WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can do almost nothing to earn the approval of congressional Republicans, who have blasted her over the years for everything from the landmark laws she’s passed to the kind of ice cream she keeps in her freezer.
But when Pelosi made arguably the most controversial move in her nearly two decades as the top House Democrat with a daring trip to Taiwan this week — in defiance of China’s leaders and US military officials — many Republicans found themselves in the unusual position of cheering her on.
“I’m about to use four words in a row that I haven’t used in this way before. And those four words are: Speaker Pelosi was right,” Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, told reporters shortly after she arrived in Taiwan’s capital of Taipei on Tuesday. Pelosi became the highest-ranking US official in a quarter-century to visit the island democracy that communist China claims as its territory.
Blunt and 25 of his Republican colleagues, including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, issued a joint statement supporting Pelosi’s move, which Pelosi and the White House insisted should not upset the delicate status quo between the US and China over Taiwan.
The Republican response highlights the increasing bipartisan hostility in Washington toward China. The nation already posed a significant economic and military threat to the United States before tensions accelerated in recent years after a barrage of Trump administration tariffs on Chinese products and finger-pointing over the origins of the COVID-19 virus. The war in Ukraine has added further strain, with China diplomatically backing Russia’s invasion and its rationale of territorial reunification that strongly echoes the dispute over Taiwan.
Now Pelosi’s visit, which lasted less than 24 hours, has pushed the US-China relationship into a perilous new phase, experts said. Chinese officials warned the United States that it was “playing with fire” and called Pelosi’s trip “very dangerous and stupid.”
They quickly responded after she left with what analysts said was their most aggressive military action toward Taiwan since 1996, conducting live-ammunition drills, expected to continue into Sunday. That has included firing ballistic missiles into the waters around the island, which sits only about 80 miles away from mainland China at its closest point. China on Friday also announced it was halting talks with the United States on several key matters, including military relations and climate change, as well as placing unspecified personal sanctions on Pelosi and her immediate family.
“This is clearly the worst place the relationship has been since the late 1990s or even ‘89,” said Jude Blanchette, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, referencing the fallout from that earlier dispute in the Taiwan Strait and the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators by Chinese troops in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. “Tensions in the region I think now are going to be permanently at a higher level.”
A potential crisis there comes as President Biden continues to grapple with a major land war in Europe and an economic slowdown fueled by high inflation at home. Biden administration officials reportedly opposed Pelosi’s trip. But they have publicly said she had the right to go and have tried to downplay the visit’s significance, noting that it does not represent any change in Taiwan policy and has precedent in the 1997 visit by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
But a lot has changed since then, raising the stakes for a potential superpower conflict over Taiwan. China now has the world’s second-largest economy and a significantly increased military that experts said could make Chinese President Xi Jinping bolder in challenging the United States, particularly as he seeks an unprecedented third five-year term this fall. At the same time, Taiwan has developed into a major technology center and is home to the world’s largest manufacturer of computer chips.
“If its ability to export those chips ... were disrupted, every industry would feel a really dramatic hit,” said Chris Miller, codirector of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
“Taiwan has never been more important than it is today,” he said.
But Taiwan is an island in more ways than one. Only 14 nations, all of them small, formally recognize it as a separate country because China refuses to have diplomatic relations with any government that does.
The dispute over Taiwan dates to the founding of the communist People’s Republic of China following World War II. After losing a civil war, Chinese nationalists fled to the island and established the rival Republic of China. The United States recognized it for years. But the growth of communist China led the United States to switch and officially recognize it in 1979, declaring it “the sole legal government of China.”
Despite that “One China” policy, the United States did not abandon Taiwan, but no longer formally recognized it as a separate country. Washington acknowledged the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China without endorsing it. And Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which established official, nondiplomatic relations with Taiwan and promised military support so it could defend itself.
Since then, the United States has had a policy of “strategic ambiguity” about how it would respond if China tried to seize Taiwan. Biden has appeared to veer from that publicly, particularly in May when he said that the United States would defend Taiwan militarily, although White House officials and Biden later insisted there was no policy change.
Biden’s comments and other moves, like the US effort to create an economic alliance of Asia-Pacific nations to counter China’s influence, have raised anxiety among Chinese leaders about Taiwan, Blanchette said. But China has fueled the US steps with its own comments and actions, including increased saber-rattling toward Taiwan, he said.
The rhetoric around the Ukraine war has added to the problem, with Taiwanese officials fearing that China’s vocal support for Russia’s invasion bodes ill for the future of the island nation of 23 million people.
“As Taipei likes to say, ‘Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow,’ ” Blanchette said. “So I think the war has clearly not only accelerated existing tensions but kind of moved them to a different plane.”
Pelosi alluded to the war during her visit, saying US solidarity with Taiwan “is more important today than ever as we continue to support the defense of democracy against autocracy in the region and in the world.”
Some Democrats and Republicans want to do more to support Taiwan. Proposed bipartisan Senate legislation would declare Taiwan a major non-North American Treaty Organization ally and provide $4.5 billion in security assistance over the next four years. The proposal comes after Congress recently passed legislation with bipartisan support to increase US competitiveness with China that includes tens of billions of dollars for domestic semiconductor manufacturing and scientific research.
“There’s very little question on either side of the aisle that in the next generation we are going to have to compete against the Chinese Communist Party and it’s a question of democracy vs. autocracy,” said Representative Jake Auchincloss, a Newton Democrat.
To ease tensions over Pelosi’s visit, he said. Biden should repeal or reduce tariffs on Chinese products. They’ve done little to reverse China’s trade practices and rolling them back would ease inflation, Auchincloss said.
But even before Pelosi’s visit, and with inflation soaring, Biden resisted calls to reduce the tariffs in the face of concerns about China. Although Miller believes tensions over Taiwan will ease, he said the situation right now makes it difficult for the Biden administration to take such a step.
“The more that China issues threats and challenges Taiwan’s access to its airspace and its sea lanes, I think it’s harder for the Biden administration to take steps that would seem conciliatory to Beijing,” he said.