How Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan Gambit Backfired

Beijing’s shock-and-awe military response has created a new normal in East Asia.

By , a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
A pro-China protester steps on a defaced photo of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a demonstration against her visit to Taiwan in Hong Kong on Aug. 3.
A pro-China protester steps on a defaced photo of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a demonstration against her visit to Taiwan in Hong Kong on Aug. 3.
A pro-China protester steps on a defaced photo of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a demonstration against her visit to Taiwan in Hong Kong on Aug. 3. Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

History is replete with unintended consequences, few of which mattered much. Not so in the case of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent layover in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital. The trip, which garnered rare bipartisan support in Washington, aimed to demonstrate U.S. confidence in Taiwan’s leadership. Instead, the visit and China’s reaction to it left the region reeling, with Beijing apparently more confident than ever that it could retake the self-governed island nation by force if necessary.

Simply put, Pelosi’s ill-timed gambit backfired—and badly. Worse yet, its destabilizing effect was entirely predictable and completely preventable, which explains why White House and U.S. Defense Department officials repeatedly requested that she postpone, not cancel, her travel to Taipei. Sure, Pelosi faced political pressure not to back down once her plans became public. But it was always clear that China would exact a high price for her meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, which need not have taken place in Taiwan or coincided with the 95th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to achieve its stated objective.

For all her good intentions, picking up the pieces after Pelosi’s tactical misstep will not be easy. Understandably, the Biden administration has downplayed the trip’s significance and reaffirmed its commitment to the United States’ long-standing “One China” policy, which recognizes Beijing as “the sole legal government of China” while ignoring its claims to rule Taiwan. Although “nothing has changed” per se in Washington, the same cannot be said for the Taiwan Strait, where China’s dramatic, expertly orchestrated show of military force was no mere aberration.

History is replete with unintended consequences, few of which mattered much. Not so in the case of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent layover in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital. The trip, which garnered rare bipartisan support in Washington, aimed to demonstrate U.S. confidence in Taiwan’s leadership. Instead, the visit and China’s reaction to it left the region reeling, with Beijing apparently more confident than ever that it could retake the self-governed island nation by force if necessary.

Simply put, Pelosi’s ill-timed gambit backfired—and badly. Worse yet, its destabilizing effect was entirely predictable and completely preventable, which explains why White House and U.S. Defense Department officials repeatedly requested that she postpone, not cancel, her travel to Taipei. Sure, Pelosi faced political pressure not to back down once her plans became public. But it was always clear that China would exact a high price for her meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, which need not have taken place in Taiwan or coincided with the 95th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to achieve its stated objective.

For all her good intentions, picking up the pieces after Pelosi’s tactical misstep will not be easy. Understandably, the Biden administration has downplayed the trip’s significance and reaffirmed its commitment to the United States’ long-standing “One China” policy, which recognizes Beijing as “the sole legal government of China” while ignoring its claims to rule Taiwan. Although “nothing has changed” per se in Washington, the same cannot be said for the Taiwan Strait, where China’s dramatic, expertly orchestrated show of military force was no mere aberration.

Welcome, instead, to the next normal in East Asia.

China cannot veto if, when, or how foreign governments, companies, or other entities engage Taiwan. But make no mistake: Beijing certainly gets a vote, which it wielded hours after Pelosi left Taipei. China has long sought to erode the status quo in the strait, aiming to coerce Taipei into accepting that the path to peace and prosperity runs through Beijing, not Washington. Nevertheless, the military spectacle that followed Pelosi’s trip was without precedent in scope and scale. Think less salami tactics and more shock and awe. Nor did these maneuvers appear out of thin air. They were likely devised in recent years by PLA planners with the understanding that Beijing would one day enjoy, however briefly, the political cover to justify such provocations.

Whereas Russia’s foolhardy invasion of Ukraine stalled, in part, because of Moscow’s third-rate planning and faulty assumptions, Beijing may not be condemned to the same fate.

To be fair, Pelosi’s trip did not occur in a vacuum. Beijing and Washington have been talking past each other on the Taiwan issue since U.S. President Joe Biden assumed office, with each side believing that the other is unilaterally seeking to alter the status quo. Unquestionably, China has endeavored to find a reason—any reason—to justify its increasing belligerence toward Taiwan. But Beijing’s growing skepticism about Washington’s adherence to the “One China” policy can, in large part, be attributed to Biden’s repeated mischaracterization of the United States’ security commitments as outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act, including his claim that the United States has a “commitment” to aid Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion—whereas the act only requires Washington “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defense character” without any guarantee the United States will intervene militarily. Certainly, these gaffes do not excuse Beijing’s behavior. But the regime’s response to Pelosi’s trip—coming just months before a major Chinese Communist Party leadership shake-up—was hardly surprising.

