Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s visit to Sarajevo in 1914 was an instructive lesson on how the dumb do, at some point, ask for it. Bosnia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was desired by the Kingdom of Serbia. With the Serbs also well represented in Bosnia, a visit by the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was always to be tricky, if not downright foolish.
This was not all. Already unpopular, Ferdinand took his cue to visit on a day regarded with mournful reverence by Serbs: Vidovdan (or St. Vitus’ Day). In 1389 on that blood-inked day, the Serbs fought the Turks in the Battle of Kosovo with catastrophic losses. Myth and fact commingled, thereby producing legend.
Few security measures were taken for this provocative trip. The drive through Sarajevo was made in an open-topped car. In the ensuing farce that followed, the Archduke and his wife, the equally unpopular Countess Sophie, were clumsily, even miraculously butchered. The Serbian nationalist group, the Black Hand, was initially foiled. The lobbed hand grenade by Nedjelko Čabrinović failed to strike the intended target, injuring the occupants of the car behind.
Instead of lying low in humbled terror, the Archduke and his wife continued to the planned reception at City Hall. They then made themselves inviting targets by wishing to see members of the injured party in hospital. On the way to the hospital, the driver took the wrong turn, presenting Gavrilo Princip with a juicy target. The couple were shot and killed by a Browning pistol.
Riots and protests followed, with Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia on July 28. This set the trains of war in motion across Europe, leaving millions of dead and a continent primed for the next global conflict. The dumb had gotten a gotten a good number of Europe’s populace killed.
Like the doomed Archduke, Pelosi has shown, and continues to show little awareness about what her trip to Taiwan entails. This is not a harmless visit to the village vicarage for a cup of a tea, or a casual stop by to see old chums. The Biden administration forgives it as an independent decision made by a person independent of government. This is a lawyer’s explanation and far from a good one, given Pelosi’s position as House Speaker. Should Biden shuffle off the mortal coil, she will find herself, after the hungry Vice President, second in line for the White House.
Pelosi has been merrily hawkish in stirring the PRC. “Our visit,” she tweeted, “reiterates that America stands with Taiwan: a robust, vibrant democracy and our important partner in the Indo-Pacific.” In travelling to the province, the Speaker was honouring a commitment to democracy, “reaffirming that the freedoms of Taiwan – and all democracies – must be respected.”
This is all a bit rum, given that Washington does not, in principle, recognise Taiwan’s independence. National Security coordinator John Kirby, back in Washington, reiterated the point in a press briefing. “We are clear that nothing has changed about our One China policy which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act. We do not support Taiwan’s independence.” The Biden administration continued to be “clear with the Chinese about where we stand on the issues and the One China policy and our support for a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Despite stating that position, Kirby was being decidedly two-faced about the Pelosi jaunt. President Joe Biden had noted in late July that the then rumoured trip was not prudent, at least in the mind of some voices in the Pentagon. “The military think’s it’s not a good idea right now.” He then went on to say that he knew “what the status of it is.”
Unfortunately for those outside the US, such a status is simply not clear. While Kirby did say that the President had “made clear that Congress is an independent branch of government and that Speaker Pelosi makes her own decisions, as other members of Congress do, about their overseas travel,” those unacquainted with the US political system will take no notice. The visitors are from the governing political party in Washington, which would normally suffice in most cases.
Nor should it be forgotten that Biden has taken three shots against the strategic ambiguity of the One China policy by suggesting at various points that US forces would be deployed in a battle over Taiwan. It was a point that has not escaped students of the field, and certainly not China’s President Xi Jinping. Pelosi’s visit will simply be seen as consistent with such a change, a blast of clarity when, before, there was ambiguity.
Rather than admitting this development, the Biden administration has hidden behind the trappings of US political protocol. Let Congress decide what it wants, and we will have our own policy. Focus, instead, on Beijing’s bad faith and refusal to understand. “We expect to see China use inflammatory rhetoric and disinformation in the coming days,” chirps Kirby. And not just that, given that China was “positioning itself to potentially take further steps in the coming days and, perhaps, over the long-time horizon.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi threatened ahead of the visit that US politicians who “play with fire” with respect to Taiwan would “come to no good end.” Officially, Beijing’s officials have warned of “serious consequences”. Spokesman Zhao Lijian’s warning came with a note of theatrical indignation: “If the US side is bent on going its own way, China will take strong measures to resolutely respond and counteract.” So far, Chinese war planes have flown close to the median line of the Taiwan Strait, while Beijing has imposed a number of import bans on select Taiwanese products.
The political arithmetic is clear. Pelosi’s arrival, along with a delegation from Congress, risks sparking a fourth Taiwan strait crisis. The locals, for the most part, showed little initial interest. There has been much chat about heatwaves, the usual celebrity gossip, and discussion about local elections.
But the arrival at Songshan airport of the most significant US political figure in years signalled something of a shift. Protesters gathered at the Grand Hyatt where she was due to stay, accusing Pelosi of being a warmonger. Other protesters preferred to vent their ire at the CCP itself. All it takes now is a bullet, a misfire, an accident, and the dumb will be dead, again, taking the rest of us along with them.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University. Email: [email protected]