US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi heads to Asia on Friday to visit Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore — all friends of the United States. No big deal. Pelosi is also reportedly considering touching down in Taiwan, which would make her the highest-ranking US government official to go there in 25 years. Very big deal.
Yes, Taiwan is another ally of the United States. Indeed, its ally status has the unusual distinction of being written into US law. It is also the center of arguably the biggest geopolitical dispute between the West and China.
Analysts of the US-China relationship debate endlessly about whether the two nations are in a Cold War, things are just icy, or it’s all healthy competition. But all agree on this point: the one thing the world’s two biggest powers could go to war over is the issue of Taiwan’s independence. Think Ukrainian invasion, but only bigger.
China believes Taiwan is a part of China. Technically, the United States has a “one-China” policy,” but it’s complicated. The United States also has a policy called “strategic ambiguity,” which acknowledges that Taiwan is a fully self-governed democracy. Then there’s also that 1979 law that requires the United States to defend its ally in case of attack.
China has been super-aggressive in trying to eliminate any global recognition of Taiwan as an independent nation. China is so adamant, for example, that it demanded the makers of the movie “Top Gun” remove a Taiwanese flag from Tom Cruise’s jacket before the movie could be shown in China, the world’s most populous country.
Now China has signaled that if Pelosi goes to Taiwan, there will be a “firm” and “absolute” response. Some analysts believe they’re not ruling out a military option.
After a two-hour-plus phone call between President Biden and President Xi on Thursday, the Chinese state news agency reported that Xi said, “Public opinion shall not be violated. And if you play with fire, you get burned. Hope the US side can see this clearly.”
Pelosi hasn’t said whether she will actually set foot in Taiwan. It was leaked that she would go but not confirmed. But now she is getting bipartisan support, even from House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, for her going there.
It has become a situation where Pelosi is boxed in. If she doesn’t go at this point, it is almost like the Chinese get to dictate where American officials can and cannot go. Further, it will send huge signals not just to Taiwan, but to other allied countries in the region that the United States won’t stand up to China. If she does go, it will no doubt inflame tensions.
Xi has incentives to act. He is up for reelection this fall for an unprecedented third term. The Chinese economy is in retrenchment and there are suddenly real questions about the stability of the regime over the next 20 years. Xi needs to change the conversation and he needs a win for his own domestic politics. Taiwan is an especially sensitive topic for him. One of his main priorities has been that he wanted the Taiwan situation to be completely resolved during his tenure. So far, that has been an utter failure.
So, yes, Pelosi is knowingly poking an unstable Chinese bear. For at least a decade it’s been the other way around, with China escalating tensions, expanding into the South China Sea and becoming more aggressive generally in the region.
This trip would undoubtedly be part of Pelosi’s legacy as speaker, advancing the cause of global democracy. Its consequences, which could include a military confrontation, are unclear.
James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.