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What Does Nancy Pelosi Think She’s Doing in Taiwan?

A risky trip seems more about dramatic gestures than actual help.

By , a Taipei-based nonresident senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks at an event to mark the 30th anniversary of the Chinese democracy movement and the June 4, 1989, massacre in Tiananmen Square on Capitol Hill in Washington, on June 4, 2019. Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

In September 1991, when I was CNN’s China bureau chief, then-U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi got me arrested. On a trip to Beijing with a congressional delegation, one of her colleagues alerted me that Pelosi and two other congressmen were planning to slip away from their official escorts and visit Tiananmen Square. But I was not told that her plan was, with news cameras rolling, to hold up a banner and lay flowers to commemorate students killed when the Chinese army crushed pro-democracy demonstrators there two years earlier.

After her gesture, Pelosi and the two other members of Congress drove off while furious Chinese police, unable to target a visiting foreign dignitary, roughly detained me and other reporters on the scene for several hours. It was my first experience with Pelosi’s penchant for high-profile gestures designed to poke China’s communist rulers in the eye—regardless of the consequences.

Now, at a much more dangerous moment and with vastly more at stake than a bruised reporter, Pelosi appears on the brink of staging a much more provocative gesture this August: visiting Taiwan. It would be the first trip by a U.S. official of her rank in 25 years, and it would come at a moment when Sino-American relations are at their lowest point in decades amid growing concern that China might attempt to seize the self-ruled island by force. Already, an infuriated Chinese government has warned of a forceful response if Pelosi goes, raising fears of a dangerous escalation in an already tense situation.

In September 1991, when I was CNN’s China bureau chief, then-U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi got me arrested. On a trip to Beijing with a congressional delegation, one of her colleagues alerted me that Pelosi and two other congressmen were planning to slip away from their official escorts and visit Tiananmen Square. But I was not told that her plan was, with news cameras rolling, to hold up a banner and lay flowers to commemorate students killed when the Chinese army crushed pro-democracy demonstrators there two years earlier.

After her gesture, Pelosi and the two other members of Congress drove off while furious Chinese police, unable to target a visiting foreign dignitary, roughly detained me and other reporters on the scene for several hours. It was my first experience with Pelosi’s penchant for high-profile gestures designed to poke China’s communist rulers in the eye—regardless of the consequences.

Now, at a much more dangerous moment and with vastly more at stake than a bruised reporter, Pelosi appears on the brink of staging a much more provocative gesture this August: visiting Taiwan. It would be the first trip by a U.S. official of her rank in 25 years, and it would come at a moment when Sino-American relations are at their lowest point in decades amid growing concern that China might attempt to seize the self-ruled island by force. Already, an infuriated Chinese government has warned of a forceful response if Pelosi goes, raising fears of a dangerous escalation in an already tense situation.

Yet, despite everything at stake, in Washington, the circumstances surrounding a possible Pelosi visit remain extremely muddled. Word of the Taiwan trip came in a Financial Times report based on a half-dozen anonymous sources, raising the question of who was willing to make the plan public and why. Did the initial leak come from Pelosi’s staff seeking additional publicity? Was it someone else in the government trying to torpedo the trip? Was it just a slip-up? When pressed by reporters, U.S. President Joe Biden would only say the U.S. “military thinks it’s not a good idea right now,” whereas Pelosi refused to confirm her intentions even as she stressed the importance of showing U.S. support for Taiwan.

But now that word is out, the United States faces a dilemma. If Pelosi does not go, it will appear that Washington is allowing the Chinese government to fix limits on the nature of U.S. engagement with Taiwan. That could reinforce Beijing’s already strong belief that the United States is a declining power and that China’s increasingly assertive international behavior is paying off. (To be sure, China’s global image has collapsed, and investors are fleeing, but there’s little willingness inside the party state to point out uncomfortable facts to the leadership that set those policies.) Moreover, it would provide ammunition for Republican critics of Biden to accuse him of being soft on China.

However, if Pelosi ignores Beijing’s warnings, it could trigger a dangerous new crisis over Taiwan. There has already been speculation that China’s People’s Liberation Army, which has staged a series of increasingly bold incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the past year, might seek to prevent the U.S. military aircraft Pelosi would travel in from landing or perhaps even declare its own ADIZ over Taiwan—a step that, at a minimum, could complicate the supply chain for the island’s globally crucial semiconductor industry. One China scholar has warned that Beijing will respond with “unprecedented countermeasures—the strongest it has ever taken since the Taiwan Strait crises.”

To be sure, China’s rhetoric regarding Taiwan is full of big threats that don’t materialize. Yet the danger of mutual escalation getting out of hand now, when U.S.-China relations are much more fraught, cannot be ruled out. However, the prospect of a Pelosi visit has only heightened the sense of confusion about U.S. policy toward both China and Taiwan. This includes Biden, three times in recent months, declaring that the United States would defend Taiwan if it was attacked, only to have White House aides walk back his comments—plus the current signs that the president, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and the U.S. military are not on the same page. It is hard to imagine why Biden and Pelosi, who work closely together on so many issues, appear so out of sync here. And why did the Defense Department apparently only brief Pelosi on the potential risks of the visit after the Financial Times’ leak rather than as part of a careful planning process beforehand?

Moreover, the timing does appear gratuitously provocative, linked more to the August congressional recess than any strategic planning. Beijing has no right to tell U.S. politicians how to behave. But her trip would come ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress this fall, where Chinese leader Xi Jinping will solidify his control over the party state by taking power for a third term, breaking with the precedent of his two predecessors. It is possible that the potential loss of face for Xi in failing to prevent a Pelosi visit at such a politically sensitive moment will increase the chance of a strong Chinese response, though it’s hard to see how China would be any more accommodating over such a visit later given its increasingly aggressive rhetoric on the issue.

The uncomfortable question has to be asked: What precisely is Pelosi hoping to achieve? Her intention to demonstrate support for Taiwan is obvious, but her activities do not appear linked to any broader American strategy, such as drawing U.S. allies in the region into closer coordination to deal with the threat from China or encouraging Taiwan to improve its own defense capabilities by drawing on lessons from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As the messy messaging from the White House has shown, there appears to be little communication or coordination here—though Beijing is likely to read a conspiratorial plot into it anyway.

Instead, the planned August trip appears to be very much symbolism over substance, a photo-op to enable Pelosi to poke Beijing in the eye as she has done in the past. Unlike her appearance in Tiananmen Square in 1991, however, which left a few reporters roughed up and detained, if the situation escalates now, it will be the people of Taiwan—and potentially any American service members flying her there—who will be left to face the consequences.

Mike Chinoy is a Taipei-based nonresident senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute. He is the author of the forthcoming Assignment China: An Oral History of American Journalists in the People’s Republic.

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