02 August 2022 15:09:14 IST

A management and technology professional with 17 years of experience at Big-4 business consulting firms, and seven years of experience in high-technology manufacturing, Rajkamal Rao is a results-driven strategy expert. A US citizen with OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) privileges that allow him to live and work in India, he divides his time between the two countries. Rao heads Rao Advisors, a firm that counsels students aspiring to study in the United States on ways to maximise their return on investment. He lives with his wife and son in Texas. Rao has been a columnist for from the year the website was launched, in 2015, and writes regularly for BusinessLine as well. Twitter: @rajkamalrao

China-US tensions over Taiwan and the potential domino effect

If you play with fire, you will get burned.

Nancy Pelosi, the United States House of Representatives Speaker and the third in line to the presidency, didn’t just play with fire. She dowsed oil on it by visiting Taipei on Tuesday evening and addressing the Taiwanese parliament despite repeated threats and protests from Beijing.

The US has three co-equal branches of government — the executive, headed by the president; Congress, led by the Speaker; and the courts, headed by the Chief Justice of the United States. The US President Biden privately warned Pelosi that a visit during this time would be needlessly provocative and could result in unintended consequences.

But he showed deference to her office and didn’t ask her not to go. As the first Speaker to visit Taiwan since 1997, Pelosi made it clear on landing that the US’s policy towards Taiwan remains the same. But China was not buying the explanation and has promised live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait.

Several countries have threatened the US over the years, including North Korea, Iran, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Cuba, and Libya.Last week, the world’s second-largest superpower, China, threatened the US for its interference in Taiwan at the highest levels possible in a video conversation that lasted two hours and 17 minutes between the two leaders, Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden.

At issue, as we have discussed in this column before, is the independence of Taiwan, or as China likes to put it, China’s sovereignty. The US philosophically wants Taiwan to be a fully autonomous state. Still, the US’s official One China policy is strategically ambiguous, stating that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China.

The two countries have been exchanging barbs at each other for several months now. These differences have simmered out into the open into military exercises. Both superpowers have resorted to asking their Navies to send ships to the south China Sea and patrol the international waters of the Taiwan Strait.

Geopolitical tensions

The two countries have also been politely fighting it out in the United Nations Security Council, where both countries hold permanent seats, so either can veto any resolution against them that may be adopted. Russia would surely quash a resolution against China. Language against the US would be easily defeated by a veto from France, the US, and the UK. The bottom line is that nothing will get done at the United Nations.

What is complicating the equation is Russia’s war against Ukraine. In engaging in blatant aggression by acquiring land that belongs to its neighbour, Russia has violated rules of the international order prevalent for at least 70 years. In their first ever phone call in months, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke one-on-one with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. Blinken made it clear that America would never recognise the 20 per cent or so of land Russia has acquired from Ukraine by force, the southern and eastern regions, including the mineral-rich Donbas.

Blinken further said that Western sanctions against Russia would continue until all of the land was returned to Ukraine. The US continues to supply sophisticated weapons to Ukraine to defend its territory. Anybody who suggests this is a regional conflict between two powers is entirely mistaken. While on paper, it remains just so, as a practical matter World War III has already begun.

Through its support of Ukraine, the US protects this principle that a free nation has the right to determine with whom it allies, including making decisions about joining organisations like the European Union and NATO.

So, if sovereignty rules supreme, should China not be allowed to defend against foreign powers interfering in its legitimate claim to Taiwan? Isn’t it up to China to decide how to manage its outlying territories? For example, in Hong Kong and Macau, China has resorted to a quasi-western model, where international commerce thrives, but strict laws regarding internal security remain.

Space race

These complex issues become more complicated because of the superior abilities of the global superpowers and the degree to which other nations depend on them for bilateral and multilateral assistance. China has been ruthlessly strategic in this regard, having invested up to $1 trillion in its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative connecting many developing nations in Central Asia, West Asia, and even Africa. By investing in these countries’ infrastructure, China has gained access to their raw materials and enjoys immense geopolitical support, translated as a currency of indebtedness.

By every measure, China is a superpower in technology as well. China has achieved all of the US’s accomplishments in space and then some. It is the only country on the planet to launch and operate a rover on Mars, other than the US. But unlike the US, it has landed a craft on the dark side of the moon, the only nation to accomplish this feat.

China also is well on its way to building its space station and has invited other countries to share its platform, which, admittedly, is smaller than the International Space Station, a project of multiple countries, including Russia. The limits of American power were on display when Russia, transporting supplies and astronauts to the ISS since the US retired its space shuttle ten years ago, recently announced that it will no longer partner with the US on the ISS beginning in 2024, later changed to 2028.

The US, luckily, has a backup programme in SpaceX, the company launched by Elon Musk. SpaceX has had numerous successful launches into space, including delivering and bringing back astronauts to and from the ISS. But space transportation, by definition, is fragile.

A single accident with a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will mean that future launches will be in trouble. No other private company, including ventures launched by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson, has yet successfully transported humans to and from the ISS.

The US can ill-afford conflicts with tech superpowers such as Russia and China, on whom it depends. In fact, following the Russian announcement, the State department, which has been intensely critical of Russia and has gone so far as to name it a pariah nation, took a different posture altogether, lamenting the exit of Russia from science.

All of these developments bring to the fore basic rules of realpolitik. Each country needs to work with others if everybody wants to move forward. Conflict, indeed military conflict, has no place in the modern world. There is no place for countries to use energy and food supplies as a weapon, just like there’s no place for countries to impose financial sanctions against large countries.

As the events of the last year have shown, such action will result in unintended consequences and unfortunate collateral damage that will inflict pain on the most vulnerable nations of the globe.