Written by Jacques deLisle.
Image credit: Public domain.
The August 2022 visit to Taiwan by United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been characterized as “reckless” and even risking war or, at least, a dangerous military incident between the US and China. On the other hand, Pelosi’s trip has been celebrated for standing up to Chinese bullying or even a political victory born of an unforced error by Xi Jinping’s overreaching. Such dire or triumphalist views risk overlooking the broader and deeper meanings of Pelosi’s brief sojourn in Taipei: It is more a symptom than a cause of a deeply troubled and increasingly troubling US-China relationship; its most significant consequences are likely more complex and indirect.
Pelosi’s trip need not have been such a big deal. Despite the raft of congressional legislation in recent years asserting and calling for stronger US support for Taiwan and the oft-cited centrality of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) in US cross-Strait policy, the leader of one chamber of Congress does not—in the US’s de facto separation of powers—determine American foreign policy. Moreover, Pelosi’s substantive message did not stray far from Biden administration policy. She cited the importance of the TRA, Taiwan’s place on the friendly side of a sharpening global rivalry between autocracy and democracy, and the solidity of US support for Taiwan. The Speaker arguably came close to calling for superseding strategic ambiguity with strategic clarity concerning the circumstances under which the US would—and would not—come to Taiwan’s rescue. But President Biden himself has fed doubts about the continuing vitality of strategic ambiguity through only-partly-walked-back statements about US commitments and obligations to defend Taiwan. Also far from novel or shocking was Pelosi’s push for a bilateral US-Taiwan trade pact and her critique of China’s human rights record–underscored by her visit to Taiwan’s human rights museum and amplified by her decades-long record of seeking to sanction China for human rights abuses.
But much of that is largely beside the point in assessing the significance of Pelosi’s brief stop in Taiwan. China has not reacted strongly to recent trips by groups of US Senators and retired officials during Biden’s tenure—or a first-in-six years visit by a sitting cabinet secretary during the Trump administration—or a Clinton-era trip by the then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Still, Beijing made clear that it would regard Pelosi’s prospective visit as a major provocation and would respond with unspecified and potentially severe measures, warning the Biden administration that it was “playing with fire” and therefore would be burnt. Once Beijing adopted this stance (and the US understood, as it did, that this was Beijing’s position), Pelosi’s presence in Taiwan became, for China, a hostile affront by the United States. Mere briefings by senior US national security officials urging the Speaker not to go, or a public statement by the President that the US military opposed her visit, were not enough for Beijing to absolve the administration—and the US—of responsibility, especially given Biden’s reported refusal to call his fellow Democrat congressional leader to personally ask her not to go.
Beijing’s drawing its line in the sand made it less likely that the not-yet-confirmed visit would be called off. For Pelosi to forego a stop in Taiwan or for the Biden administration to demand that she do so would not look, to US eyes, like a reasoned evaluation of the questionable virtues of a symbolic gesture of support for Taiwan. (Indeed, US efforts to bolster Taiwan’s international stature and security are generally more successful when they couple symbolic gains with compelling substantive rationales—such as calls for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the international regimes for public health amid pandemics or trade in light of Taiwan’s deep integration and large role in the global economy.) Instead, the political optics in the US would have been that Pelosi or the administration had knuckled under to Beijing. That pattern would be a galling inversion of the Biden administration’s pledge that the US would shape China’s strategic environment.
This dismal spiral surrounding Pelosi’s Taiwan visit reflects the fraught and increasingly dangerous state of US-China relations over Taiwan. Each side views the other’s actions through a lens of deepening distrust and in a context of congealing rivalry—or worse. For the US, strengthened signals of support for Taiwan seek to reassure Taiwan in the face of China’s growing power and rising assertiveness. And Washington foregoes warnings to Taiwan not to provoke a cross-Strait crisis not because the US is abandoning its traditional position of “dual deterrence” but because Taiwan under Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai Ing-wen has followed policies that obviate the need for such deterrence. But Beijing sees, or at least characterizes, Washington as eroding its one-China policy, fomenting—or at least tolerating or wilfully blinding itself to—Taiwan’s stealthy slide toward unacceptable independence and profound damage to China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and achievement of Xi’s goal of national rejuvenation.
