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Pelosi In Taiwan: Bold Diplomacy, Perfect Timing

"She's now the leader of the Western movement recognizing the existence of a democratic Taiwan, aiming to break Beijing's "one-China principle..." A Taiwanese political scientist argues the 19-hour visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will have real lasting impact.

Photo of ​Nancy Pelosi and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen walking

Nancy Pelosi and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen

Makoto Lin/Taiwan Presidential/Planet Pix via ZUMA
Lin Zi-li


TAIPEI — As many have noted, Nancy Pelosi’s recent 19-hour trip to Taiwan was the first visit to the island by a U.S. House Speaker since 1997. In the intervening 25 years, some things have changed, and others haven't.

While China is now a major world economic and military power, cross-Strait relations are similarly marked by high levels of hostility and mistrust.China still wants reunification, Taiwan still supports the status quo, and there is no room for compromise.

The question of why Pelosi insisted on visiting Taiwan despite warnings from China begins to show what drives her, and what's at stake.

Her trip was a critique of China's growing ability to shape the international order. During a much earlier visit to Beijing, in 1991, Pelosi, already a member of the U.S. Congress, was temporarily arrested by the Chinese police and expelled from the country after pulling a black banner in Tiananmen Square "dedicated to the martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the cause of democracy in China."

Since then, she has taken every opportunity to protest to senior Chinese leaders about human rights issues and to express her support for movements in Tibet and Hong Kong. In short, her criticism of human rights in China has always been central to her foreign policy.

Support for a democratic Taiwan is central to the political legacy the 82-year-old hopes to leave behind. Holding firm in the face of China's military intimidation against her visit to Taiwan, she becomes the leader of the Western movement recognizing the existence of a democratic Taiwan, which ultimately aims to break Beijing's "one-China principle" of excluding Taiwan.

Xi Jinping has too much to lose

But Pelosi's visit did not achieve this goal, at least not directly, triggering the opposite effect. In particular, Beijing did not dare to retaliate against the U.S., but instead took its anger out on Taiwan, announcing a three-day military training exercise, in the waters around Taiwan and firing live ammunition; as well as the entry of several warplanes into Taiwan's airspace, and flying over the central line of the Taiwan Strait. In addition, Beijing imposed a wide range of trade sanctions against some of Taiwan's food and aquaculture industries.

Still, we also know such actions are usually temporary, and as the heat of the issue dies down, it may move towards a quiet end.

Even though the Biden administration sees China as a competitor, it is important for them to manage the risk of a catastrophic war between the two nuclear-armed powers. Chinese officials and media, accustomed to using "war wolf" style threats in their propaganda, are ignoring the fact that the most important issue for China right now is the economy, not the cross-Strait issue.

Despite the continued reliance of Europe and the U.S. on China's manufacturing sector, the outlook for China's economy is not optimistic due to the "Zero COVID policy" and the continued downturn in its real estate industry, which is dragging down the recovery.

And all of this comes ahead of the upcoming 20th National Congress of the Communist Party, which will inaugurate Xi Jinping's third term in office. All players seem to understand that major military conflict with the United States would be extremely costly. The example of the Russian-Ukrainian war has reminded leaders that war is not a solution to problems. What's more, as the Pentagon has discovered, there is no need to send American soldiers to war as long as an endless supply of weapons is sent to Taiwan.

A new milestone in bilateral relations for Taiwan and the U.S.

Pelosi's stay in Taiwan also resonated because of the itinerary she chose. In keeping with her usual concern for human rights, she visited the National Museum of Human Rights in Jingmei and met with representatives of Beijing’s persecuted individuals such as Lee Ming-che, Lam Wing-kee, and Wu’er Kaixi, stepping firmly on Beijing's toes.

In fact, the reason why Beijing threatened Pelosi not to come to Taiwan is that they see her as the most iconic "anti-China representative" in Washington.

U.S. Navy exercises in the Pacific

U.S. Navy/ZUMA

Impact on Taiwanese-American relations

Pelosi's visit to Taiwan marks a new milestone in bilateral relations between the island nation and the U.S., while comprehensive cooperation between the two has become a norm. The U.S. has even tailored the Global Cooperation and Training Framework to allow Taiwan to work with the U.S., Japan and Australia on international study camps and exchanges with officials from around the world. The political connotations outweigh the economic and trade value.

As for the Sino-U.S. relationship, which is of paramount geopolitical importance, the Biden administration has made it clear that it would “compete, cooperate and confront” when it was necessary, and this tone still applies after the Russia-Ukraine war.

China, which is reluctant to condemn Russia, remains the largest trading partner of the U.S., Europe, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan, showing that there continues to be trading interdependence across the world.

Despite this, the West's repeated emphasis on a rules-based international order is clearly different from what China seeks; and yet the recent pandemic and ongoing wars have highlighted the incompetence of international organizations, while the signs of a looming economic downturn suggest a very weak basis for cooperation between nations.

After Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, it is clear that Beijing, with its policy of refusing to have any dealings with the Taipei government leaves the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen with no choice but to seize the opportunity to deepen Taiwan-U.S. relations. And it comes, at a time when the U.S. needs Taiwan.

In fact, the asymmetrical power structure on both sides of the Taiwan Strait has led Beijing to believe that it will be able to use the economy to promote unification or to force unification using military threat. Predictably, if the sanctions continue to be extended, one would fear that what will come in return is not a subjugation of the Taiwanese to China, but a more united resistance to external invasion, and would only invite more support for Taiwan from democratic countries. It would be the ultimate validation that Pelosi was right to come.

*The author is a deputy professor of Political Science at Taiwan’s Tunghai University

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