Nancy Pelosi is not the first US House speaker to visit Taiwan.
In 1997, Republican Newt Gingrich paid a visit to Taipei, where he met with Taiwan’s then-president Lee Teng-hui and delivered a speech underscoring the American commitment to the island’s security. He also traveled to Beijing, where, he said afterward, he bluntly told Chinese officials: “We want you to understand, we will defend Taiwan.” They responded calmly. “They said, ‘OK, noted,’” Gingrich recounted afterward. “And then they basically would say: ‘Since we don’t intend to attack, you won’t have to defend. Let’s go on and talk about how we’re going to get this thing solved.’”
So why did China react to Pelosi’s trip with such belligerence? Why did its foreign ministry level the angry claim that her visit “seriously infringes upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”? Why did China’s military announce plans to encircle Taiwan in a series of live-fire missile exercises? Why the unhinged suggestion by a Communist Party propagandist that the Chinese military should “forcibly dispel Pelosi’s plane” by shooting it down if necessary?
What has changed in the quarter-century since Gingrich’s uneventful visit?
Plainly, neither Taipei nor Washington has done anything to threaten or harm China. American support for Taiwanese democracy and security has been a pillar of US foreign policy for decades. The Taiwan Relations Act, which obligates the United States to provide Taiwan with the weaponry it needs to defend itself in case of attack, has been in effect for 43 years. Beijing’s tantrum over Pelosi’s visit is meritless. Its denunciation of her trip as a “serious violation of the ‘one-China’ principle” and of the 1979 joint communiqué that established diplomatic relations between China and the United States is preposterous. If Gingrich’s visit to Taiwan (and those by innumerable other members of Congress over the years) never constituted a breach of any agreement, then neither did Pelosi’s.
What is different now is that the United States, convulsed by domestic politics, increasingly appears irresolute and confused on the international stage. The humiliating rout of US forces in Afghanistan, the reluctance to supply Ukraine with the wherewithal to win the war against Russia, the feckless response to the wrongful detention of US citizens abroad — China sees in Washington a superpower unsure of itself and nervous about confronting its foes.
Again and again, the message to Xi Jinping’s regime has been one of timorousness. Three times in the past year, President Biden said in response to a question that if Taiwan were attacked by China, the United States would intervene militarily. On all three occasions, White House officials instantly rushed to walk Biden’s words back. When the president was asked last month about Pelosi’s planned trip to Taiwan, he replied not by vigorously affirming the speaker’s right to travel but by distancing himself: “Well, I think that the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now.” On Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that the White House is lobbying against bipartisan legislation in the Senate to formally designate Taiwan as a major non-NATO ally.
In the face of such diffidence, should it come as a surprise that Beijing’s behavior has grown more aggressive, its accusations more outrageous, and its rhetoric more bellicose?
China’s claim that Pelosi’s trip violated the “one-China” principle or any other understanding between Washington and Beijing is nonsense. In the words of the 1979 communiqué, the United States “acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” Note well: the Chinese position, not the US position. The United States has never been under any obligation to endorse China’s view, merely to acknowledge it.
Meanwhile, it is China that breaches agreements on a massive scale.
In a column published on the eve of her trip, Pelosi contrasted Taiwan’s exemplary record of democracy and freedom with “Beijing’s abysmal human rights record and disregard for the rule of law.” Three decades after the Chinese Communist Party carried out a massacre in Tiananmen Square, she wrote, its repression is undiminished.
“The CCP’s brutal crackdown against Hong Kong’s political freedoms and human rights . . . cast the promises of ‘one-country, two-systems’ into the dustbin,” Pelosi noted. “In Tibet, the CCP has long led a campaign to erase the Tibetan people’s language, culture, religion, and identity. In Xinjiang, Beijing is perpetrating genocide against Muslim Uyghurs and other minorities. And throughout the mainland, the CCP continues to target and arrest activists, religious-freedom leaders, and others who dare to defy the regime.”
That sweeping assault on human rights — which also include the systematic use of slave labor and torture, the forcible harvesting of organs from prisoners of conscience, and a nightmarish system of high-tech surveillance created to stifle dissent — contravenes some of the most solemn treaties and covenants to which Beijing is a signatory. Among them: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; and the Convention against Torture. China ratified them all. It violates them with impunity.
In doing to Hong Kong what it would like to do to Taiwan — ending its autonomy and wiping out its freedom — Beijing blithely dismissed the 1984 Sino-British agreement to keep the territory free and democratic until at least 2047. It called that accord a mere “historical document,” no longer relevant under present circumstances.
The time has come to apply the same logic to the “one-China” principle. In every respect that matters, Taiwan is an independent, democratic, sovereign republic, and Washington should stop being coy about saying so.
Biden must not allow Beijing’s intimidation of Taiwan to continue. He must make it clear to Xi Jinping, before it is too late, that Taiwan is unequivocally under the protection of the United States. The Senate bill declaring Taiwan a major ally should be passed and signed into law. Taiwan must be supplied with the military equipment it needs — including nuclear missiles — to deter, not merely repel, any threat from its genocidal neighbor. It is weakness, not strength, that provokes bullies to attack. The irresolution that has marked US policy toward Taiwan needs to end right now. Pelosi has just given a master class in how to stand up to an international thug. Biden should follow up with marching orders to his foreign policy team: Go and do likewise.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit bitly.com/Arguable.