As Pelosi arrives, quiet defiance in Taiwan

TAIPEI (NYTIMES) – In Washington, there has been anxious debate over whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should risk the visit. In Beijing, there have been anger and threats. In Taiwan, where Pelosi landed late on Tuesday (Aug 2), the new flare-up in tensions has been met with a subdued defiance.

Politicians from Taiwan’s two main political parties have offered support for the trip, a sentiment echoed by many in the self-ruled democracy of more than 23 million people, which China claims as its own. While China released videos of planes and missiles flying to menacing music, one popular meme in Taiwan remade Pelosi as a powerful Taoist goddess. A Taiwanese politician wagered a chicken cutlet giveaway over her visit.

Inured to living in one of the world’s most dangerous geopolitical flashpoints, Taiwanese people have largely taken the prospect of the visit in their stride. That steely nonchalance belies a political reality that has been hardening over the past decade: Many in Taiwan have grown weary of China’s threats and crave support from the United States.

Pelosi’s trip is the highest-level visit by a US official in 25 years, and a diplomatic coup, if mostly a symbolic one, for Taiwan. Such prominent demonstrations of international support are rare for Taiwan, which Beijing has systematically worked to isolate from global institutions and diplomatic recognition.

The talk of a visit has not been without its anxieties for Taiwan. On Tuesday morning, its military said it would strengthen combat readiness in anticipation of a potential response from China, while the island’s stock market fell almost 2 per cent over geopolitical concerns about the trip that broadly dragged down global shares.

President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan has tread carefully into the fraught political moment. She has made no public comment about the trip, probably to avoid exacerbating an already tense situation. Known as a cautious and pragmatic operator, Tsai has let others speak out instead.

Some support has come from unexpected corners. Two stalwarts of the generally China-friendly Kuomintang, former president Ma Ying-jeou and party chairman Eric Chu, cautiously welcomed the possibility of Pelosi’s visit over the weekend.

With local elections looming, politicians in Tsai’s party spoke more freely. Kolas Yotaka, a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator and candidate for magistrate in Hualien County, said that the decision of whether to make the trip was Pelosi’s and that most Taiwanese would support the visit.

‘Less isolated’

“It makes us feel less isolated, and gives us hope to see that even in difficult circumstances, there are still people who maintain their beliefs and ideals,” she wrote.

While some Taiwanese people criticised the visit as unnecessarily provocative, many others echoed Kolas Yotaka’s sentiments. Chen Mei-ying, a sales manager in the central city of Taichung, called it “a boost for Taiwan’s democracy,” adding that “we should face the threat of China directly and welcome her bravely.” Throughout much of its modern political existence, Taiwan has been caught between two giant rivals: the United States and China.

For decades, it was subjected to oppressive martial law by the US-backed regime of Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to the island after being overthrown by Mao Zedong’s revolution. In the 1950s, Beijing and Washington twice came close to going to war when China attacked Taiwan-controlled territories.

Cold War dynamics eventually yielded to more pragmatic ties in the 1980s and 1990s, as Taiwan democratised and China opened up its economy following the self-inflicted devastation of the Cultural Revolution.

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