October 2, 2022

WASHINGTON — As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reportedly prepares to land in Taiwan Tuesday afternoon for a long-rumored official visit, her trip revealed a rare rift between the Biden White House and the most powerful Democrat in Congress.

Officially, the Biden administration was careful to avoid directly answering questions about whether it agreed with Pelosi’s decision to make the trip.

But unofficially, the White House and Pentagon have made little secret of their opposition to such a visit, which comes at a time when US-China relations are at their poorest in decades.

In late July, Biden responded to a question about Pelosi’s then-rumored stance on Taiwan, saying, “The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now. But I don’t know what the situation is.”

For weeks, US officials from the president on down have been tied in knots trying to talk about Pelosi’s choice to visit Taiwan and stress that it was her decision and hers alone.

It misses the point

Now, experts say it’s becoming clear that effort has missed the point. That’s because divisions in Washington are essentially meaningless to the rest of the world, which has learned to see American presidents and their top allies in Congress as interchangeable on foreign policy.

The fact that US Taiwan policy is deliberately vague just makes it that much harder to draw any meaningful distinction between what Pelosi is doing and what the White House is saying.

Pelosi, a longtime China hawk, has not officially announced that she will visit the self-governing island off the coast of mainland China, which Beijing considers a renegade province.

I think what you’re really seeing from China’s side, and it’s not unreasonable, is that we’re kind of pushing the envelope of the One China policy.

Andrew Mertha

China Global Research Center, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

With Pelosi flying on a US military aircraft for the entirety of her trip to Asia this week, the rapidly escalating military tension between China and Taiwan carries particularly high stakes.

They also highlight the predicament Pelosi’s trip has put the Biden White House in.

“Independent branch of government”

As reports of the trip intensified in recent days, Biden’s top spokespeople have been forced to say again and again that they cannot confirm or deny the existence of any impending trip while downplaying its significance.

“I want to confirm that the President has not confirmed any travel plans,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday, “So we’re not going to comment or speculate on the stops on her trip.”

However, Kirby confirmed moments later that Biden had specifically raised the issue of Pelosi’s unconfirmed trip with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week during a video. call that lasted more than two hours.

Biden “made it clear that Congress is an independent branch of government and that Speaker Pelosi makes her own decisions, as do other members of Congress, about their foreign travel,” Kirby said. “That became clear.”

Moments after saying Biden and Xi had discussed the trip in person, Kirby again tried to downplay its importance.

“I think we’ve made it very clear that if it goes — if it goes — it’s not unprecedented. It’s not new. It doesn’t change anything,” he said. “We haven’t stepped up the rhetoric. We haven’t changed our behavior.”

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For foreign policy experts, the White House’s attempt to convince Beijing that it must distinguish between the behavior of the top Democrat in Congress and the intent of the Democratic administration is futile.

“Saying that this is nothing or that the Chinese shouldn’t read it … Well, anyone who has spent half a minute looking at China knows that they attribute some kind of purpose to everything we do,” he said. Andrew Mertha, director of the China Global Research Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Any suggestion that a visit by someone as important as Pelosi would be seen by Beijing as anything other than a personal expression of American support for Taiwan independence, he said, was unthinkable.

This is especially true since Biden himself has said, on three separate occasions, that the US would defend Taiwan if China were to invade the island.

Those statements, Mertha said, undermined decades of assurances from Washington that the US would maintain a policy of strategic ambiguity about who controls Taiwan.

“I think what you’re really seeing from China’s side, and it’s not unreasonable, is that we’re kind of pushing the envelope of the One China policy,” Mertha said, referring to the long-standing US position to recognize Beijing as the only legitimate government. of China, but does not officially recognize Taiwan as a subject of the Beijing government.

“They’re worried,” Mertha said of Beijing, “and I don’t blame them.”

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