After weeks of speculation, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed today in Taiwan, where she is expected to meet with President Tsai Ing-wen tomorrow morning.
Following through on claims that its military would “not sit idly by” during Pelosi’s trip, Beijing announced that it will conduct “live-fire exercises” in the waters around Taiwan starting on Thursday. Commentators said the move is a notable escalation, but the timing of the exercises — starting a day after the speaker is set to leave Taipei — could indicate the limits of how far China is willing to go in order to express its dissatisfaction with the trip.
Pelosi defended her controversial visit in an op-ed in the Washington Post. Among other things, Pelosi cited Beijing’s 2019 crackdown on Hong Kong and the Pentagon’s recent assessment that China is “likely preparing for a contingency to unify Taiwan with the PRC by force.”
“Our visit — one of several congressional delegations to the island — in no way contradicts the long-standing one-China policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the U.S.-China Joint Communiques and the Six Assurances,” she wrote. “The United States continues to oppose unilateral efforts to change the status quo.”
Michael Swaine, an East Asia expert at the Quincy Institute, pushed back on the idea that Pelosi’s visit is simply an extension of previous U.S. policy. “Anyone who says that this visit will not provoke a major crisis with Beijing or is ‘nothing unusual’ understands neither Beijing nor the history of the relationship,” Swaine said, adding that the trip is “nothing short of reckless and stupid.”
“This situation has the potential to become an even worse version of the 1995-96 Taiwan crisis, given the fraught state of current U.S.-China relations, and China’s vastly improved military capabilities,” he added.
Pelosi also argued that her trip is meant to fight back against creeping autocracy, echoing the Biden administration’s oft-stated policy of democracy promotion. “Indeed, we take this trip at a time when the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy,” she wrote. “As Russia wages its premeditated, illegal war against Ukraine, killing thousands of innocents — even children — it is essential that America and our allies make clear that we never give in to autocrats.”
Some observers argued that this framing, while attractive on paper, has little practical value when it comes to the intricacies of geopolitics.
“A theory that United States must ‘never give in to autocrats’ is not a strategy for handling multiple ongoing security threats in a multipolar world,” tweeted Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the New York Times.
In addition to the military exercises near Taiwan, China is expected to impose economic sanctions on Taipei, possibly accompanied by a series of cyber operations. Any of Beijing’s potential moves will be geared toward showing the people of Taiwan that “there are risks and consequences for relying on [the U.S.] instead of working with Beijing,” according to Ryan Hass of the Brookings Institution.
As the situation develops, there is one question on everyone’s mind: How can officials stop the crisis from getting out of hand? For Swaine, the answer is straightforward.
“Washington and Beijing must now pivot to defusing the coming crisis by activating trusted interlocutors, offering clear signals of intent and deescalation, and recognizing that both sides have contributed in various ways to this crisis—and so both sides must contribute to its resolution,” he said.