Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s tour in Asia this week would look like an ordinary congressional overseas trip during the dog days of summer—but for the purported intention to make a stop in Taiwan. It could be a sign of tension in the already fraught U.S. China relationship.
Pelosi’s question here is: Why is this necessary? Particularly at a moment when President Xi Jinping is motivated to increase his hawkish bona fides as he strives for a third term that is norm-breaking. Pelosi is expressing her support for Taiwan, and that is why there’s no other reason to go.
Chinese officials responded furiously to the idea that the U.S.’s most powerful lawmaker was grabbing hands with Taiwanese authorities. During his hours-long call with President Biden on July 28, Xi warned the U.S. to avoid “playing with fire” on the Taiwan issue, a phrase he used during a virtual summit with Biden last November. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian also ominously warned of “forceful responses” if Pelosi lands on Taiwanese soil. For Beijing, the status of Taiwan is an absolute red-line, and a key plank of Xi’s national rejuvenation campaign is its eventual reincorporation into the mainland.
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To its credit, the Biden administration appears to grasp just how controversial Pelosi’s trip would be in the eyes of Chinese officials. President Biden stated flatly that the “military thinks it’s not a good idea right now,” and the Pentagon is so concerned about possible Chinese military reprisals that it plans to increase forces in the region.
This isn’t the first time a senior U.S. politician has visited the self-governing, democratically run island that China considers a breakaway province. Pelosi isn’t even the first speaker of the House to visit; that precedent-setting trip was made by Newt Gingrich in April 1997. However, that visit was made in an era where the balance between China and the U.S. looked very different. And even back then, Beijing has reacted to these kinds of visits largely by accelerating military exercises in the area and sending aircraft across the Taiwan Strait’s median-line.
The Taiwanese military stands by as they prepare for a simulation of a Chinese invasion on the island. July 27, 2022. New Taipei City. Taiwan.
Annabelle Chih/Getty Images
When former Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar made a visit in August 2020, China dispatched J-11 and J-10 fighter planes into Taiwan’s side of the median-line. This April, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sent fighter and bomber planes in the South China Sea and in areas near Taiwan at the same time U.S. senators were meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Xi’s stern remarks notwithstanding, China is likely to respond in the usual way when Pelosi makes her own visit.
But this doesn’t mean Pelosi’s expected trip to Taiwan would be cost-free to the U.S. The U.S. China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship worldwide. This new tension will add to the already turbulent situation.
China’s leadership, and Xi specifically, is already suspicious about Washington chipping away at the “One China” policy, which opposes Taiwanese independence, recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of China and acknowledges (but does not accept) Beijing’s claims over Taiwan. It’s not hard to figure out why; with every official U.S. delegation that passes through the island, and every arms package that gets approved, Beijing’s doubts only get thicker.
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Biden’s actions to date haven’t helped dissipate the fog. His decision to invite the Taiwanese representative in Washington to his inauguration ceremony was a precedent-setting event and came awfully close to violating the “One China” principle, while rhetorical slip-ups—like the suggestion that the U.S. would intervene militarily if Taiwan was attacked—churned up a storm his aides had to immediately walk-back.
If Speaker Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan goes ahead, Beijing will make a lot of noise and issue the kinds of dramatic statements that long ago became customary. A large-scale security emergency will probably be avoided.
However, we need to be clear about cost-benefit analyses. Other than grandstanding, there are no tangible benefits attached to Pelosi’s visit. However, the costs will continue to be an U.S.-China relations that is prone to a full-blown strategic rivalry. Both sides view dialogue and responsible competition as signs of weakness. It’s a scenario both powers should avoid.
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