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. The possibility is adding tension to the often fraught U.S.-China relationship.
The question is why Pelosi believes such a visit is necessary, particularly at a time when Chinese President Xi Jinping has an incentive to elevate his hawkish bona-fides as he seeks to attain a norm-breaking third term. The easiest answer is the most likely: there is no reason for the trip, other than that Pelosi wants to show her commitment to Taiwan.
As one might expect, Chinese officials have responded angrily to the notion of the most senior U.S. lawmaker grasping hands with Taiwanese officials. 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 had also earlier 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.
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. But that trip came in another era when the balance of power between the U.S. and China looked 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.
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. It will introduce further turbulence into the U.S.-China relationship, arguably the most important bilateral relationship in the world.
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.
Read More: The Risks of Biden’s Vow to Defend Taiwan
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. And a large-scale security crisis will likely be averted.
But we should be clear about the cost-benefit analysis. Other than grandstanding, there are no tangible benefits attached to Pelosi’s visit. The costs, however, will be a U.S.-China relationship that continues to travel down the path of a full-blown strategic rivalry, where responsible competition and dialogue are increasingly viewed by both sides as a sign of weakness. It’s a scenario both powers should avoid.
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