Her trip has already caused a stir in strained US-China relations, with the communist giant sending aircraft to the edge of Taiwan’s airspace and launching military exercises that sent a subtle message that Taiwan is under siege.
However, if these flare-ups are halted before a full-scale crisis in the Taiwan Strait, a vital strategic waterway, and the potential for miscalculations between Chinese and Taiwanese forces, or even Chinese and American assets in the region, is avoided, the storm over from Pelosi’s mission may be temporary. The image of the US House Speaker strengthening a democracy under China’s giant shadow could become one of the defining moments in US Asia-Pacific foreign policy.
The geopolitical relationship between Washington and Beijing is the most important nation-to-nation conflict in the world. It unfolds as a generational conflict between two civilizations that want to imprint their values, economic systems and strategic hegemony on the rest of the world.
While the Biden administration has followed the Trump White House in treating China as an adversary rather than a competitor, the primary goal of US policy remains to avoid what could be a devastating future war between the two nations.
So if Pelosi’s visit — a personal rebuke to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has made the Taiwan takeover an existential quest — permanently worsen already poor U.S.-China relations and bring forward what some see as an inevitable superpower clash , can change is a huge miscalculation. The same will be true if her trip prompts Beijing to take steps that shake the peace and prosperity Taiwanese enjoy in their dynamic island home, a factor often ignored by China hawks who take hard-line positions to bolster their policies. position in the USA.
What did Pelosi achieve?
From the speaker’s point of view, the trip has been going well so far. It attracted the world’s attention for days before arriving on a US military plane. A female political icon, she defied the male-dominated top echelons of the Chinese Communist leadership and refused to be bullied — and sat down with another trailblazing female leader, President Tsai. He took a shocking stand for democracy — a core American value.
And Pelosi capped a political career that saw her unfurl a pro-democracy banner in Beijing in 1991 with an anti-CCP tour of Taiwan as fears grow that China may eventually try to take the island by force. More broadly, it showed China that the United States will not back down to apocalyptic rhetoric from Beijing and that it will operate wherever it wants in the Asia-Pacific region, whatever the rising regional superpower thinks about it.
If this turns out to be Pelosi’s last major foreign speaker assignment, with Democrats in danger of losing the House in November, it won’t be quickly forgotten.
While the trip raised concerns in the foreign policy establishment, her trip had strong support on Capitol Hill, where support for the island runs deep, as does hostility toward China. Unusually, Republicans have been effusive in their praise of the speaker, though some may have been motivated by a desire to paint her as tougher than President Joe Biden, who admitted last month that the US military was not happy about the prospect of her traveling to Taiwan .
“We support House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan,” 26 GOP senators said in a statement. “This trip is consistent with the United States’ One China policy to which we are committed. We are also committed now, more than ever, to all elements of the Taiwan Relations Act.”
The Taiwan Relations Act is legislation designed to prevent a Chinese invasion of the island and commits the United States to selling defensive weapons to the Taipei government. Recently, there have been calls from hawks in Congress to strengthen the act and for Washington to end its policy of “strategic ambiguity” in which it is not specific about what it would do if the mainland invaded.
The unintended consequences that Pelosi may have caused
Pelosi’s achievements in Taiwan are largely personal, symbolic and short-term.
She did not appear to have said or done anything during her visit that violated the One China policy, despite Beijing’s claims to the contrary. However, at one point during her press conference, she praised the Taiwanese people for “having the courage to change their country to become more democratic.” The US does not recognize Taiwan as a country. Whether it was a slip or a deliberate choice of words, Pelosi’s comment will be analyzed by officials in Beijing.
Her trip could harden beliefs among Chinese leaders that Congress is determined to get tough on Taiwan policy — an impression that could pull the diplomatic tightrope over the island’s status closer to a tipping point. While that may not be Pelosi’s intent, misperceptions can lead to military escalations in such a volatile foreign policy relationship.
A permanent increase in Chinese military and economic pressure on Taiwan, or a more hostile attitude toward US naval and air forces, could bring the risk of conflict between the rivals closer. If Pelosi’s visit accelerates Xi’s urgency and determination to seek to take Taiwan by military force, it would also be counterproductive.
White House officials, who initially expressed concerns about Pelosi’s visit, reworded their message to emphasize that she had every right to visit Taiwan, which Beijing considers its sovereign territory, and that her trip did not violate any Sino- US agreement stating that the People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government. But they also appeared to be preparing the American people for a prolonged period of escalating steps toward confrontation by China.
While there is no sense that China believes war with the United States is in its best interest, John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, laid out a roadmap of smaller steps Beijing could take , referring to the way America and its allies declassified information in the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“China appears to be positioning itself to possibly take further steps in the coming days and perhaps over longer time horizons,” Kirby told reporters on Tuesday.
He warned that provocations could include missile launches into or around the Taiwan Strait and large-scale violations of Taiwan’s air defense reconnaissance zone by warplanes. He said China may also make public assurances similar to those it has made recently that the Taiwan Strait is not an international waterway.
Critical to global supply chains already under pressure following the Covid-19 pandemic, the Strait is crossed by much of the world’s maritime container traffic. Any attempt by China to compromise sea lanes to increase pressure on Taiwan could have devastating economic consequences — and a profound political impact in the United States and elsewhere. Even talk of closing the Straits could send world markets plunging, exacerbating pain for Americans already struggling with the high cost of living in an inflationary crisis that threatens to doom Democrats in the midterms.
“Some of these actions will continue along trend lines we’ve seen in recent years, but some could be of a different scope and scale,” Kirby said.
With that in mind, it’s fair to ask whether Pelosi’s visit accomplished anything worth a possible much longer-term deterioration of the security environment around Taiwan that could bring the US and China closer to conflict.
“I agree he had the right to go. The question is whether it makes sense,” said Phil Mudd, a former FBI and CIA official who is now a CNN counterterrorism analyst. “It can go, but why? What’s the upside?”
Former US Ambassador to China Max Baucus, meanwhile, told CNN International’s Richard Quest that in the context of a dangerously deteriorating US-China relationship, Pelosi’s trip was unwise.
“My view, frankly, is that he shouldn’t have gone. The goal of US foreign policy is to reduce tensions with China, not increase tensions,” said the former Democratic senator from Montana. “Her visit is clearly raising tensions. There is no foreign policy reason for her to leave. The Taiwanese know we support them.”
In China, as well as in the US, domestic politics may be creating a dangerous moment for Taiwan — a trend that the California Democrat’s visit may have only accelerated.