Pelosi Visit Sets Up No-Win Situation on Taiwan

Damned if she goes, damned if she doesn’t.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi
U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi
U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks during a news conference in Washington on July 30, 2021. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi is set to leave on a whirlwind Asia tour that will likely see her make a controversial stop in Taiwan, a move that has set already simmering tensions between the United States and China in the region ablaze.  

It wouldn’t be the first visit of a House speaker—second in line to the presidency—to the island; Newt Gingrich showed up there more than a quarter-century ago. But instead of treating the trip like a regular one-off congressional visit to Taiwan—which usually prompts a sternly worded letter from the Chinese Embassy—China has responded to the potential of Pelosi visiting the island by repeatedly upbraiding American counterparts, leaving the Biden administration wondering if Beijing is serious about provoking another crisis in the Taiwan Strait over the speaker’s arrival. 

And a handful of experts and congressional aides who spoke to Foreign Policy are worried that Pelosi’s likely visit, a potential spoiler ​on the eve of the 95th birthday of the People’s Liberation Army of China on Aug. 1, has left U.S. President Joe Biden’s team in a no-win situation—even if it doesn’t prompt a serious crisis.  

U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi is set to leave on a whirlwind Asia tour that will likely see her make a controversial stop in Taiwan, a move that has set already simmering tensions between the United States and China in the region ablaze.  

It wouldn’t be the first visit of a House speaker—second in line to the presidency—to the island; Newt Gingrich showed up there more than a quarter-century ago. But instead of treating the trip like a regular one-off congressional visit to Taiwan—which usually prompts a sternly worded letter from the Chinese Embassy—China has responded to the potential of Pelosi visiting the island by repeatedly upbraiding American counterparts, leaving the Biden administration wondering if Beijing is serious about provoking another crisis in the Taiwan Strait over the speaker’s arrival. 

And a handful of experts and congressional aides who spoke to Foreign Policy are worried that Pelosi’s likely visit, a potential spoiler ​on the eve of the 95th birthday of the People’s Liberation Army of China on Aug. 1, has left U.S. President Joe Biden’s team in a no-win situation—even if it doesn’t prompt a serious crisis.  

“Xi [Jinping] is going to view this as a personal affront,” said Heino Klinck, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia during the Trump administration. “On top of all of the domestic issues that he’s already fighting, whether it’s zero-COVID, the mortgage crisis, the fact that people are on the streets, actually, which always gets [Chinese Communist Party] attention, this is just adding fuel to the fire—and he’s going to interpret this as a part of a deliberate strategy.” 

Pelosi is set to depart on Friday, Bloomberg first reported, making stops in Japan, Indonesia, and Singapore before a potential visit to Taiwan, which was unconfirmed as the trip was set to depart. Also invited on the trip were the top two members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks and Republican Rep. Michael McCaul. (A spokesperson for Meeks would not confirm his attendance on the trip, citing security reasons; McCaul declined his invitation because of a scheduling conflict.) During planning for the trip, Defense Department officials communicated concerns about the fallout from a possible visit to Pelosi’s staff. And some of that criticism is shared on Capitol Hill. 

“What does it achieve, is my question,” a Democratic congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy. “A larger concern is that this locks us into a hawkish approach that always benefits the right and shrinks the political space for future diplomacy.”

Despite the lack of historical fallout from congressional Taiwan visits, after Gingrich’s 1997 trip yielded little pushback from China at the time, some in Congress believe that Pelosi made the wrong calculation about potential fallout from Beijing. 

The difficulty is the timing. It comes ahead of Xi’s ruling Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress, where top leaders are approved, and it follows repeated spur-of-the-moment vows by Biden to defend Taiwan from military invasion in contravention of the long-standing American policy of strategic ambiguity. (Biden’s remarks were repeatedly walked back by administration officials.) Paired with the potential that China will miss its already scaled-back economic growth target, some are worried that China is feeling especially punchy at the moment of Pelosi’s visit. 

“My sense is that there was a miscalculation made on the part of the speaker’s office in terms of the timing for this,” said a Republican congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It was always likely the timing of this particular thing, given some of the things that are happening on the ground in the mainland, was going to be uniquely provocative. To the degree that it’s not exactly in America’s interest to drive a crisis right now, then that probably wasn’t particularly well chosen.” 

Few across the aisle believe that China should get veto power over a high-level U.S. visit, but experts and congressional aides said that they are worried about stepped-up Chinese military exercises that could encroach on Taiwan’s air defense identification zones, which Beijing has been poking and prodding for over two years, or try to expand its own air defense zone. While the Pentagon still believes that China’s military is not fully prepared for a cross-strait invasion, which could require a contested amphibious landing, experts and congressional officials warned that a visit could further dial up the temperature in the region. For weeks, U.S. officials have been warning about an uptick in unsafe Chinese military encounters. 

While Taiwan is not officially recognized by the United States as a part of the “One China” policy that dates back to the Nixon administration’s diplomatic opening to Mao Zedong in 1972, under-the-radar visits have picked up pace since the tail end of the Trump administration, when then-U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar became the first sitting cabinet-level official to visit the island. Klinck, the former Pentagon official, said that trip planners should have been more mindful of potential leaks and ruled out the possibility of Pelosi flying on military aircraft to the island—a typical means of transport for congressional officials—something that could be seen as tacit U.S. administration approval for the trip.

Acknowledging the military tension, the Pentagon sent the USS Ronald Reagan carrier and its associated strike group, normally based in Japan, to the South China Sea. 

Now, the worry in some quarters is that if Pelosi bows to indirect Chinese pressure and doesn’t go to Taiwan, it could have a damaging regional impact at a time when Japan, Australia, and South Korea are trying to move toward a more muscular military posture in the region. Before his assassination earlier this month, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was trying to move his Liberal Democratic Party toward a more overt policy of support for Taiwan. 

“If [Pelosi] had just showed up in Taipei, that would have been great,” said Alexander Gray, a former chief of staff at the National Security Council during the Trump administration and now a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. “That would have moved the ball forward. It would have advanced the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. It would have advanced deterrence. Now, the administration has been boxed in, whether by their own designs or by accident.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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