The audio version of this blog is available at https://www.podserve.fm/episodes/66494/55-nancy-pelosis-taiwan-trip-a-needless-provocation.mp3
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.
Five Reasons Why Pelosi Should Not Visit Taiwan at This Time
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 twenty-five 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 did just that. It amounted to taunting China, which was compelled to respond. As Pelosi was leaving Taiwan, China began live-fire drills very close to Taiwan’s shores (and in a few areas, inside Taiwan’s territorial waters). The second of the two maps below shows how close to Taiwan China’s live-fire areas are today, compared with live-fire areas in the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-1996 (top map). China has also imposed trade restrictions with Taiwan and hacked Taiwan government websites—all with promises of more to come.
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 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/08/02/nancy-pelosi-taiwan-visit-op-ed/). “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 of 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. (Note that no Republicans accompanied her, however.) 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. Her trip was a needless provocation that US allies, which above all 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.
Thanks for the maps to M. Taylor Fravel’s post at https://twitter.com/fravel/status/1554486841692327938.)