Two unrelated events in different parts of Asia, although near simultaneous, sent out multiple messages. The elimination of al Qaeda chief, Ayman alZawahiri in Kabul with a drone strike on 31 July signalled the re-entry of the United States into the Af-Pak region.
It conveyed that despite having abandoned Kabul, it will continue to monitor developments, especially re-emergence of terrorist groups, partnering Pakistan. It also confirmed that the Taliban have dumped the Doha agreement into the dustbin by harbouring those very terrorist groups which it promised to abandon.
It might block release of Afghan funds locked in US banks. There are reports, though unsubstantiated, that inputs on alZawahiri came from Pakistan. After all, the al Qaeda and the Tehreek-eTaliban Pakistan, with whom Pakistan is in talks, have close ties.
A series of calls from the Pakistan army leadership to US officials, military and civil, just preceding the US strike, visit of the DG ISI to Washington and the carefully crafted Pakistani response to the elimination, justify this. Added is the fact that US drones overflew Pakistan to reach Kabul.
The immediate clearance of the next tranche of the IMF loan only adds to speculation. In case this is true, then US-Pak relations, at least at the military level, are back on track. This may open doors for provision of aircraft spares and military equipment, as also funds. For India, this may not be good news.
The second incident was the much-awaited visit of Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US house of representatives, to countries in East Asia. Pelosi is second in line for US President and thus her visit carries weight. The visit conveyed that for the US, the Indo-Pacific remains key, and it will stand by its allies in the region against China’s hegemonistic ambitions, despite preoccupation with Ukraine.
While her visit to other nations passed off peacefully, it was her stopover in Taipei which raised eyebrows. Her visit to Taiwan, despite Chinese objections, signalled that the US considers Taiwan a part of its IndoPacific strategy and will support it despite adhering to its one-China policy. It further conveyed that the US will not back down to Chinese threats.
The visit was almost unannounced, the flight path chosen bypassed Chinese militarised islands in the South China Sea, intending to avoid provoking China. China had warned the US against the trip. All its mission heads, parroting Xi Jinping, stated in their host countries that those who ‘play with fire will perish with it.’
For China, such a high-level visit was indicative of a change in the US’ oneChina policy and would enhance Taiwan’s diplomatic outreach. The US, on the contrary, continued to state the opposite.
Pelosi added fuel to fire when she stated from Taiwanese soil, ‘Now, more than ever, America’s solidarity with Taiwan is crucial, and that’s the message we are bringing here today. We are supporters of status quo, and we don’t want anything to happen to Taiwan by force.’
Taiwanese President Tsai Ingwen, in defiance to Chinese threats stated, ‘(Chinese) Military exercises are unnecessary responses. Taiwan has always been open to constructive dialogue, and we will work with stakeholders to bring about stability and peace in the region.
Facing deliberately heightened military threats, Taiwan will not back down. We will … continue to hold the line of defence for democracy.’ The confidence of Tsai stemmed from Pelosi’s visit. Australia and Japan are already committed to Taiwan’s defence. While most countries avoided commenting on the visit and the ongoing US-China confrontation, Russia backed China. Speaking in Myanmar, Lavrov stated that the visit was a deliberate attempt by Washington to irritate China.
He stated, ‘I see no other reason to create such an annoyance almost out of the blue, knowing very well what it means for the People’s Republic of China.’ China, which had threatened the US, watched the visit unfold in anger. Its threats failed to deter Pelosi. It responded against Taiwan, rather than the US.
It commenced a series of military exercises of the coast of Taiwan, increased air incursions, launched cyber-attacks and banned over a hundred Taiwanese food products. However, it did not ban import of Taiwanese semi-conductors, essential for its high-tech industries. Interestingly, Chinese exercises commenced only after Pelosi exited Taipei, adding to the belief that China was avoiding confronting the US, while seeking to punish Taipei for hosting the visit.
This displayed that China acted as a bully, projecting its might against a weaker nation, while only spewing anger at an equal. China historically attempts to pressurize the weak. After Russia’s experience in Ukraine, China will avoid attempting to take over Taiwan by force.
There were reports that the visit could impact Xi’s historic third term in the forthcoming Chinese Communist Party Congress. This is unlikely. Xi has a strong grip and his display of aggressiveness prior to and post the visit including in his conversation with President Joe Biden in end July would be considered as strong Chinese responses.
The exercises and Chinese anger would end shortly, as would media hype. India, which is a close US ally and is facing a standoff with China in Ladakh has maintained silence. It has ties with Taiwan, while adhering to its one-China policy. Trade between India and Taiwan is on the rise and touched USD 8 billion in 2020-21. China has, as in the case of Pelosi, objected to visits by dignitaries to Arunachal.
It had even objected when the US ambassador, Richard Verma, visited the state in October 2016. India strongly countered Chinese objections. Pelosi’s visit will have ramifications in regional forums. India will have to withstand Chinese and Russian pressures in the upcoming SCO meet in Samarkand, where there would be an intent to include criticism of the US as also reaffirming Taiwan as an inalienable part of China in the joint declaration.
Accepting it could open doors for similar claims on Ladakh and Arunachal. In future, China will adopt offensive posturing to convey its displeasure. Finally, having failed in Taiwan, Chinese hostility might escalate in Ladakh, in case Xi feels threatened in the upcoming Congress. India must maintain readiness.