Written by Gerrit van der Wees.
After a lot of heated debate, moves and countermoves, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan on August 2 and 3. It is a testimony to a lot of courage and dedication by the Speaker herself and those in the Biden administration who supported the visit.
Upon landing at Taipei’s Songshan Airport on Tuesday evening, Pelosi issued the following declaration: “Our congressional delegation’s visit to Taiwan honours America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant democracy. America’s solidarity with the twenty-three million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.”
And when Pelosi and her delegation met with President Tsai Ing-wen the next morning, she emphasised, “Our delegation came to Taiwan to make unequivocally clear that we will not abandon Taiwan. Now, more than ever, America’s solidarity with Taiwan is crucial, and that’s the message we are bringing here today.”
President Tsai responded by thanking Pelosi for her long-term dedication to democracy and human rights and her longstanding support for Taiwan. She said Pelosi’s visit not only reflected strong US congressional support for bilateral ties but also sent a message to the world that democracies stand together in the face of common challenges.
The picture circulating on the internet of Speaker Pelosi and President Tsai Ing-wen standing next to each other was indeed a powerful image of two women who are determined to bend history in the right direction.
During her 19-hour stay, Pelosi also visited the legislature, the Taiwan Human Rights Museum at Jingmei White Terror Memorial Park in New Taipei City and attended a noon banquet at the Taipei Guest House attended by businesspeople and national security officials.
Pelosi left Taiwan at the end of Wednesday afternoon, August 3, to continue her trip to South Korea and Japan.
What will happen now? The regime in Beijing was not happy with the visit and can be expected to do some sabre rattling by conducting military exercises near Taiwan. The problem is that they are extremely limited in what they can do. If they go too far, this will seriously damage the PRC’s interests, affecting trade flows and shipping in the region: the current military exercises have already prompted some shipping companies to avoid the Taiwan Strait.
The main conclusion of the episode is that it was crucial that Speaker Pelosi stood her ground and pushed through her plans for a visit to Taiwan. It is a win for democracy and a major milestone in Taiwan’s relations with the rest of the world.
For Taiwan, such a parliamentary visit is especially important because it has few diplomatic relations. These visits thus represent a political boost and therefore constitute an important counterbalance to the threats and intimidation from the Chinese side. But unfortunately, the government in Beijing is trying to prevent these visits by threatening the visitors’ country. Sometimes that has the result, but often – as in the case of Pelosi — it also has the opposite effect.
In this context, it is necessary to understand the underlying psychology of the Beijing government. The tactic on the Chinese side is always to overreact — “wolf-warrior diplomacy” —to corner the other side, Americans, Taiwanese or other countries.
An American diplomat, who served in Beijing for many years, explained it this way: “Chinese diplomacy is like driving a car in Beijing: there are no real traffic rules, the one who pushes the hardest gets to the destination first.” According to him, it is therefore important to push back hard and not to be intimidated.
Nancy Pelosi understood this very well and continued the planned visit and expressed broad support for Taiwan and the democratic system on the island. She understood that the Taiwanese have fought hard for their democracy and deserve all the support of the international community.
Due to this episode, the Biden administration is now much more focused on the threat from the Chinese side. It has to ensure that the US military maintains the necessary capacity “…to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardise the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” According to the Taiwan Relations Act (Art.1(b)(6), this is a key element of US policy.
Also, other like-minded countries are concerned about China’s sabre rattling: on August 3 2022, the G7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and the High Representative of the European Union) issued a joint statement in which these countries expressed concern about “…recent and announced threatening actions by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), particularly live-fire exercises and economic coercion, which risk unnecessary escalation. There is no justification to use a visit as pretext for aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait. It is normal and routine for legislators from our countries to travel internationally. The PRC’s escalatory response risks increasing tensions and destabilising the region.”
Thus, this discussion is not just an American dilemma or a Taiwanese issue, but also of immense importance to Europe. Several European countries like Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Norway have similarly been threatened and intimidated by China.
To have a sufficient counterweight to China, it is necessary that the United States, Europe, Japan, South Korea, Australia and other like-minded countries jointly push back against China’s aggressive behaviour, and work much more closely together in their support for Taiwan, so that we can ensure that it continues to exist as a free and democratic nation-state, and becomes a full and equal member in the international family of nations.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat who teaches Taiwan’s history at George Mason University in Fairfax (Virginia) and American relations with East Asia at George Washington University Elliott School for International Affairs.
This article was published as part of a special issue on “US-Taiwan-China: What’s next?”.