What's the purpose of provocative visits by foreign officials?
Andrew Korybko
The U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks at a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, the U.S., July 29, 2022. /CFP

The U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks at a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, the U.S., July 29, 2022. /CFP

Editor's note: Andrew Korybko is a Moscow-based American political analyst. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily those of CGTN.

As the saying goes, "once is chance, twice is coincidence, and the third time's a trend," which is relevant to keep in mind concerning the spree of provocative visits by foreign officials to China's Taiwan region. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went there earlier this month despite the Chinese central government telling her that she wasn't welcome. This was then followed up by the Lithuanian Deputy Minister of Transport and Communications, after which a five-member U.S. congressional delegation just flew there too on August 14. 

Some observers initially wondered whether Pelosi's trip was a rogue decision taken as part of a power struggle within the ruling Democrats after polls proved that the majority of Americans, including those who support that party, don't want incumbent U.S. President Joe Biden to run for re-election. The Lithuanian official's follow-up visit could have been chalked up as a coincidence of sorts since that country is regarded as a U.S. vassal state that always does whatever it can to appeal to its patron. 

Now, however, there's no doubt that a discernible trend is emerging after the latest U.S. congressional delegation. This prompts observers to wonder what the purpose of these provocative visits is and whether they're even capable of achieving whatever it is that their aims may be.

The most immediate reason for orchestrating these international political stunts is to generate personal attention for those who participate in them. Pelosi has long been criticized by her opponents as an egoist so it fits her personality to provoke an international crisis as her political legacy prior to her potential retirement soon. The Lithuanian official who later followed her probably has vested interests in proving the country's loyalty to the U.S., while the other U.S. representatives have the midterms to consider.

The medium-term motivation most likely has to do with the governments using these officials to send an indirect message, which in this context relates to their refusal to recognize the one-China principle that they officially adhere to. Proxies like Pelosi are employed for reasons of so-called plausible deniability in the diplomatic sense whereby the U.S. can unconvincingly claim that it still holds to the same policy that their officials just violated. This is meant to provoke lasting tensions.

An island in the Taiwan Strait, China, September 28, 2021. /VCG

An island in the Taiwan Strait, China, September 28, 2021. /VCG

Thus, the most far-reaching reason why these provocations are being carried out is to set into motion a self-sustaining cycle of escalation that ultimately leads to the fait accompli of long-term rivalry, or a new Cold War between the U.S. and China in this case. Those like Pelosi who participate in this dastardly scheme have a blend of personal motivations as was explained but also probably tacitly coordinated with policymakers ahead of time to seek their approval for advancing such far-reaching goals.

Having explained the three levels of intentions behind these political provocations, it's now time to review whether they're worth it from the perspective of those who carry them out. Ego-building exercises can easily backfire after provoking an international crisis like Pelosi's since they can make the direct participants the object of widespread revulsion. That could in turn ruin their legacies as well as make them and those associated with them like their parties politically unappealing.

Regarding the second level, "plausible deniability" is an illusion that only dupes those under the influence of propaganda like the mainstream media's targeted Western audience. International community are much wiser than to take such false claims at face value when it's obvious that the provocation in question wouldn't have occurred without some level of approval from those governments. That said, the message they attempt to convey was nevertheless received.

Finally, the last intention connected to setting into motion a long-term self-sustaining cycle of instability can't be taken for granted since this presupposes that the target will respond as expected. China, however, didn't directly intervene to stop these provocative visits like some observers predicted. Rather, its response was asymmetrical by staging military exercises in the UN-recognized areas under its control. Quite clearly, it's Beijing and not Washington that's in control of the "escalation ladder."

To wrap it all up, provocative trips by foreign officials are undertaken for what can be summarized as immediate/personal, medium-term/messaging, and long-term/destabilization purposes, but there's no guarantee that they will achieve their goals. If their opponent is already aware of these plots like China is, then they can respond unpredictably and asymmetrically, thus foiling these schemes. The lesson to be learned is that this emerging trend might actually be counterproductive for those who are pushing it.

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