Even as Taiwan becomes the center of a showdown between two of the world’s greatest superpowers over a landmark visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, locals are showing little alarm, reacting to threats from China with their usual sangfroid.
Beijing, which regards Taiwan as part of its territory, has promised “grave consequences” for the visit by the highest-ranking US official in a quarter century. While that has prompted global speculation over the possible forms of retaliation, such rhetoric and the specter of military conflict have become part of daily life in Taiwan.
“I didn’t even know about the news that she’s coming, my news feed didn’t push this to me,” said Wei Chen, a 25-year-old cafe worker, said on Tuesday morning. “China has been sending out these kind of ‘warnings’ pretty often and nothing has happened.”
The visit by Pelosi is splashed across the front pages of about half of Taiwan’s major newspapers, after days of a relatively muted coverage. Liberty Times reported that she is expected to arrive Tuesday at 10:20 p.m. local time.
But social media responses were largely pitched between ambivalence and humor with lighthearted posts gathering steam on Facebook and Twitter. One popular online meme juxtaposes Taiwan’s social media discourse — bubble tea, coffee, and local pineapple snacks — with discussions among the international community that focuses on Pelosi and the threat of war.
— Chieh-Ting Yeh (@ChiehtingYeh)
“Chinese threats and military posturing around Taiwan is a constant for the Taiwanese. For them, this isn’t a radical departure from their day to day,” said Amanda Hsiao, a senior analyst at Crisis Group based in Taiwan. “This is the context they have to deal with and so for them it’s a way of not of downplaying that threat from China by not playing it up themselves.”
Beijing’s aggressive “wolf-warrior diplomacy” and rhetoric has had a diminishing impact over time, with people increasingly desensitized to the repeated but unrealized threats, said Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at Australia National University’s Taiwan Studies Program. “It is essential for maintaining their own sanity not to overreact to threats from China.”
China’s social media sites have been dominated by the expected visit for days. Eight of the top 10 trending topics on China’s Twitter-like Weibo service were about Pelosi or her trip on Tuesday afternoon. They have garnered millions of views, with hashtags describing the situation as a “dangerous provocation” and playing up pointed live-fire drills in Fujian province, across the strait from Taiwan.
To my knowledge, at least five Taiwanese commentators and politicians are gifting more than 300 bags of Taiwanese fried chicken chop for free on the street because they won/lost the bet on whether Pelosi will come or not.
It’s a win-win tradition and should be treasured.
— Austin H. Wang (@wearytolove)
Restraint is often part of Taiwan’s strategic response to Chinese military escalations.
“The Taiwanese don’t want to add to it and amplify those threats,” Crisis Group’s Hsiao said, adding that Beijing’s fiery rhetoric was considered aimed at deterrence. “We’ve seen that pretty consistently in the way they’ve handled Chinese threats, not just around this event.”
Taiwan’s foreign ministry has stayed silent so far, declining to confirm the visit again on Tuesday. Taiwan always welcomes international visitors to gain a better understanding and display their support, spokeswoman Joanne Ou said at briefing in Taipei.
The muted political response in Taiwan may be imitated by other states across Asia. The furor around Pelosi’s visit risks straining relations throughout the region as governments confront the reality of ratcheting tensions between the world’s two largest economies. Both the US and China have sent diplomats to engage with Southeast Asian leaders. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to visit Cambodia and the Philippines in August.
As Pelosi makes planned stops through Singapore and Malaysia, it’s likely that local officials will try to avoid being seen too closely allied with Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan.
Still, there is some unease over the visit, with tensions across the Taiwan Strait at their highest level since 1996 when Lee Teng-hui was elected president in Taiwan’s first direct election.
Financial markets are increasingly pricing in higher risks. Taiwan’s benchmark stock index closed 1.6% lower on Tuesday, while some investors sought safety in the yen which touched a two-month high.
Hunter Hsiao, a Taipei-based equity investor, said he and his colleagues have been closely tracking news of Pelosi’s visit since last week.
“There may be a larger and longer-term impact to Taiwan’s stability, rather than just short-term systemic risk,” Hsiao said, requesting that his employer not be named as he was not authorized to speak publicly. He said Taiwanese people who are more risk-sensitive, such as those in finance, should have contingency plans, whether they involve hedging investments or even immigration.
Local business owners also worry that Pelosi’s visit risked triggering a worsening of an already-weak business environment. Waning global demand for electronics and rising inflation has dragged down Taiwan’s pace of growth to the slowest in two years.
“As a business owner, I am worried that more black swan events will come amid inflation, recession, and the war in Ukraine,” said Lee, owner of a software startup, declining to give her full name. “If any party acts irrationally, that would cause real damage to safety of the Taiwanese people.”
–With assistance from Tania Chen and Samson Ellis.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)