed a resistance army. In 1959 rumours spread that the PRC was intending to arrest the Dalai Lama, who then fled to India before Lhasa could be seized. The uprising and the Dalai Lama’s flight signified the failure of the Seventeen Point Agreement. The agreement was the early blueprint of the “one nation country, two systems” policy enforced in Hong Kong today. However, from his permanent exile in India, much like the Taiwanese government, the Dalai Lama refutes the claims of the PRC, stating that the Seventeen Point Agreement was forced on the Tibetan people and government under threat of armed force.
So, why was the visit of Nancy Pelosi important and why it has to be juxtaposed to that of the Dalai Lama’s cancelled visit to South Africa. On 4 October 2011, the Dalai Lama was forced to cancel a planned visit to South Africa (SA) to attend Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s eightieth birthday celebrations. The announcement was made just three days before the trip, following a lack of response from SA’s visa application office. Former President Jacob Zuma’s government maintained that the Dalai Lama’s visa delay was owing to a delay in processing, however, given SA’s ties to China, very few believed this reasoning. China has long viewed the Tibetan leader as a dangerous separatist, pressuring foreign governments not to meet with him thereby furthering his international isolation. Bishop Tutu was livid; he went on to threaten to “pray for the defeat of the ANC”. Notwithstanding the overtures of reconciliation by President Cyril Ramaphosa on behalf of the ANC, Tutu remained angry and critical of the ANC till the last days of his life.
China have a historical habit of interfering with international nations’ interactions with political figures and countries that take issue with the PRC’s will. Actions such as imposing pressure on SA to avoid interactions with the Dalai Lama, or launching aggressive military drills in neighboring contentious waters in response to Pelosi’s Taiwanese exchange, signifies, to some, bullying tactics that set a dangerous political global precedent. There are certainly many reasons why Pelosi decided to visit Taiwan, it can be argued that they were largely influenced by politics. However, her insistence to visit Taiwan notwithstanding Chinese pressure is key. The precedence that was set by China in South Africa in terms of restricting movements of its dissenters was significant and troubling towards freedom of movement as a democratic principle. Pelosi’s defiance was significant in that it sent a clear message, not only to China, but a reminder to the world that freedoms do not come free and continual efforts are required to ensure that they are safeguarded from being usurped.