Defending the status quo can be a lonely position, especially in an age where the political tempo is set by populists and demagogues. But in diplomacy the best option is often keeping things as they are, even if that means tolerating inconsistency and uncertainty. Such is the situation in the Taiwan strait, where artful imprecision prevents war.
The visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi has upset the balance. The speaker of the House of Representatives is the most senior US politician to set foot on the island since 1997. As an assertion of solidarity in the face of China’s territorial ambitions across the strait, Ms Pelosi’s trip looks like a breach of Washington’s “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan’s status: it is not formally recognised as an independent state, but treated (and armed for self-defence) as a sovereign country.
Some of President Biden’s past statements have also strained ambiguity on the question of how far the US might go to defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion. But Ms Pelosi’s trip has triggered a full-blown crisis. Beijing has denounced what it sees as an aggressive provocation and is responding in kind with live-fire military exercises in the waters surrounding Taiwan.
That probably doesn’t presage an all-out assault, but Taiwan is justifiably anxious when the sabre rattles so close to its shores. It would not take much by way of misunderstanding and overzealous reaction for events to spiral out of control. The uncomfortable reality for outside observers is that China’s calculations around Taiwan are opaque. The country’s long economic expansion has abruptly slowed; President Xi Jinping’s authority is still vast, but not insuperable. It is unclear whether those conditions make it more or less likely he would gamble on a military adventure. Vladimir Putin’s wild land grab in Ukraine has shaken the confidence of western analysts in their own forecasts. Most thought Mr Putin would be restrained by a rational evaluation of national interests.
The comparison is of limited use. Russia is a regional bully raging against decline. China is a global superpower. The stakes involved in a Pacific war of aggression against a US ally are incalculably high, even if western nations would balk at direct military engagement with the People’s Liberation Army.
The White House would have preferred Ms Pelosi not to cause a diplomatic disturbance but, once scheduled, the visit had to go ahead. Cancellation would have meant conceding that Beijing wields a global veto over who can visit Taiwan. The relationship has long been characterised by these calibrations. The cause of keeping the peace is served by the unglamorous business of diplomatic nuance and calculated uncertainty. (It is a lesson that the candidates in the Tory leadership should study instead of competing to sound more hawkish for the gratification of Conservative party members.)
There are many stages of escalation between the present face-off and all-out war. Beijing can harry Taiwan with cyber-sabotage. Military exercises can be prolonged into something resembling an economic blockade. Where there is capacity for ratcheting up tension, there is also space for de-escalation. Previous crises in the Taiwan strait have been managed back into uneasy equilibrium. That is the best-case scenario now and one that is available if cool heads and an unfashionable taste for the status quo can prevail.