As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plane approached the airport in Taipei on Tuesday, Chinese warships and fighter planes squeezed the meridian line—the air-and-sea border dividing the People’s Republic of China from Taiwan—while American aircraft carriers steamed nearby to ward off or meet any threats. It’s impossible to deny that this trip was, at the very least, poorly timed.
Several U.S. officials—in the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, and the intelligence community—had tried, perhaps too delicately, to discourage Pelosi from stopping off in Taiwan during her congressional delegation’s brief tour of allied capitals in East Asia. President Joe Biden said publicly that top U.S. military officers opposed the visit, though he stopped short of saying he agreed with them, sensitive to the legislature’s prerogatives as a coequal branch of government and perhaps fearful of being denounced as “soft on China.”
In recent days, as her trip approached, officials in Beijing warned that the trip violated several international agreements, that U.S. politicians were “playing with fire,” and that the Chinese army would “not sit idly by.” One might dismiss this rhetoric as overwrought theatrics (in fact, the public warnings made it less likely that Pelosi would cancel). Still, the Taiwan Straits have long been a geopolitical tinderbox, and it’s hard to see what good might come from jumping into the fray while waving a canister of kindling and matches.
Pelosi’s intentions are, on one level, admirable. Perhaps because of the large number of Chinese refugees in her home district of Northern California, she has long been a harsh critic of Beijing’s human rights violations and its threats against Taiwan. Still, as the second-ranking official in the line of succession for the presidency, Pelosi has an obligation to think through the broad implications of her actions on foreign policy—and she failed to do that with this trip.
Here is where things get complicated—and, to anyone who isn’t a denizen of the foreign policy establishment, a little loony. When Mao Zedong’s Communist Party took over Mainland China in 1949, the country’s former president, Chiang Kai-shek, and his followers retreated to the tiny island of Taiwan, 100 miles off its eastern shore. The United States, along with most other countries, recognized Taiwan as the official China—until 1979, when, as a practical matter, they shifted diplomatic relations to Beijing. However, that same year, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, declaring that the U.S. “shall provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” allowing it “to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan.” This dual policy was dubbed “strategic ambiguity.” We “acknowledge” Beijing’s status as the “One China” but don’t quite “endorse” it. We retain diplomatic, commercial, and other relations with Taiwan—recently we have sold it advanced weapons and dispatched special forces to train its military—but don’t consider it an “independent” country. We are committed to helping Taiwan defend itself from attack but avoid saying whether we would get involved in the fight directly.
The aim of this tangled web has been to keep the peace. Originally the idea was also to help weave the People’s Republic of China into the global system—not challenging Beijing’s territorial claims but also not abandoning Taiwan, which is now a thriving democracy with 23 million people. In recent years, as China has strengthened its military and expanded its presence, some conservatives have called for a switch in policy from “strategic ambiguity” to “strategic clarity,” where the U.S. would declare under what circumstances it would defend Taiwan directly.
Though Biden has stepped up military support of Taiwan and containment of China, he has not gone this far, fearing that it could provoke Beijing to make aggressive moves or inspire ultra-nationalists in Taiwan to declare outright independence, which Beijing would see as a cause for war.
Hence the delicacies. No American president has visited Taiwan since Dwight Eisenhower in 1960. No speaker of the House has done so since Newt Gingrich in 1997—and he did that as a Republican leader while a Democrat was president (no one could, therefore, interpret his move as subterfuge on behalf of Bill Clinton), and even Gingrich stopped off to see the Communist leaders in Beijing on the same trip. Pelosi is engaging in no such even-handedness. She is thumbing her nose at those leaders in an era when they have the power to make political, economic, and military counter-moves. And, though she says her intent is to redouble support for Taiwan at a time when Russia is trying to conquer Ukraine, her trip in fact makes life more dangerous for the Taiwanese—and possibly for Ukrainians.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is in an awkward position when it comes to Ukraine. He wants to help his ally of convenience, Russian President Vladimir Putin; he wouldn’t mind seeing the U.S. and the European Union weakened by their involvement in the war—but he also doesn’t want to get China involved in the war; he certainly doesn’t want to go down with Putin’s sinking ship. So he is helping Putin economically but not militarily. However, if the U.S. seems to be posing a direct threat to China, Xi might find it in his interest to snuggle more closely with Putin—and possibly lash out at Taiwan as well.
And Xi has reason to see a mounting U.S. threat to China. Three times this year, Biden has publicly said that the U.S. would directly defend Taiwan from an attack; once, he likened this commitment to our treaty obligations with South Korea, Japan, and the members of NATO. In fact, the U.S. has no such commitment. On all three occasions, U.S. officials “clarified” Biden’s comments after the fact. However, as Hal Brands, professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Affairs, wrote in Bloomberg News after one of these remarks, “Once is a gaffe. Three times is a policy.” Brands was half-joking, but it’s possible that Xi had the same thought—seriously.
This, plus the shipment of more advanced weapons and now a visit to Taiwan by the official directly behind Vice President Kamala Harris in the line of succession all signal to Xi—whether or not correctly—that the United States is preparing for aggression against China.
The timing of Pelosi’s visit is unfortunate in two other respects. First, the Chinese Communist Party will soon hold its annual Congress, where Xi hopes to cement his rule with an unprecedented third term in office. Since he, like his predecessors, has been pledging to reabsorb Taiwan into China at some point (never putting forth a timetable), he will have to react in some dramatic way to what he and his comrades see as provocative actions by the United States. This is particularly true, given the bellicose warnings that he and party officials have issued in advance of Pelosi’s trip. Second, her trip comes as the Chinese military is conducting military exercises, including live-fire drills. They could step up or redirect their activities at any time.
Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, tweeted on Monday, “I increasingly think this is not going to be a one-day crisis. Buckle your seat belts…tightly.” In an email, she elaborated, “I think the Chinese are determined to demonstrate strength and resolve. They perceive the need to bolster their redlines. They want to credibly warn the U.S. of the risk of further incremental actions that they see as ‘salami slicing’ the US ‘one China’ policy.”
M. Taylor Fravel, director of the Security Studies Program at MIT, agrees and says Chinese actions could include “breaking the norm of the median line, firing missiles into the Taiwan Straits, economic punishment of Taiwan, underscoring their resolve without risking significant escalation”—though, of course, anytime a country underscores its resolve militarily, it risks significant escalation.
In the face of this heightened tensions, the White House has been trying to dampen the emotions. John Kirby, National Security Council spokesman, said at a press briefing on Monday, “There’s certainly no reason for this to come to blows,” noting U.S. policy hasn’t changed and Pelosi is not the first legislator to visit Taiwan.
If China does cross some previously uncrossed line, we can only hope that the White House will maintain this calm role of responsible adult. As long as China doesn’t commit an act of war, Biden should resist the temptation to join Xi in climbing the ladder of escalation, all for the sake of preserving tough-guy perceptions and “credibility.”
One bit of good news: Biden and Xi did talk on the phone for two hours last week; and while little has been revealed about what they said, reports suggest that the chat didn’t go as badly as some had expected; the two leaders even talked about a possible in-person meeting in the near future. If things start getting out of hand, Biden should get back on the phone and talk things down. This is the sort of diplomacy at which Biden excels, having taken part in it during the Cold War, when frantic swings between tension and calm were the norm in big-power relations. Pelosi lit a match in a warehouse full of dynamite. It doesn’t mean an explosion is inevitable. There are still some people around adept at blowing out matches.