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Uncertainty Over Pelosi’s Taiwan Visit Exposes American Weakness
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Uncertainty Over Pelosi’s Taiwan Visit Exposes American Weakness

If she does not go, Beijing will have taken the measure of another American White House and found it to be more bark than bite.

Chinese officials hope to intimidate the Biden administration over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s long-planned stop in Taiwan during her August swing through Asia, with stops in Japan and South Korea included as well. Chinese official media quoted General Secretary Xi Jinping warning President Biden that, “Those who play with fire will perish by it.”   

Pelosi’s trip was originally scheduled for May but postponed after she tested positive for COVID. The past few months have given Beijing time to ratchet up its pressure campaign, with spokesmen and official commentators keeping up a steady drumbeat of threats. 

Deterring the speaker from visiting Taiwan in August would be a victory for Xi Jinping, for whom acquiring the island democracy of Taiwan is a major preoccupation, especially as Xi moves to reaffirm and consolidate his reign as head of the Communist Party and the Chinese state in the weeks ahead. To put it bluntly, it would be a feather in his red cap to have prevented Pelosi from landing in Taipei. 

In turn, it would be a defeat for American statecraft. Allies in particular would have to wonder just how serious Washington is about meeting the challenge China presents. For countries sitting on the fence, like the Philippines, the message would be that the U.S. can be bullied. Moreover, it would put another nail in the coffin of the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, a statute that was designed to normalize relations with Taiwan to the degree possible without formal ties and specifically declared that such efforts of coercion would be treated as “of grave concern to the United States.” 

Pelosi, third in the line of succession to the presidency, would be the highest-ranking American official to visit in nearly 25 years.  The strategic situation has changed immensely since Newt Gingrich visited as speaker in 1997. Taiwan had only just started its path to becoming a true democracy, and the U.S. held an overwhelming advantage militarily should a confrontation occur in the Taiwan Strait. That advantage has clearly shrunk, and some would say it has disappeared altogether. 

With its new military muscle and backed by its economic sway as the world’s second-largest economy, China has put Taiwan under constant pressure the past few years through intrusions into its water and airspace, and disinformation and interference in its media, politics, and civil society.  Beijing has accumulated influence in international organizations, in part to exclude Taiwan, while reducing further the number of countries that maintain full diplomatic relations with Taipei.   While  China’s ability to take Taiwan has grown, its ambitions are not  confined to the island.  Beijing has taken over territory in the South China Sea and destabilized its border with India, where it claims substantial areas as “Southern Tibet.” 

At the same time, Taiwan has changed. Under the most difficult of circumstances, it has joined the ranks of America’s strategic partners in the region, sitting astride key air and water avenues that open to the wider Pacific.  Its transition to democracy has revealed a distinct civic /national identity and largely broken down the division between mainlanders and Taiwanese such that the idea of a voluntary decision by Taiwan’s citizens to merge with Communist China is now unthinkable. As the citizens of the island have engaged in self-rule, their sense of themselves as Taiwanese, rather than Chinese, has grown exponentially. Considerably less than 10 percent of the population identify as Chinese—and much of that portion is confined to an aging segment.  

Nevertheless, despite the changes in Taiwan and the fundamental change in the Asian security landscape, the idea of a status quo governing American policy that must not be disturbed stubbornly persists in policymaking and analytic circles. But that status quo rests on the uncertain ground that Washington takes no position on whether Taiwan is or isn’t a part of China and whether the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defense if it were attacked by China. And while it is often said that these policies have kept the peace for decades, the fact is, what kept the peace was American power and Chinese relative weakness.  

All these changes have left the U.S. in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t position. President Biden, no stranger to off-the-cuff remarks that need “walking back” by staff, simply stated the obvious when he said the U.S. would help defend Taiwan if it were attacked. Taiwan’s strategic importance demands it. But Beijing reads the shift in the balance of power as tilting in its favor. It may longer believe that it has to “bide its time” in calling America’s bluff over defending Taiwan.  Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising Beijing feels free to challenge Pelosi– whom Chinese leaders revile for her past staunch support for human rights of Chinese citizens.  

What China might do to back up its threats if she does go to Taiwan is impossible to know from the outside. It’s also impossible to know from outside whether the Pentagon is justifiably alarmed or, as it has been in the past, reflexively cautious. Certainly over the past few months, Beijing has been more willing to run risks in challenging American and allied flights and naval operations in the area. Fueling the Pentagon’s caution further are undoubtedly worries that America’s very stretched, undermanned and underarmed military is also dealing with a military crisis on the other side of Eurasia. Even if Pelosi is underwhelmed by the briefing she is getting from defense and intelligence officials, she might still reasonably defer to the executive branch’s judgment that the time to visit Taiwan is not now since it is the executive branch that will be dealing with whatever does happen. 

That said, the damage to American credibility in the region if Pelosi does not go are considerable. Beijing will have taken the measure of another American White House and found it to be more bark than bite. 

There is no getting around the fact that there appear to be no obvious good choices here. It’s been suggested that the speaker can go at some other time, perhaps after the Communist Party Congress in late fall when there is less pressure on Xi to show a forceful hand. But Washington shouldn’t kid itself that this will make up for her decision not to go. It will be read in China, and perhaps elsewhere, as a sign that Beijing controls the “go” and the “no go” button on trips. In addition, China will have learned exactly what kinds of signals it can send to cause 

Washington to hyperventilate about a possible crisis. Upsetting that arithmetic may be reason enough for Pelosi to go. 

If there is any benefit to the debate over whether Pelosishould go or not, it’s that it has exposed the weakness in the American position vis a vis Taiwan. In Congress and in successive administrations, the U.S. has talked a much tougher game about increasing support for Taiwan and challenging China’s aggressive behavior toward the democratic island. What it hasn’t done nearly enough is back that up with sufficient diplomacy and military resources. The U.S. military is well short of being able, with confidence, to deter Chinese aggression. And Biden’s defense budgets going forward fall well short of fixing that gap. If the U.S. wants to avoid giving the upper hand to Beijing in the future, it will have to get far more serious about building the kind of “hard power” that allows it to not only talk the talk but walk the walk.   

Ellen Bork, a contributing editor at American Purpose, writes about democracy, human rights and American foreign policy. Gary J. Schmitt is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he writes on constitutional and national security issues. 

Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar in strategic studies and American institutions at the American Enterprise Institute.