For Beijing, the Biden administration’s version of the now-long-running US pursuit of an alliance of democracies or “like-minded” states in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, and the even-longer-running denunciations of Chinese human rights abuses, are redolent of Cold War-style encirclement or a plot akin to regime change. This perspective has become more acute with recent US-led condemnations of the Chinese regime’s actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and the assemblage of a broad coalition of states outside the Global South to oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The US, in contrast, frames such measures as reflecting support for universal values and efforts to protect democratic governance from threats to the status quo—ranging from subtly subversive to kinetic conflict—posed by autocratic regimes, with Russia and China foremost among them.
As the controversy over Pelosi’s Taiwan visit also reflects, such foreign policy perceptions and posturing interact, sometimes toxically, with the domestic politics of bilateral relations. On the Chinese side, the venerable trope that no leader can “risk losing” Taiwan becomes more fraught as the policy discourse moves toward equating protracted non-unification with “loss.” There is a widespread belief—and some evidence—that Xi sees the “recovering” Taiwan question as a “legacy” issue and has explicitly framed the problem as one that cannot be “left over from generation to generation.” The rise, with regime encouragement, of popular nationalism, and the tightening political link between the unification of Taiwan and China’s achievement of full great power status, have shrunk the space for accommodation and patience in dealing with Taiwan or a less-than-virulent response to the prospect of a visit like Pelosi’s. Moreover, the approach of the 20th Party Congress and Xi’s anointment for a third term reinforces the imperative for the leadership not to look soft in dealing with Washington generally or a Pelosi visit specifically. (On the brighter side, the impending Party Congress also creates incentives to avoid a disruptive crisis, but only in the near future).
On the US side, analogous forces are in play. A broad consensus that US China’s policy is in a post-constructive engagement phase coexists with deep political polarization. In Washington, there is little room in policy discourse or in partisan politics for less-than-highly adversarial views of China and its intentions. Arguments on the merits against Pelosi’s Taiwan visit faced greatly lengthened odds because any climbdown would be met with strident—and at least somewhat bipartisan—charges that the Speaker or the administration were being soft on China or had caved into Beijing’s demands and Chinese bullying. The political costs—and the partisan imperatives to inflict them—are all the greater because of the looming midterm elections and the Democrats’ apparent vulnerabilities. There is even a “legacy” element at stake: Pelosi, for whom China has long been a major focus, is in her final months as Speaker and, thus, the opportunity to make a noteworthy and possibly influential trip to Taiwan.
The near-term nightmare scenarios have not occurred, although the threat of accident and escalation hung over China’s live-fire military exercises in the days following Pelosi’s visit and beyond. For all sides, there are less dramatic, longer-term risks and costs. For Taiwan, there will be new rounds of economic pressure from China, an enduring escalation of Chinese grey zone actions, and possible further entrenchment of Beijing’s concerns that only force can resolve an increasingly urgent Taiwan problem. For the US, there will be greater challenges in maintaining China’s limited cooperation in not aiding Russia’s war in Ukraine and in addressing climate change, and a further souring of the US-China bilateral relationship. And the limits to the recently growing alignment of allies and friends in East Asia and the West with Washington’s sceptical view of China’s intentions may be highlighted by the Pelosi trip’s reminder of the US’s greater zeal for crossing China over Taiwan issues and more generally. For China, too, there are downsides: Taiwanese attitudes toward China may harden even further; international views of China as aggressive and disruptive may be reinforced (as reflected in the restrained diplomatic language at the ASEAN summit that coincided with Pelosi’s trip, calling on “all sides” to “deescalate” tensions over Taiwan); and Chinese leaders in future cross-Strait contingencies may perceive less latitude to forego a conflict with the US that would be ruinously costly and perhaps unsuccessful.
To be sure, some of these costs might be incurred anyway. And some may be worth bearing for the US in deterring China or reassuring Taiwan and regional friends and allies, for Taiwan in safeguarding its autonomy, or for China in pursuing its anti-independence/unification agenda or pushing back against the United States. But in the shadow of the Pelosi visit and the broader context of the current US-China relationship and related domestic politics, each side’s actions may not reflect sober and realistic assessments of interests, goals, and how best to achieve them.
Jacques deLisle is the Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law, professor of political science, and director of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also director of the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
This article was published as part of a special issue on “US-Taiwan-China: What’s next?”.