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Pelosi Leaves Taiwan With the Island—and World—in a More Precarious Position

8 minute read

And like that, she was gone. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi departed Taiwan on Wednesday evening local time after a lightning visit that included addressing the island’s parliament, visiting its National Human Rights Museum and holding a televised meeting with President Tsai Ing-wen. Packed into her luggage will be the Order of Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon—Taiwan’s highest civilian honor—whose aquamarine sash Tsai draped over the veteran Democrat in Taipei’s presidential palace, saying it “represented their gratitude to Pelosi and the wish to continue progressing U.S.-Taiwan relations through more cooperation.”

As for what Pelosi leaves behind, we can only wait and watch. A furious Beijing—which considers the self-ruling island its sovereign territory and fiercely opposed her trip—has announced four days of live-fire drills and missile tests beginning on Thursday that encircle Taiwan, some less than 10 miles from its coast. The unprecedented drills are the largest in recent memory and will no doubt impede commercial shipping and flights to the island. On top of that, China summoned the U.S. Ambassador in Beijing for a dressing down and suspended Taiwanese imports of citrus fruit and horse mackerel as well as exports of sand—vital for the construction industry—to the island. A massive cyber-attack that researchers linked to Chinese “hacktivists” also briefly downed Taiwan’s presidential office website.

Still, Pelosi was unapologetic. “Today the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy,” she told reporters. “America’s determination to preserve democracy here in Taiwan and around the world remains ironclad.”

How Taiwan and China reacted

For the islanders, the visit has been divisive. On one side of Taiwan’s legislative building, a group supporting Pelosi held up banners welcoming her to the “Republic of Taiwan,” in a nod to their aspirations of formal independence. Across the way, pro-Beijing demonstrators held up placards denouncing the 82-year-old as an “arsonist” meddling in China’s internal affairs. Still, it’s notable that even senior figures in the opposition Nationalist Party—which opposes formal independence and favors stronger ties across the Strait—including party chairman Eric Chu and former President Ma Ying-jeou voiced support for Pelosi’s visit.

Sung Wen-ti, a Taipei-based scholar for the Australian National University, says that Pelosi’s visit was broadly welcomed as a strong sign of U.S. support at a time when the gap between China’s conventional military ability and Taiwan continues to widen. And in terms of incurring China’s wrath, the islanders have been here many times before. “The Taiwanese are largely over it,” says Sung. “They’ve been living under the same threat for about a quarter-century. It’s a clear case of diminishing marginal returns.”

Still, there’s no doubt that the visit does raise the temperature. Pelosi’s visit came days after China’s strongman Xi Jinping warned President Joe Biden against “playing with fire” over the island during a “candid” phone call. It’s unclear whether the U.S. will mount any riposte to China’s drills, though during the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis 26 years ago—prompted by a visit by Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to his alma mater, Cornell University—the U.S. sailed an aircraft carrier group through to the Taiwan Strait in response to Chinese missile launches. On Tuesday, the U.S. deployed four warships including an aircraft carrier to waters east of Taiwan.

Read More: Column: There Are No Benefits to a Pelosi Visit to Taiwan

Valarie Tan, an analyst on Chinese Communist Party elite politics for the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, says “every move” by Beijing so far has been strategically orchestrated to purposely pile pressure on Taipei. “They should not just be taken as warnings or dismissed as a performative show of strength but as precursors of what is to come: an aggressive escalation of gray-zone tactics with the potential to ring fence Taiwan and blockade shipping routes and communications in the future.”

Still, there are signs Beijing is determined to save face while avoiding a major escalation. It did not buzz Pelosi’s plane, as some had feared, and waited until she had departed Taipei for South Korea before launching military drills. The measured response—demonstrating resolve and capability, without inviting conflict—even drew scorn from Chinese nationalists on social media. “For days we shouted about countermeasures, what kind of countermeasure is this?” posted one on Weibo.

Beijing’s calculations were also apparent on the economic front. It did not block Taiwanese imports of the processor chips that are vital not just for countless Chinese products but global industry. Taiwan produces half the world’s supply of processors and sales to Chinese factories rose 24.4% last year to $104.3 billion.

The risk of escalation persists

Apart from the risk that a military buildup could lead to some miscalculation or unintended confrontation between the nuclear-armed superpowers, demonstrations of diplomatic and military support also make U.S. backing for Taiwan seem explicit. But since the U.S. broke off formal relations with Taipei in favor of Beijing in 1979, its relationship with the island has been governed by “strategic ambiguity.”

The U.S. still maintains unofficial ties (including a de facto embassy) with Taiwan, is obliged by an act of Congress to regularly provide Taipei with weapons and stations troops on the island. But whether the U.S. would send its full military might to defend the island’s 23 million inhabitants was never confirmed. Over the last year, however, Biden has twice said that he would defend the island if China attacked. Each time, officials have walked back those assurances and insisted that the status quo—that the U.S. recognizes Beijing’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan while not endorsing it—remains intact. But actions like Pelosi’s visit only muddies the waters still.

“Nobody gains from any of it,” says Shelley Rigger, a professor of political science at Davidson College in North Carolina, and author of Why Taiwan Matters. “But the cost to U.S.-China relations and Taiwan security is really high.”

Of course, “Strategic ambiguity” is important to avoid riling Beijing by claiming a military alliance with what it perceives as a renegade province. But it is more important to protect U.S. interests from Taiwan itself, so-called “dual deterrence.” According to a 2020 poll, 54% of islanders support formal independence—a prospect that Beijing has repeatedly vowed would necessitate attempted reunification by force. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has formal independence as a goal in its founding charter, though she has pragmatically sidestepped this issue since taking office. That doesn’t sit well with some DPP hardliners, however.

Read More: Taiwan’s Civilian Soldiers Worry They Aren’t Prepared

By leaving U.S. backing for Taiwan unconfirmed, “strategic ambiguity” keeps the onus on Taipei to maintain good cross-Strait relations and look after its own defense. In 2003, Taiwan’s then-President Chen Shui-bian enraged Beijing with plans for a referendum that would call for China to withdraw scores of ballistic missiles aimed at the island, which Beijing took as a move toward independence. Back then, U.S. President George W. Bush aimed its rebuke at Taipei. “We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo,” he said.

But if assured of American military backing, there’s less reason for restraint—and some independence zealots in Taiwan would favor settling the issue now before China’s military grows even stronger. “From the [Chinese] perspective, it’s not enough to believe that Taiwan will restrain itself,” says Rigger. “They want the U.S. to also be restraining Taiwan.”

Even leaving aside the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe, direct military conflict between the world’s top two economies would decimate global supply chains and cost an unprecedented amount of blood and treasure. “It is no exaggeration to say the future of humanity may depend on a pragmatic U.S.-China relationship,” says Lyle Goldstein, formerly a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and now director of Asia Engagement for the dovish Defense Priorities think tank. “This foolish political stunt [Pelosi’s visit]… will only accelerate the sad process of sleepwalking into a global and national catastrophe at some unspecified time in the future.”

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Write to Charlie Campbell at charlie.campbell@time.com