Pelosi visit is a test for Taiwan’s global status under Chinese pressure


TAIPEI, Taiwan — For Taiwan, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s successful visit this week was not just about avoiding an immediate crisis in the Taiwan Strait.

It is also an opportunity to signal to senior politicians around the world that they can express their support for Taiwanese democracy in person — despite the backlash from Beijing.

Taiwan’s military on Tuesday stepped up its preparedness for an expected threat of force from China, which claims the self-governing island as its territory and threatens to take it by force if the Taipei government declares formal independence. Pelosi (D-Calif.) is expected to land Tuesday night local time and meet with President Tsai Ing-wen on Wednesday.

Pelosi’s arrival fits into a broader trend of lawmakers in liberal democracies visiting Taiwan more often, especially in the context of the war in Ukraine. “It’s highly symbolic, and that’s part of the reason why China has reacted so strongly,” said Chen Fangyu, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taiwan.

The trend, though years in the making, has accelerated rapidly in recent months as coronavirus travel restrictions eased and a high-level delegation of former officials and lawmakers from the United States, Europe and other democracies visited Taiwan.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has made these demonstrations of democratic solidarity even more urgent, raising fears in Taiwan and the international community that China will eventually launch an attack.

Chen added that Beijing’s pledge to take “strong measures” in response to the visit could backfire and ultimately provoke Taiwan’s international supporters. “China is not very smart because it shows that it is a threat to democratic society,” he said.

The visit comes at a time when high-level delegations from the United States, European countries and other liberal democracies, as well as return visits by Taiwanese officials and politicians, are increasingly common, reflecting Tsai’s efforts to elevate Taiwan’s international status.

In the past two weeks alone, foreign delegations to Taiwan have included European Parliament Vice President Nicola Beer; two former Japanese defence ministers; two former Australian defence ministers; and former Estonian President Thomas Hendrik Ilves. Members of the British House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee plan to visit Taiwan later this year, The Guardian reported on Monday.

Conversely, Taiwanese President of the Legislative Yuan Yu Sikun, who is equivalent to the speaker of the House of Representatives, has also made more visits to democratic countries, especially in July to the Czech Republic, France and the Baltic countries.

China opposes all foreign politicians visiting Taiwan, but is particularly concerned about the increasing frequency of foreign exchanges between the United States and Taiwan. Chinese academics say this represents a change from the U.S. one-China policy, which neither challenges nor supports Beijing’s claims to Taiwan.

In an article published in May, Cao Qun, a scholar at the China Institute of International Studies, a think tank in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, pointed out that the United States has “emptied” the one-China policy in recent years and promoted the idea. As part of his so-called “use Taiwan to control China” policy, the jury is still out on Taiwan’s status.

“The U.S. may step up efforts to promote the ‘true meaning’ of its one-China policy,” Cao wrote, and attract more members to a club of nations that say Taiwan’s status remains undecided.

Taiwanese analysts expect China to go beyond large-scale military exercises to punish Taiwan’s visit with various forms of economic coercion. On Tuesday, Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs confirmed that Chinese customs had stopped imports of thousands of Taiwanese goods, affecting about 65% of products destined for China.

Ren Yi, a Chinese political commentator, wrote that any Chinese response must take into account Beijing’s long-term interests and avoid a “counter-reaction” that would make the situation worse by making a visit to Taiwan a “pilgrimage” for US politicians.

Wenti Song, a political scientist at the Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies Program, said both the United States and China fear the visit could set a precedent that is not in their interests.For Beijing, the concern is that visits by Pelosi’s political luminaries will normalize future visits, while Washington wants to avoid letting China By provoking an outcry, diplomatic exchanges were effectively vetoed.

Chinese President Xi Jinping “is facing a dilemma in optimizing the strength of China’s response to Pelosi’s visit,” Song said. “If China does not respond strongly, then he risks being seen as a weaker leader. But at the same time, what he wants and needs now is stability.”

As evidence of the U.S. shift, Chinese analysts point to factors such as the Taiwan Travel Act, confirmation of U.S. military presence in Taiwan and President Biden’s pledge that the U.S. will defend Taiwan from Chinese military attack.

Last month, former Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said during a visit to Taipei that the United States should “break away” from its longstanding “strategic ambiguity” stance that deliberately blurs the circumstances under which U.S. troops will strike. Aid to Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.

However, the White House insists that the US policy on Taiwan has not changed.

For Tsai Ing-wen and many others in her DPP, the promotion of Taiwan’s international status is not a change of the status quo, as Beijing has accused it. Rather, it is Taipei’s only viable response to Beijing’s decades-long campaign to isolate Taipei by poaching diplomatic partners and trying to bar the Tsai Ing-wen government from participating in multilateral forums and trade deals.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also undermined the belief that the United States will come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of an attack by China. Only 35 of respondents in March believed the United States would intervene, down from 65 percent in November, according to Taiwanese survey data.

Some in Taiwan, especially opposition to Kuomintang politicians, also accused Pelosi of not doing enough to make the visit substantive.

Kuomintang legislator Ye Yulan wrote on Facebook on Monday that the trip will do little to advance bilateral trade talks, let alone the prospect of Taiwan joining regional agreements such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

“But Pelosi is not to blame,” Yeh added. “The Speaker of the House leading members of Congress to speak out in support of Taiwan does not mean that executive branch officials will give Taiwan the help we need.”

Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report.

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