A remarkable event took place in mid-August in relation to the rising tensions in the public space, created by official bodies and their representatives in the two major global powers, the United States and China. Naturally, propaganda machines from both nations actively contribute to this process, detrimental for the entire world. These machines started using the innocuous word “transit” as their main “scary word.”
And all this despite some progress in the last two to three months that has led China’s experts to speculate about the potential of a “fragile thaw” in the generally gloomy image of bilateral relations.
The aforementioned “scary word” was mentioned in relation to William Lai, the current vice president of Taiwan, who participated in the August 15 inauguration as president of Paraguay of the 44-year-old Santiago Peña who triumphed in the country’s general election on April 30. During his mid-July visit to Taiwan, Santiago Peña personally extended the invitation, and some of the circumstances surrounding it appeared to be, shall we say, “far from trivial.”
It appears that this was his first trip abroad since the election, despite the fact that Paraguay has many other, far more influential allies. During the election campaign and just before this trip, Santiago Peña, for unknown reasons, paid special attention to relations with Taiwan.
The increased enthusiasm caused by this visit among Taiwan’s leadership is understandable. Paraguay is one of only 13 nations that continue to maintain diplomatic ties with the island. These are all small nations in the Pacific, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. The new leadership of Honduras, a small Latin American republic that came to power in late 2021 following its own general election, cut official relations with Taiwan in March of this year. Honduras took the obvious decision to establish full diplomatic relations with China, the world’s second largest economy. This was painfully received in Taipei.
That is why it so emphatically scrutinized one of the ever rarer actions that can be presented as a sign of Taiwan’s international agency. Among such actions, one can view both the visit of the elected president of Paraguay to the island and one of its main outcomes, namely the invitation to the Taiwanese leadership to take part in the above inauguration.
Let’s draw attention to two points in relation to this fact. First, in order to “make the most of” the (ever rarer) opportunity to address the agency problem, it was the incumbent president of Taiwan, Mrs. Tsai Ing-wen, who seemingly should have traveled to Paraguay. That is, a politician who exudes charisma and flamboyance and is well-liked in both Taiwan and democratic nations.
But here comes into play the element of the approaching (next January) general elections in Taiwan, the outcomes of which, unlike those of the Paraguayan-Honduran elections, are starting to dominate the current phase of the Big World Game. The reasons are obvious and require no specific commentary. Let’s just say that the outcomes could significantly alter the dynamics between the two key players in the aforementioned game as well as the overall situation in East Asia.
Meanwhile, the current power dynamics on the island’s internal political scene gets significantly complicated. This is because President Tsai is unable to run (for a third time) for president in the forthcoming elections and because the Taiwan People’s Party has become a substantial third political force. Additionally, “individual self-nominee” Terry Gou, the CEO of Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Taiwan’s largest electronics company with annual revenues of more than $200 billion (doing business abroad under the Foxconn brand), has entered the contest for the same presidential position.
Again, all of this significantly complicates Taiwan’s electoral environment and, at least temporarily, does not give the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) any assurances that it will win the upcoming elections. This, albeit not as much in Taipei as in Washington, cannot help but cause more anxiety. The very Washington, which is in fact one of the two major interested parties involved in everything that occurs in Taiwan.
William Lai, the current vice president, has been nominated as the DPP’s candidate to follow President Tsai Ing-wen as she prepares to inevitably leave the political scene. In accordance with the “democratic process” and in order to complete the aforementioned goal, Lai requires the most exposure on the political theater stage. The inauguration of the highest official of some external partner, even if it is only at the weight of Paraguay (to repeat, there are no others), is a very ideal occasion for this use.
And yet, the main aspect of this action, as well as the second of the previously mentioned “points,” was (as it almost always happens in real life) not its officially declared “content,” but “form.” And not the entire procedure so much as the preparation stage, namely the route of travel of the high-ranking Taiwanese guest to Paraguay. This route gave rise to the word “transit” mentioned above.
First, the vice president of Taiwan flew almost exactly along the geographic parallel and made a stopover in the United States Then, almost exactly perpendicular to the first section of this entire route, he moved south almost strictly along the meridian. Hence, he arrived at his destination not by a “hypotenuse” but by two “legs.” It would seem that the two legs of a right-angled triangle, in total, are always longer than the hypotenuse.
Therefore, if William Lai (or rather, those who did it) chose the “optimal” route then, for example, less of the notorious “hydrocarbons” would have to be burned in the aircraft engines. As a result, less of the equally infamous greenhouse gases would be released into the atmosphere. Most crucially, “climate change” activists led by Greta Thunberg would be less concerned. As a result, less energy would have to be spent producing sedatives for them.
However, when Realpolitik came into play, one of the two primary public obsessions of contemporary world politics (the other being the “new normal” with “values below the belt”) was easily overlooked. And the complicated game that the US is currently playing with its biggest geopolitical adversary is centered on the Realpolitik. Everything pertaining to the Taiwan question, on which Washington has maintained its alleged “strategic ambiguity” approach for more than 40 years, is becoming more significant in said game.
This “ambiguity” has, since its creation between the 1970s and 1980s, not undergone much alteration. However, there have been a few idiots recently in the US who have claimed that “strategic ambiguity” has run its course and the need to transit to “strategic clarity” should be raised.
The policy of “strategic ambiguity” is extremely subtle and can only be engaged in with the necessary expertise, which, let’s give Washington where credit is due, it has typically demonstrated over the course of the past forty years. Two key elements of the aforementioned strategy are, at first glance, contradictory to one another. On the one hand, US officials frequently mention the One China principle in public and official settings, but notably during times of another scandal, such as in the case of Nancy Pelosi’s infamous trip to Taiwan.
The second element appears more complex, but what matters in this situation is the increasingly clear indication that Washington is steadily transforming relations with Taipei into a standard interstate framework. This is the reason for the “scariness” of the neutral word “transit” in relation to the travel route of the vice president of Taiwan to a country called Paraguay.
The relevance of Washington attempts to tread on Beijing’s toes, which is the Taiwan problem, conditioned the main content of this entire idea with the aforementioned trip. The PRC already had a strong reaction to this action as it was being prepared.
Especially since the current boss of William Lai has resorted to such “transits” before (and more than once). This typically led to another period of escalation between the two world powers.
This time, however, things were looking decidedly grim. During the described “transit,” a group of senators in the United States Congress proposed organizing a meeting between the guest from Taiwan and US Vice President Kamala Harris, i.e., the second person in the US administration’s hierarchy. Compared to President Tsai Ing-wen’s last “transit” through the United States six months earlier (when House Speaker Kevin McCarthy met with her), the level of the host would go up another notch. And it would only be one step to the “very top.” Moreover, the current vice president of Taiwan has stated that “the opportunity for Taiwanese officials to visit the White House” should be made a regular event.
So the next scandal in ties between the world’s two most powerful countries would be produced not by weird “geometry with William Lai,” but by the fact that it might be exploited to create a dangerous political phenomenon for these ties, defined by the innocuous word “transit.”
However, nothing really “scary” occurred during the aforementioned “transit.” Neither at the vice president of Taiwan’s arrival in the United States (New York) nor during his intermediate stop on his way home, which turned out to be San Francisco. At both of these sites, he was met by second-rank representatives. This suggests that Washington has decided not to “slam the door” on communication channels with its primary geopolitical adversary.
That is not a small thing in today’s crazy times.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”