What is surprising is just how far the PLA’s capabilities have evolved since its second-rate performance during the 1996 Taiwan missile crisis. This time, the PLA put on a nearly flawless four-act play as its air and sea assets crisscrossed Taiwan’s sovereign territory with impunity. First, China clearly defined its areas of operation, after which civilian aircraft and commercial shipping quickly obliged by vacating these zones. Next, in waves, the PLA launched 11 Dongfeng ballistic missiles into the waters surrounding northern, southern, and eastern Taiwan. Four flew directly over Taipei, marking one of many firsts for China during these exercises. More than 120 Chinese aircraft also crossed the informal maritime border that exists down the median line of the Taiwan Strait.

Encountering no resistance, a PLA joint force then conducted, also for the first time, simulated attacks on Taiwan in the actual airspace and territorial waters where such an attack would likely begin. Finally, for good measure, China announced additional drills in the Yellow Sea north of Taiwan. The goal: to demonstrate that the PLA could prevent U.S. forces stationed in Japan’s Okinawa Island or Seoul from coming to Taiwan’s aid during a crisis. In all, it was a master class in strategy and tactics—one that involved thousands of personnel who will spend the next few years refining their operational assumptions, calculating down to the decimal how much fuel, food, and other supplies might be needed to pull off an actual attack in the future. Whereas Russia’s foolhardy invasion of Ukraine stalled, in part, because of Moscow’s third-rate planning and faulty prewar assumptions, Beijing, it appears, may not be condemned to the same fate.

Of course, these drills paid psychological dividends too. China confirmed that it could, at a time and place of its choosing, severely disrupt—if not outright block—critical global air and sea trade routes, including those involving Taiwanese-produced semiconductors. The drills also served to shake Taiwan’s confidence in the very sources of its political and economic survival by raising the stakes for friendly governments that might be considering whether or how to deepen their ties to Taipei. Already, some U.S. firms are reportedly eyeing a Taiwan exit, and others will likely follow. The region’s mixed response was also telling, with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations issuing a post-drill communique that managed to omit the words “Taiwan” and “China.” Just as deafening was the silence out of New Delhi to Beijing’s drills.

But China’s greatest triumph by far is that its leaders likely believe, rightly or wrongly, that an invasion may now be practical, not purely theoretical. That does not imply that an invasion is imminent or that Beijing intends to accelerate its reunification timetable. Rather, it simply suggests that China is on its way to overcoming what is arguably the greatest psychological barrier to any invasion: internal doubts about its will and disposition to fight, keep fighting, and win.

Regrettably, the U.S. intelligence community has proven incapable of accurately assessing this most human fundamental of war, similar to its flawed predictions that Russia would quickly overrun Ukraine and the U.S.-equipped Afghan military could hold off the Taliban. These analytical shortcomings increase the potential for serious miscalculations from here on out, compounded by China’s reckless decision to sever key communications channels with the West. Adding to the danger, the PLA will now almost certainly operate closer to Taiwan’s shores, in effect shrinking the buffer zone and the corresponding margin of error that previously existed in the strait.

Still, Beijing may prove unable to translate recent successes in its envisioned battlefield into a new and lasting status quo. Instead, the post-Pelosi era can be described, at best, as the next normal. There will be no going back to the way things were before her visit, but the road to a possible invasion is hardly a straight line. Although China capitalized on Pelosi’s bad timing, there remain myriad opportunities for Taiwan and its friends to shape the lasting legacy of today’s crisis in ways that benefit Taipei’s cause. Washington’s biggest hurdle lies in its rapidly dwindling set of military options to deter China as the latter approaches near-peer status. Of course, efforts must be made to speed up deliveries of defensive weapons to Taiwan—but those investments alone will likely prove insufficient in the long run. What should trouble Taiwan’s supporters is the lack of evidence that the U.S. military is augmenting its regional force or rapidly fielding new capabilities to maintain its edge.

Going forward under these new and less stable conditions, Washington and its allies must develop more intelligent, less risky ways to aid Taipei. Translation: fewer symbolic visits and more strategic substance. U.S. policymakers must also recognize that forcefully responding to each and every Chinese provocation is a fool’s errand that could lead to war—one that the pro-Taiwan bloc may well lose. Refraining from taking Beijing’s bait is not a sign of “passivity,” as some charge, but pragmatism as the balance of power temporarily shifts in Beijing’s favor. Look no further than former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s example in occasionally pulling punches while remaining steadfastly committed to undermining the Soviet Union.

The same practical mindset should also be applied to urgently establish a de-escalation ladder between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, much like the channel employed by then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy and then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Granted, those exchanges largely took place in secret, which shielded both leaders from charges of capitulating to their countries’ sworn enemy. Ultimately though, both sides ceded some ground, a calamitous war was averted, and a useful precedent was established for subsequent U.S. leaders to dial down tensions without sacrificing their values or strategic goals.

Today’s leaders may not benefit from the privacy enjoyed by Kennedy and Khrushchev. But regardless, the next photo op involving U.S. and Chinese politicians should be one focused on instilling confidence rather than needlessly undermining it.

Craig Singleton is a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former U.S. diplomat. Twitter: @CraigMSingleton

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