House Leader Nancy Pelosi seems intent on visiting Taiwan. That might not seem like a big deal to Americans, but these are dangerous times in US-China relations. That makes a Taiwan trip very risky. Here’s why:
First, US-China tensions over Taiwan are running high. Both sides are responsible for that. President Biden has done his part by consistently misstating the US commitment to Taiwan—there is no security treaty, Mr. President—and by authorizing increased military assistance to Taiwan. To the Chinese, these steps look like a US effort to erode its official policy of “One China” and move closer to China’s red line: Taiwanese independence. Meantime, China’s air force patrols are more regularly intruding in Taiwan’s air defense zone, on occasion causing Taiwan’s air force to scramble. A military incident that could spark serious fighting becomes more likely with each passing week.
Second, Xi Jinping is expected to be given another term as party leader at a national congress this fall. A high-level trip to Taiwan by a key US political figure in advance of that party congress could be seen as a personal provocation, particularly since Xi wants to be seen as the leader who will complete China’s national unification by “recovering” Taiwan. He may feel compelled to act.
Third, China has already issued warnings of “severe consequences” if Pelosi goes to Taiwan. We can speculate as to what that might mean, but Pelosi’s trip should not be the occasion for finding out.
Fourth, the Ukraine war has led to much speculation about China’s intentions regarding Taiwan. Up to now, Xi has reiterated the longstanding Chinese view that peaceful reunification is preferable to war, so long as Taiwan doesn’t embrace independence. Pelosi’s trip, the first by a Congressional leader in 25 years, might be viewed in Beijing as the final straw in showing that US policy is abandoning One China.
Fifth, one may question the value of Pelosi’s trip. If she is going to Taiwan to show US support, or if she more specifically wants to demonstrate that Democrats are as supportive of Taiwan as Republicans, she can do that at other times.
A top administration defense official said the other day: “it is only a matter of time before there is a major incident or accident in the region” because “the People’s Republic of China has “escalated tensions with its neighbors at a pace unseen before.” As usual, the official had nothing to say about US behavior that is escalating tensions. Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan would do just that.