The risk of a crisis emerging from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan this week is uncomfortably high. A crisis is not inevitable if Washington and Beijing engage in deft diplomacy, but the visit will probably lock in place an even more confrontational dynamic, increasing the chances of US-China conflict over Taiwan in the future.
No matter what immediate tit-for-tat reactions there are to the visit, the troubling long-term implication points to the urgent need for the Biden administration and Congress to better coordinate their handling of the Taiwan issue.
On Tuesday Pelosi arrived in Taiwan, the first time since 1997 that a US official of her seniority — second in the line of presidential succession — has visited the island. The visit is meant to be a significant show of political support for the island. China sees the visit as an outsized break from Washington’s assurances that it does not support Taiwanese formal independence and may respond with large-scale displays of military force.
Beijing claims Taiwan — an island 100 miles off its coast — as part of China and has long expressed a goal of unification. It sees achieving this end as essential to its rise to major power status and holds out the possibility of using military force. Washington, under its “One China” policy” dating back to the Nixon administration, does not support Taiwan’s independence, but at the same time regards Taiwan’s status as unsettled and requiring peaceful resolution. Washington maintains unofficial ties with Taipei and provides Taiwan defensive arms.
These overlapping but not convergent understandings of Taiwan’s status have preserved a fragile peace in the Taiwan Strait for decades. However, both sides are beginning to believe that the other is changing this status quo in dangerous ways.
Washington is concerned that a shifting military balance of power in China’s favor will make a military invasion of Taiwan tempting for an increasingly assertive Beijing. In what it sees as catching up to events, the Biden administration has deepened unofficial ties with Taipei and is more proactively preparing Taiwan’s defense to deter a military move by Beijing. For China, these actions challenge its goal of eventual unification and officials accuse Washington of backsliding from its promises made under the One China Policy.
Pelosi’s trip therefore comes at a moment when US-China tensions are at an historic high, and when the two governments are primed for escalating their actions and reactions over Taiwan issues. To make matters worse, it also comes on the eve of China’s 20th Party Congress — a major political event that will likely seal President Xi Jinping’s stay in power — and the US midterm elections. For Beijing, this means added pressures to exhibit strength and deter more high-level visits.
The Biden administration appears to have opposed Pelosi’s visit. Biden publicly noted the US military thinks a Pelosi visit “is not a good idea” and additional leaks highlighted the administration’s concerns. However, the proximity of the midterms raised the perceived political costs of Pelosi canceling the trip.
China has already begun to respond to the visit. On Tuesday, it banned more than 100 Taiwanese food products and launched a cyberattack on the website of the president’s office. Immediately following Pelosi’s landing, it announced the staging of multiple military exercises in six areas surrounding Taiwan. In recent days, both Chinese and American military ships and planes have been observed moving closer to the Taiwan Strait.
In order to prevent an unintended collision or escalation, it is critical that the two militaries communicate directly and make clear that neither side desires a conflict. The optics of Pelosi’s visit — how the speaker travels, whom she speaks with, and what she says — are also all details that Beijing and others will read carefully to see whether the unofficial status of the visit is emphasized, in accord with the United States’ “One China” policy.
Beyond immediate risks, the most consequential impact of this visit will be how it entrenches attitudes that make finding a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question more difficult. It might confirm suspicions in Beijing that the United States is intent on ensuring Taiwan’s continued de facto independence in perpetuity, and make the option of unification through military force appear more necessary. In Washington, Chinese reactions to the visit might confirm views that a military invasion of Taiwan is around the corner, and make additional shows of support for Taiwan appear even more necessary.
The apparent lack of policy coherence between the Biden administration and Congress complicates the long-term management of an already complex issue. US objectives with regard to Taiwan need to be clarified across these branches of government, and agreement reached on actions that should be taken in support of those objectives. The consequences of not pursuing a more coordinated US response to the Taiwan question — a spiraling escalation of tit-for-tat actions that draw Washington and Beijing closer to direct conflict — are simply too great.
Amanda Hsiao is senior analyst for China at the International Crisis Group.