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Pelosi’s Taiwan Trip Causes a Ruckus in Washington

The House speaker’s visit is a grand gesture, but it shouldn’t be seen as a show of strength.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi holds her weekly press conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on July 21.
U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi holds her weekly press conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on July 21.
U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi holds her weekly press conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on July 21. Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Washington and Beijing react to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s planned trip to Taiwan, U.K. Conservative Party leadership candidates talk tough on China amid campaigning, and new research identifies the Huanan market in Wuhan as the first COVID-19 epicenter.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Washington and Beijing react to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s planned trip to Taiwan, U.K. Conservative Party leadership candidates talk tough on China amid campaigning, and new research identifies the Huanan market in Wuhan as the first COVID-19 epicenter.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


Will Pelosi’s Taiwan Visit Stir Conflict?

U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s upcoming possible trip to Taiwan has caused a ruckus in Washington, with dire talk that China could shoot down her plane or the visit could trigger a full-blown crisis. On Tuesday, U.S. officials poured cold water on some of these claims, while still expressing concerns about the visit’s timing, with U.S.-China relations at a low point. (Chinese Ambassador to the United States Qin Gang’s bellicose speech last week at the Aspen Security Forum didn’t help.)

The precise purpose of Pelosi’s trip is not clear. Taiwan values any U.S. support, but it has received plenty in recent years. The House speaker is committed to backing Taiwan and is a strong opponent of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); she is also given to dramatic gestures, as Mike Chinoy writes in FP. Chinese officials take Taiwan—and any support for the self-ruled island—extremely seriously. Even accidentally acknowledging a separate Taiwan can end a political career. Officials have gone to diplomatically self-destructive ends to avoid doing so.

Pelosi is strongly disliked by the Chinese media and officials. The visit will be seen as a failure on the part of Qin Gang and other diplomats in the United States, which is one reason they are performing super-nationalism. Beijing’s reaction will hopefully be tightly controlled from the top leadership, especially since Pelosi has signaled the trip well in advance. If it’s not, there is a risk that midlevel officials or even military personnel could take performative actions for the sake of their own career.

One problem is that China’s leadership assumes that decisions like this are made from the top down. U.S. President Joe Biden is speaking to Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday, but it’s unlikely he can persuade his Chinese counterpart that he can’t stop the House speaker from traveling. Even analysts charged with studying the United States tend to interpret actions through a conspiratorial lens, seeing an exaggerated role for the intelligence and security services. Those with more nuanced views fear speaking out against the prevailing narrative and being accused of being soft on the enemy.

That said, Beijing’s public language in response to Pelosi’s proposed trip has so far been muted. Officials have made the usual blustering statements, but this is all relatively normal language when it comes to Taiwan, and it hasn’t received much play online or in domestic media. It’s also far below the threshold of language generally associated with military action, as Taiwan expert Wen-Ti Sung pointed out.

So where did the dire U.S. warnings come from? There are reports that China’s language is more threatening than usual in private—and that there could be a repeat of the 2012 Diaoyu Islands crisis with Japan, which was sparked by mutual miscommunication. And the U.S. military is correctly conscious that Pelosi’s visit could mean repositioning U.S. naval and air assets as their Chinese counterparts intensify patrols, which could produce risky but accidental clashes. The U.S. military may also be spooked by what it called “compelling evidence” that China believed the United States might launch an attack in October 2020.

Talk in Washington in the last year has overhyped the imminent threat to Taiwan, thanks to the breakdown in U.S.-China relations. Security hawks have seized the discussion around Pelosi’s trip as further demonstration that the Chinese could strike at any moment. To be sure, that risk has increased under Xi, as has Chinese military activity.

However, China is currently coping with a socioeconomic crisis caused by a collapsing property market, local debt, and its zero-COVID policy; a diplomatic crisis caused by aggressive Chinese nationalism and its reaction to the conflict in Ukraine; and a political crisis as Xi solidifies power ahead of the 20th CCP Congress later this year. That has already strained the Chinese system to its limits. Even carrying out maneuvers short of war would exert a cost Beijing might not be able to pay at the moment.

