It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

What Does the Pelosi Taiwan Uproar Mean for U.S. China Policy?

The controversy over Nancy Pelosi’s proposed trip highlights the contradictions of U.S. policy toward the island.

By , a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
A photo taken on October 21, 2020 shows a tourist walking past a mural painted on a wall on Taiwan's Kinmen islands, which lie just two miles from mainland China's coast.
A photo taken on October 21, 2020 shows a tourist walking past a mural painted on a wall on Taiwan's Kinmen islands, which lie just two miles from mainland China's coast.
A photo taken on October 21, 2020 shows a tourist walking past a mural painted on a wall on Taiwan's Kinmen islands, which lie just two miles from mainland China's coast. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images
It's Debatable

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma, I hope you are enjoying the dog days of summer. How have you been?

Emma Ashford: [silence]

MK: Emma, are you there?

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma, I hope you are enjoying the dog days of summer. How have you been?

Emma Ashford: [silence]

MK: Emma, are you there?

EA: Wait, what? Oh, sorry, I was just catching up on my podcasts. Did you know that Foreign Policy has an economics podcast where they just ask Adam Tooze his opinion on some crazy fact—like the economics of the Catholic Church—and let him talk for half an hour? We should ask if we can do that: How do you feel about the international relations implications of discovering aliens? Are robot soldiers going to take over for humans? What about the political economy of the Conch Republic?

[Ed.: Actually, FP is big on space—and podcasts. But you still owe me a falafel. Then we can talk.]

MK: I’d be happy to debate you on why America must not allow a missile gap with the Martians, but I suspect our readers will be disappointed if we don’t start with Nancy Pelosi’s summer travel plans.

I wish I were important enough for my trips to spark international crises!

EA: Well, I wish Congress would stop creating unnecessary foreign-policy crises, but apparently neither of us is getting what we want today.

Pelosi plans to go to Taiwan. The administration doesn’t want her to go. Some China watchers think a visit by the speaker of the House to Taipei could spark a new Taiwan Strait crisis. Others think calling off the visit now is knuckling under to Chinese demands. It’s a potential disaster, and with no real upside to any of it.

MK: I agree it is an unnecessary crisis, but Congress is not to blame. It is China’s fault. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does not get to decide where Americans can travel.

This dispute really crystalizes the stakes in the U.S.-China competition. The United States wants a “free and open” international system, where people are able to move and do business freely as they wish. And the CCP wants a system in which it gets to arbitrarily decide what is and is not permitted.

EA: We want a free and open international system. The problem—as always—is in the details. What do you do in places where it is too costly to force other states to maintain an open system? Taiwan has always been a fairly neat compromise that resolved some of this underlying tension: It gets to be a part of the international economy and enjoy domestic political arrangements of its choice, the United States gets to arm it for its own defense, but Taipei cannot explicitly call itself a state.

That compromise mostly meets Chinese, U.S., and Taiwanese interests. But Congress seems to be increasingly willing to shift away from that stance, potentially against the wishes of the administration.

MK: I agree the “One China” policy basically works and the United States should keep it in place. Consistent with that, Washington should also clarify its commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion in order to deter a Chinese military attack.

The Pelosi visit does not in any way change U.S. policy on these important matters. The CCP is unreasonable to get so upset.

EA: The big problem with that is that the Pelosi visit really can’t be viewed in isolation from other things happening in U.S.-China policy. In addition to a broad and growing division between the two states, the Biden administration has left most of the Trump administration’s trade tariffs in place, and the president has repeatedly misstated his support for Taiwan in a way that suggests that he, at least, no longer backs strategic ambiguity on Taiwan.

Meanwhile, we have a D.C. discussion where folks increasingly call for a policy shift on Taiwan, and a Congress that keeps trying to shift the goalposts, most recently legislation that seeks to designate Taiwan as a major non-NATO state ally of the United States. When you add it all together, you can see why a visit from the speaker of the House—something that hasn’t happened since 1997—would make the Chinese so touchy. There’s also a party congress coming up later this year, so there are Chinese domestic political considerations at play.

There’s some concern that the United States and China are engaged in the early stages of a security spiral; the security dilemma is a core concept in international relations, where misperceptions can end up driving states into unwanted conflict. In this case, Americans may think the Chinese are trying to manipulate them to weaken the United States, but it’s also possible Chinese leaders are just concerned about their own domestic power.

The “One China” policy and strategic ambiguity are not the same. I think Washington should keep the “One China” policy and move toward strategic clarity. 

MK: There are two different policy issues here that are sometimes conflated. The “One China” policy and strategic ambiguity are not the same. I think Washington should keep the “One China” policy and move toward strategic clarity.

EA: Why don’t you lay that out for our readers in more detail? I’ll be honest, like most non-China specialists, I often get them confused. It doesn’t help that there are also a thousand documents like the Three Joint Communiques, the Six Assurances, and so on.

MK: The “One China” policy and strategic ambiguity were largely crafted by then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger during President Richard Nixon’s opening to China in the 1970s, and I sometimes think he is the only person who fully understands them. Even former U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper seemed to conflate them on an Atlantic Council delegation trip to Taipei last week.

You explained the “One China” policy brilliantly above. Washington officially recognizes only one China with a government in Beijing, but it maintains unofficial ties with Taipei. The United States has said that it would be opposed to both Taiwan declaring independence and to a Chinese attack on the island.

