House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was intent on visiting Taiwan and did so despite President Biden’s misgivings and criticisms from many China experts. The trip might not seem like a big deal to Americans, but these are not ordinary times in US-China relations. That makes a Taiwan trip by a senior person in the US government—in this case, the most senior in 25 years—very risky. Prior to her trip, on July 28, I explained why I thought the timing and rationale for the trip were flawed.
A Needless Provocation
Why did Pelosi go? She insists she went to demonstrate unwavering support of Taiwan’s democracy and confront China’s imminent threat to Taiwan’s security. “In the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) accelerating aggression,” she wrote, “our congressional delegation’s visit should be seen as an unequivocal statement that America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, as it defends itself and its freedom.”
But no one doubts US support of Taiwan’s democracy; the longstanding question is how and whether the US would respond if China were to attack Taiwan, given the official US policy of One China. Pelosi says she supports One China, but her trip has undermined that policy by sending China the opposite message: support of Taiwan’s separateness, which China equates with support its independence.
I think the main reason for the trip has to do with our own political situation. Pelosi was trying to show that Democrats can be as tough on China as the Republicans. She was not going to let Republicans take the lead on defending Taiwan, especially after news of a possible trip led several Republican hawks to essentially challenge her to go. Now, in the Senate, there’s a bipartisan Taiwan Policy Act that aims to designate Taiwan a “major non-NATO ally”—another provocation of China that Pelosi’s trip will help support.
Pelosi’s trip is the stuff of avoidable international crises: putting an opponent to the wall and forcing it to make a choice between a forceful response and a weak one.
Xi, after all, has to deal with his own political situation, in which a show of weakness can be deadly. Pelosi’s trip was a needless provocation that US allies, which above prize stability in the Taiwan Strait, do not welcome.
Instead, they and Washington must deal with an event that is a serious setback to tension-reducing efforts such as the Xi-Biden virtual summits. For some time to come, US-China relations will be dogged by the same kind of dynamic that has occurred in three previous confrontations over Taiwan, each of which could have escalated to a violent level and one of which, in 1958, came close to involving US use of nuclear weapons.
Pelosi has not done Taiwan a service; she has made its security more precarious.