When it comes to his foreign policy agenda, President Biden has a lot on his plate. There’s the war in Ukraine, global supply chain disruptions, and the United States’ deteriorating relationship with China. The last thing the president needs is a crisis that strains US-China relations even further, or worse, one that pulls Americans closer to military conflict.
That’s why it raised more than a few eyebrows when news broke that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi intended to visit Taiwan, the first visit to the self-ruled island from a major US official since Newt Gingrich went in 1997 when he was speaker of the House. China, which claims Taiwan to be its own, made clear that it viewed Pelosi’s plan as a threat and that its military “will not sit idly by” if the speaker proceeds to travel there.
That is, without question, an undue escalation of rhetoric on China’s part and further evidence of China’s growing bellicosity regarding Taiwan. Pelosi ignored that warning and landed in Taiwan Tuesday, and as a member of Congress, she has a right to make that trip and meet with Taiwanese officials. Her doing so does not reflect official US policy of any kind, as she does not represent the Biden administration abroad, and Beijing should know that.
The question is whether any of this was even necessary. While China viewing the visit as a provocation and issuing a warning with ever so thinly-veiled military threats is certainly a condemnable overreaction, it’s not surprising that it would object to a high-profile visit. And given the need for China’s cooperation on a host of global crises — from streamlining supply chains to combating climate change to helping rein in Russia’s aggression in Ukraine — this was clearly not the best time for Pelosi to plan such a trip, one that she undoubtedly knew could cause a great deal of drama. So why would she run the risk of giving China an excuse to nudge the two nations further toward the brink of military conflict?
For her part, Pelosi has long been a critic of the Chinese Communist Party and an advocate for promoting democracy in the region. In the 1990s, she admirably stood up for pro-democracy protesters by unfurling a banner in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that read, “To those who died for democracy,” which commemorated the peaceful protesters who were massacred there a few years prior.
So with Taiwan being a strong democracy of its own, Pelosi has been a natural ally. In an op-ed in The Washington Post that published upon her arrival in Taipei, the speaker said that her trip is about sending a strong message that America stands with Taiwan. “We cannot stand by as the CCP proceeds to threaten Taiwan — and democracy itself,” Pelosi wrote. Many Taiwanese officials, and their constituents, have been supportive of her plan to visit, in part because Taiwan has been isolated from the rest of the world, despite its economic strength.
But at the end of the day, one has to wonder what purpose Pelosi’s trip serves other than to signal her toughness on China. Does it tangibly advance US or Taiwanese interests? The answer is certainly not enough to warrant such a precarious standoff between the two countries, and this all may have been avoided had the speaker coordinated more closely with the White House.
Biden let slip weeks ago that the US military does not believe Pelosi’s visit is wise, but the fact that it’s happening points to a broader problem that goes well beyond Pelosi: The Biden administration has not articulated an official policy on Taiwan. That is, of course, in line with the United States’ long-held posture of “strategic ambiguity” on the matter — while the United States has long supported the “One China” policy, which accepts that Taiwan is a part of mainland China, it has not defined what “One China” would actually look like or how it should be accomplished, other than that it should be peaceful. That is what has ultimately allowed US officials to continue working with Taiwan without triggering a forceful response from China.
But the United States has slowly been breaking away from that understanding. Donald Trump famously questioned the “One China” policy before promising to honor it like his predecessors. And since becoming president, Biden has taken steps toward a bolder stance on Taiwan by easing restrictions on US officials meeting with their Taiwanese counterparts, and saying on three occasions that the United States would take military steps to defend Taiwan if China invaded the island in a Ukraine-like invasion.
The Biden administration needs to offer a better direction on US policy on Taiwan — before more politicians like Pelosi begin acting like a new era has already been ushered in. Otherwise, Biden shouldn’t make bold statements if he wants people to temper their expectations as he continues to manage increasingly tense relations with Beijing.
None of this is to say that China is right to tell American officials what they can and cannot do, or that the United States should not do more to support Taiwan. To the contrary, this editorial board has argued in favor of departing, to some degree, from strategic ambiguity. But the key to doing so is through measured, slow-and-steady steps. Whatever Pelosi’s intentions for this trip were — and no matter how inappropriate China’s response to it has so far been — it’s undeniable that making it in this particular moment is not a careful approach. And for now, that makes Biden’s job that much more difficult.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.