But, it doesn’t say anything about what the Pentagon would do if China attacked Taiwan. Would Washington come to Taiwan’s defense or not? It is unclear. In the past, that was seen as a virtue and labeled as “strategic ambiguity.” There is a growing view, however, that Washington should move toward strategic clarity—to tell the Chinese military that the Pentagon would defend Taiwan if it were attacked. In principle, that is consistent with the “One China” policy.

EA: Of course, the central reason for strategic ambiguity was that it was designed to constrain both sides: It would suggest to China that the U.S. military might get involved if Beijing invaded Taiwan, while suggesting to the government in Taipei that the United States might not intervene if they did anything foolhardy like declaring independence.

The assumption today appears to be that Washington no longer needs to constrain Taipei but does need to deter China.

The assumption today appears to be that Washington no longer needs to constrain Taipei but does need to deter China. I’m not 100 percent sure that either of those is correct. What I’m most worried about, though, is that the U.S. government will make a very similar mistake to the one it made with Ukraine: consistent, clear assertions that the United States would support the country in ways that really inhibited efforts to find a nonmilitary solution—recall Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s assertion late last year that America has an “unwavering commitment” to Ukraine’s sovereignty—before finally admitting that we had no intention of helping to defend Ukraine directly. I’m not sure that the United States would defend Taiwan; I don’t think the U.S. public would support that war. If that’s the case, then strategic clarity is a much worse policy.

MK: OK. Maybe I’m imagining new arrangements every bit as complicated as Kissinger’s. But I think the problem you raise is easy to solve: Washington declares that its security commitment is null and void if Taiwan declares independence. That should be sufficient to avoid emboldening Taipei to take reckless action.

I also think it was a mistake for Pelosi to make her plans public. She should have just showed up, like British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s surprise visit to Kyiv. She and the Biden administration cannot back down now. That would be a sign of weakness and essentially teach the CCP that it does get a veto over the travel schedules of U.S. officials.

EA: Do stupid things, win stupid prizes, I guess. That would certainly have been less escalatory, though I’m confident the Chinese would still have responded in some way.

I feel like this is getting us into a discussion of credibility, though. Some folks are arguing that Pelosi backing down now would imply a loss of U.S. credibility. The thing is, I feel that this is in many ways a mainly cost-free signal. Meanwhile, the United States is not taking some of the more costly steps—like pushing Taiwan to take certain actions to promote its own defense—that would actually imply a more credible commitment to the island’s defense. Whether or not she goes, I don’t think it will change that calculus in Beijing’s eyes.

If a Pelosi visit does provoke a major military crisis with China, for example, the Pentagon is not prepared.

MK: OK. We disagree on that, but there is one area where we might agree. I do worry that America’s China policy is outstripping its capabilities. If a Pelosi visit does provoke a major military crisis with China, for example, the Pentagon is not prepared. Washington has been talking a big game about great-power competition for five years now, but there is still not that much to show for it. It is time for Washington to put its money where its mouth is: constructing a free and open Indo-Pacific economic framework, building alliances, and investing in our defenses.

Otherwise, we are in danger of speaking loudly and carrying a small stick.

EA: Yeah, the devil is in the details, but I can agree with that. Which is not exactly what our readers come here for! But there are two other things we want to talk about today that should be more controversial. First, the news is now out that former President Donald Trump is under investigation by the Department of Justice for various crimes related to election tampering and the Jan. 6, 2021, uprising. But even with that, and with the Jan. 6 committee continuing to air revelations about the disastrous end of Trump’s term in prime time, it seems like the Republican Party is already planning for a second Trump term, and one in which the former president plans to stamp his own views even more firmly on foreign policy. Should we worry about this?

MK: It depends on what you mean by “the Republican Party.” It appears that Trump has already made up his mind to run, and his inner circle is prepping for a second term. But I think Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Marco Rubio, Liz Cheney, Glenn Youngkin, and several others have other ideas. I suspect it will be a crowded field, and I am terrible at predicting the results of elections, so I won’t even try.

The potential for indictments and major shifts in foreign policy depending on who wins in 2024 is historically quite unusual in the United States.

EA: Well, I suppose I could use some amusement, and several of those candidates would provide some laughs, at least. The more serious contenders—DeSantis, for example—may well provide more of a challenge to Trump and could be competitive candidates nationally. But from a foreign-policy point of view, it’s an interesting place to be: The potential for indictments and major shifts in foreign policy depending on who wins in 2024 is historically quite unusual in the United States. That uncertainty is probably not good in the long term.

MK: The Democrats will also have challenges in 2024. Biden is showing his age. Vice President Kamala Harris is not wildly popular to say the least. The party could hold an open primary, but that could be chaotic. It is not at all clear who they will run in 2024.

I will have to go soon, but the other item worth mentioning is the Iran nuclear deal. Do you have the musical chops to play a dirge?

EA: I suppose I should be grateful you’re not taking a victory lap. Yes, the Iran deal is almost certainly dead. We’ve all waited a long time to see if it could be resurrected, but recent talks in Doha, Qatar, failed, and now all sides are relatively sure that further negotiations have no potential for succeeding. We don’t need to argue about whether the agreement is a good idea or not; goodness knows, we’ve done that often enough before.

But the big question is going to be what U.S. Iran policy looks like going forward now that the deal is dead. I suspect—though I hope I’m wrong—that we’re looking at a nuclear-armed Iran sometime in the next few years.

Perhaps this is a topic for next time. Is it time to bomb Iran (again)? Your annual op-ed seems to come earlier every year.

MK: You’re on. Let’s debate this next week. Get back to your podcast, and I will refamiliarize myself with the capabilities of the Massive Ordnance Penetrator.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War.

  Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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