Framing Pelosi’s trip in terms of U.S. strength or weakness, as Republicans have done, is a particularly dangerous road to go down. Although it appeals to politicians, fear of looking weak is bad motivation for geopolitical decisions—even minor ones. What these discussions reveal most of all is a U.S.-China relationship stripped of most of the ballast that used to keep it afloat, now in danger of being tipped over by small waves.


What We’re Following

U.K. politicians turn on China. In the race to succeed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, both Rishi Sunak, most recently the chancellor of the exchequer, and Liz Truss, currently the foreign minister, have made anti-China policies central to their foreign-policy platforms. Sunak’s policy, launched on Monday, called China “the largest threat to Britain this century” and said he would close all 30 Confucius Institutes—cultural centers controlled by Beijing—in Britain.

Sunak’s move in part intends to head off an attack line from Truss, pointing to the business-friendly approach to Beijing that Sunak pushed as recently as last year. But it also shows how far the U.K. Conservative Party has swung since 2015, when Sunak’s predecessor as chancellor George Osborne called Britain China’s “best partner in the West” and spoke of a new “golden era” for relations—language that was quickly picked up by Chinese media.

In my experience, Tory members of Parliament on delegations to Beijing were keen to praise the Chinese government and dismiss human rights concerns, even in private. That trend picked up after Brexit, in the hope that China could somehow substitute for the European Union in importing British goods.

However, the impact of the pandemic, an increasingly aggressive Beijing, and the end of Hong Kong’s independence have led to the collapse of the relationship. China’s popularity with the U.K. public, never high, has plummeted to historic lows. This is also a testament to the long-term work of a small number of human rights advocates and China hawks within the Conservative Party, such as former fellow party leadership contender Tom Tugendhat.

Heat waves. China is melting, with temperatures in the last month regularly hitting 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Sixty-five percent of the country is currently under a heat warning. Unlike in Europe, air conditioning is common in China, but those without it often already belong to vulnerable groups, such as the rural elderly.

After last year’s energy crisis, there have been concerns about the impact of the heat wave on the electricity grid, especially as COVID-19 restrictions keep many people stuck at home. The traditional solution to summer heat was to sleep outside; the zero-COVID policy and attacks on shared public space have put an end to that. Although there have been a handful of blackouts, the system is holding up well despite peak electricity usage exceeding previous records.


Tech and Business

Wuhan market was COVID-19 epicenter. The Huanan market in Wuhan, China, was almost certainly responsible for the first COVID-19 outbreak in late 2019, according to authoritative new work in Science. The study shows that early cases were unambiguously centered around the market, especially spaces where vendors sold live animals. A companion paper shows there were two separate zoonotic spillover events, where the virus jumped the species barrier.

Epidemiologists assumed COVID-19 had emerged from zoonotic spillover from the start because that’s how most new viruses emerge. The new data should—but won’t—be the final stake through the heart of the lab leak theory; for it to hold up now would mean that infected lab employees crossed the city and shopped at the market twice without infecting anyone en route.

Western media’s promotion of the poorly sourced lab leak theory last year was not a great moment. It in part stemmed from attempts by Trump administration officials such as former Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger to varnish their own reputations, which found an audience among journalists. But even within U.S. intelligence, the majority of agencies supported the zoonotic origin theory.

The end result was to make biosecurity cooperation between the United States and China politically impossible, to add fuel to Beijing’s own conspiracy theories, and to smear a talented scientist who had pushed for greater transparency and cooperation with foreigners. Ironically, the focus on the lab distracted from a real Chinese regulatory failure: not shutting down live-animal markets in the wake of the SARS crisis.

Real estate is everything. China’s rolling property crisis has started to prompt government bailout funds for the sector, as expected. The moves come not only amid fear of big real estate developers collapsing, but also after communal organization and pushback by homeowners invested in unfinished projects. Bailouts are necessary for both economic and social stability, but they may not be enough given the scale of stagnation.

The bailouts will also reveal the sheer number of businesses that are really vehicles for investing in property, sometimes circumventing local regulations on sales. China’s biggest entertainment firm, Huayi Brothers, is entangled with China Evergrande Group, while the Wanda Group started as a real estate firm and then went into cinema—all while buying up land.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

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