Here’s why Nancy Pelosi’s visit is such a big deal in Beijing – and how Chinese officials might respond
The unannounced, but eagerly awaited landing of Nancy Pelosi (US House Speaker) in Taiwan Tuesday plunged US-China relations to an all new low. Despite warnings from other top Washington officials, Pelosi has now become the highest US official to visit the island in 25 years – but the situation is far different now than it was then.
It is important to recognize the importance of this decision. For the US, it’s not that big of a deal. Not only from the US, but also many Western countries, Congressional delegations frequently travel to Taiwan. It’s also seen as separate from official US government policy because the legislative branch of government is separate from the executive, which is tasked with managing foreign policy.
Pelosi did indeed note this fact when she visited the island. “Our visit is one of several Congressional delegations to Taiwan – and it in no way contradicts longstanding United States policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, US-China Joint Communiques and the Six Assurances,” she said.
But China doesn’t see it that way. And that’s because the situation now is far different than 25 years ago when then-house speaker Newt Gingrich visited Taipei. That’s primarily because the then-ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party still maintained the ‘One China’ line, reached under the 1992 Consensus established by the National Unification Council of the Republic of China (official title for what Westerners refer to as Taiwan).
It’s worth remembering briefly how Taiwan as we know it came to be. It was formed during the Chinese Civil War when the ruling KMT fled to China’s Taiwan after being overwhelmed by forces led by the Communist Party of China. Republic of China is the remnants of an old, backward pre-communist government.
That’s why the 1992 line by the ROC recognized itself – not the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – as the legitimate government of the whole of China. This government saw itself in exile. The mainland accepted this line of thinking, such as the PRC. It recognized there was only one China, and Taiwan is part of China.
It wasn’t until 2019 that current Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), completely rejected the established 1992 Consensus. That was when things changed and when Beijing started to refer to the Taiwan government under the DPP as “Taiwan independence forces.” It was at this point that an independent “Taiwanese” identity started to emerge.
So, Gingrich’s visit was not seen as a recognition of separatist forces – because the ruling KMT saw itself as de jure rulers of China – and Pelosi’s is seen as an attack on China’s national sovereignty. China sees this as tacit acceptance of its attack on sovereignty by the actions of the administration.
Pelosi flew on an official US government aircraft to Taipei, which indicates a connection between Washington and Taipei. According to estimates, this trip cost US taxpayers about $800. $90 million dollars. Part of the US’ ‘One China’ pledge is that it will only maintain unofficial ties with Taiwan.
At the same time, the US military – part of the administration – reportedly made plans to protect Pelosi’s plane in any emergency event and, to top it off, both Pelosi and US President Joe Biden are members of the same political party. This only underscores China’s insistence that the administration supports Pelosi’s actions.
Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan will undoubtedly plunge relations between Beijing and Washington to a new low. “The Taiwan question is the most important and most sensitive issue at the very heart of China-US relations. The Taiwan Strait is facing a new round of tensions and severe challenges, and the fundamental cause is the repeated moves by the Taiwan authorities and the United States to change the status quo,” an official statement by China’s Foreign Ministry says.
Now the question is, how will things develop from here? Tensions have already reached boiling point. Over speculation of Pelosi’s visit, flights in China’s Fujian province near Taiwan were disrupted, Taiwan’s presidential office was targetted by an overseas DDoS attack and there was even a bomb threat sent to Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport. China has since announced a major military drill from August 4-7 that pretty much encircles the entire island of Taiwan and crosses Taiwan’s territorial waters.
It doesn’t appear that the US has planned for anything above military drills or diplomatic statements, and likewise, Beijing doesn’t seem likely to make any sudden, knee-jerk reactions to Pelosi’s visit. Chinese nationalist commentators like Hu Xijin of the Global Times have hinted at immediate military reactions – this appears unlikely.
It is said that revenge tastes best when it’s cold. China doesn’t have the time or resources to wait for that dish to rot. Instead, it chooses a moment and place to act. One thing’s for sure, as Chinese commentators have said, this latest move could easily hasten the eventuality of reunification. There are internal political dynamics that suggest this, too, with public opinion on the mainland firmly in favor of pulling Taiwan back into Beijing’s orbit and President Xi Jinping looking to consolidate his legacy as one of China’s historic leaders.
In the second half of 2022, during the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, he is seeking a third term as the general secretary of the Communist Party of China – or possibly to be elected as the chairman of the Communist Party of China, a position abolished in 1982 and most notably held by Mao Zedong. Reunification of China, which would permanently end the Chinese Civil War, would place him among the top Chinese leaders.
In terms of how China will hit back at the main perpetrator – Washington – this will likely be in the realms that it really hurts and where the US is already seeing the most destabilization – the economic and trade spheres. China’s supply chain is intricately linked with the US and has caused inflation.
With the flick of a pen, Chinese officials could seriously upset the US economy, exacerbate inflation and send Biden’s Democrats packing in this year’s midterm elections, which would also mean dethroning Nancy Pelosi as speaker. It’s anyone’s guess how things progress but this seems the most likely, in my view.
Statements, opinions and views expressed in this column do not reflect those of RT.