The main (and probably only) beneficiary of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan is the People’s Republic of China. Virtually none of the goals the California congresswoman seeks to advance by making the trip – the highest-level visit by a US official in a quarter century – will be achieved. Taiwan will not be strengthened. In fact, the trip is already raising tensions across the Taiwan Strait at a dangerous time.
Senior Biden administration officials tried to dissuade Pelosi from making the trip to Taiwan for that very reason.
A senior government official told me before the President’s trip that while they did not expect China to invade Taiwan in the next two years, they believed that another straits crisis similar to the one that took place in 1996 it was possible. That could include a Chinese effort to block naval traffic to and around Taiwan, military shows of force, Chinese air force aircraft and other activities — each of which would come with the risk of unintended escalation, the official said.
Moreover, such a standoff could also have chilling effects on the global economy, from roiling markets to the catastrophic consequences that could result if interrupt the vital flows of semiconductors from Taiwan.
To put the risk in perspective, the last major strait crisis, in 1996, brought the US and China to the brink of war. Years after the crisis, former US National Security Adviser Anthony Lake told me he was as close to a major power clash as the Clinton administration had faced in its eight years in office.
With China far more powerful and arguably more belligerent today than it was a quarter of a century ago, the stakes are even higher. It’s one of the reasons the Biden administration has made strengthening Indo-Pacific alliances a priority and, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has repeatedly sent the message to China that an attack on Taiwan would likely provoke a similar response from the world. support for the island.
The sensitivity of the situation is underscored by the fact that the Biden administration reaffirmed this week the “one China” policy that has been central to US policy in the region since 1979, assuring the Chinese government that we do not support efforts to further reaffirm Taiwan’s independence from Beijing. (Meanwhile, the Chinese government, fearing that the US will abandon the policy, has warned that such a move would unleash”wild storms.”)
On the eve of Pelosi’s trip, China increased the pressure with new tariffs on Taiwanese goods and more military activity near Taiwanese territory. As it landed, there have been reports of a cyber attack targeting the Taiwanese president’s office website that many suspected was of Chinese origin.
“…although Pelosi shows support for Taiwan, her trip is shrouded in controversy, her administration disavows the trip, China is stepping up pressure on Taiwan, and the strategic calculus of Taiwan’s defense remains unchanged. “
Taking a strong anti-China stance is nothing new for Pelosi. He has been a China hawk ever since he entered Congress. In fact, I remember the first time I met her in her office on Capitol Hill shortly after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and her message—one she later broadcast to China despite howls of protest from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)— was a staunch supporter of Chinese democracy activists.
There is no doubt that her decision to go is principled, based on three decades of consistent policy. Personally, I have a lot of respect for the President. I believe she is one of the most unusual and effective leaders in modern American political history. She is a brilliant woman, and make no mistake about it, she is at the height of her powers, masterfully leading House Democrats through a very difficult time in American history. But in this case, he has made a bad decision.
While seeking to show US support for Taiwan, her trip at this sensitive time in the US-China relationship forced the Biden administration to distance itself from its position. The White House is apparently wary of escalation while joining the West’s pioneering efforts to shore up Ukraine and address serious economic and political challenges at home.
Moreover, while Pelosi is not alone among U.S. political leaders from both parties sympathetic to the Taiwanese — who have built a thriving democracy since breaking away from China in 1949 — her trip is unlikely to change the strategic calculus related to Taiwan- China relationship. Although President Biden earlier this year hinted that the US would go to war to defend Taiwanhe was later forced to retract this statement.
Instead, the administration went back to what has been US policy for decades, which is to promise it provide defense support to Taiwan. This could take the form of arms transfers. It could even involve a realignment of US military and economic pressure on China. In fact, it may well be very similar to what the US is doing right now to support Ukraine.
In the same vein, however, contrary to what many would like to believe is covered by the US policy of “strategic ambiguity” about how it would respond to a Chinese attack on Taiwan, the reality is that the US is unlikely to go further and engage in a superpower war with China—even for an outright Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
So, although Pelosi shows support for Taiwan, her trip is shrouded in controversy, her administration disavows the trip, China steps up pressure on Taiwan, and the strategic calculus of Taiwan’s defense remains unchanged. The trip does not enhance or positively change the position of the Taiwanese in any way.
On the other hand, it has given Beijing a useful tool to suggest that any rising tensions along the straits are indeed caused by the US. , exercises or other activities he may undertake. This further sends the message to Taiwan that China means business when it opposes further steps towards independence.
Moreover, as columnist Tom Friedman, who also opposes Pelosi’s trip, points out The New York Times: “By visiting, Pelosi will actually give Xi an opportunity to distract from his own failures—a strategy that is trying to stop the spread of COVID-19 by using lockdowns in China’s major cities, a vast real estate fortune bubble that is now deflating and threatening a banking crisis and an endless mountain government debt resulting from Xi’s unfettered support for state-owned industries.”
Further, of course, the trip also shows disunity within the US government and confuses the US government’s diplomatic efforts more broadly—with China, with other adversaries, and with our allies.
With any luck, this trip will pass without causing the worst unintended consequences. But it is highly unlikely to do any good in the long run, for now at least, it has made a bad situation even more dangerous and strengthened Beijing’s hand. It does not change the long-term strategic calculus. If anything, it makes a high-risk situation even riskier.
Pelosi’s impulse to lend support to a Democratic friend is worthy. The means he chose, however, to demonstrate that support is not only unlikely to advance his goals, but may well undermine them.