The controversy over Pelosi’s Taiwan travel plans, briefly explained

How reckless can a trip to Taiwan be?

For House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the potential The travel plans have sparked domestic political debate and minor foreign policy clashes.

Taiwan held routine airstrike drills on Monday amid fears that China, angered by a top U.S. representative planning to travel to Taiwan, could conduct a military escalation on the island, a neighboring democratic island claimed by Beijing.

Everyone from President Joe Biden to Trump alumni to the former House speaker is weighing Pelosi’s itinerary.

The visit, which could be scheduled for next month, has drawn new attention to how the United States handles Taiwan’s balancing act. It is a complex policy full of diplomatic nuances aimed at easing relations with China while also supporting Taiwan against Chinese aggression. All of this is accentuated by China’s rapid economic and military rise, which has focused U.S. energies on countering its global influence.

This has created an atmosphere of dangerous competition between the two nuclear-armed nations, even if traveling abroad is strategic.

Travel plans – and everyone’s response to the plans

Pelosi cancelled her April trip to Taiwan when she tested positive for Covid-19 and rescheduled it to August, a move first reported by the Financial Times.

President Joe Biden said last week that when Pelosi left, “the military doesn’t think it’s a good idea right now.” (Some Biden officials have said that China may block her travel by imposing a no-fly zone over Taiwan. , which could bring the United States and China into direct conflict.)

At a news conference a day later, Pelosi countered that “it’s important for us to show support for Taiwan.” She said she never discussed international travel plans “because it’s a safety issue,” but added that she hadn’t heard anything directly from the government about the plane. But several senior U.S. officials saw her trip as a particularly dangerous moment in U.S.-China relations, according to the Financial Times.

Congress has occasionally clashed and contradicted the White House over foreign policy, at least rhetorically. Members of Congress often travel abroad to hotspots; just last week, for example, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) led a group of lawmakers to Ukraine. Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan in 1997 when he was Speaker, the last time the second-ranked US president visited Taiwan. But aside from Pelosi and Biden being key members of the same party, relations with China have soured since the 1990s. In response to Pelosi’s visit, China boldly threatened “tough measures” against Taiwan and expressed its serious concerns about the visit to the White House.

Much of the unease in Washington and Beijing about the trip may have to do with the timing. Next month, the Communist Party of China will hold its 20th National Congress, a major meeting every five years where Xi Jinping is expected to serve as an unprecedented third president. He is also likely to discuss Taiwan at the expert meeting, when experts see parallels between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the power China wants to assert over Taiwan. (Many wondered what lessons China has learned from Vladimir Putin’s brutal adventurism and the West’s response to it.) Biden and Xi will have a phone call to de-escalate U.S.-China relations.

“The timing is bad, the timing is worse, it’s definitely the worse timing,” Lev Nachman, a fellow at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for China Studies, told me. “The worry is that Pelosi’s departure could be a pressure. A straw for the fallen camel.”

China often provokes Taiwan with military exercises, but this time it may be more provocative. “Almost any time there’s a congressional delegation, any time there’s an arms sale to Taiwan, China will sing and dance,” Nachman said. “When China says they’re going to retaliate, what they worry about is: Will this be the same as what they always do? Is it the same for us? Or will there be more?”

Even as Pelosi expressed her support for Taiwan, her office did not officially confirm the trip. (A spokesperson reiterated to Vox that they would not confirm or deny international travel due to “security protocols.”) For now, the status of the trip is as ambiguous as the exact U.S. commitment to Taiwan.

Nuanced China policy and an impromptu Biden

The ambiguity in the US-Taiwan relationship is dizzying for those not fully familiar with the “one China” policy that has been in effect since the 1970s. The U.S. officially recognizes China’s claim to Taiwan, but does not support it. U.S. officials say they do not support Taiwan independence, but ensuring Taiwan’s autonomy is at the heart of U.S. operations in Asia. And Pelosi’s expected visit to Taiwan could tip the delicate balance.

The United States and Taiwan do not have formal diplomatic relations, but there are many unofficial ones; relations are governed by a series of diplomatic agreements and laws—the Taiwan Relations Act (passed by Congress in 1979), three joint communiqués (the 1970s and 1980s) S between the US and China) and the Six Guarantees (US US and Taiwan). This is how the US sells arms to Taiwan to defend itself against China while maintaining relations with China.

As National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan emphasized last week, the policy of strategic ambiguity — whether or not the U.S. will support Taiwan when China attacks it — has always existed. But Biden offered a different proposal.

As president, Biden has drawn controversy by describing “a commitment we made” to defend Taiwan if China were to attack it, even though U.S. policy has no such commitment. Biden’s continued off-the-cuff comments in this regard have led many to speculate that he is changing policy. Even minor wording changes are big things. China issued a formal condemnation when the U.S. State Department changed the sentence on its website. So the president has repeatedly contradicted his own administration, either self-destructing or poking China. After each episode, the White House downplayed the comments because, essentially, Biden is Biden.

As New York Times reporter David Sanger put it, Biden’s remarks suggest that hawks in the Biden administration are “winning” and that “this administration may be reconsidering the utility of strategic ambiguity.”

Jessica Drun, a Taiwan expert at the Atlantic Council, said China was able to get ahead of public opinion because its attitude toward Taiwan was clear and declarative — Taiwan was theirs, and the U.S. passed Arming it is militaristic. “Our language contains nuances, and some words have different meanings from a diplomatic standpoint,” she told me. “Every time something needs attention, so it’s hard for us to articulate our position, at least to the public. That’s why there are so many misunderstandings about U.S. policy toward Taiwan, sometimes even from our own government. Some people inside.”

When Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin talks about China policy, like at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June, he’s basically reading the Taiwan Relations Act aloud. He was careful to stay on the script. U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken added more detail on U.S. attitudes toward Taiwan in a key speech on Asia in May. He noted that the policy “has been consistent across decades and administrations,” adding, “While our policy hasn’t changed, what has changed is Beijing’s growing coercion.”

The caution of Biden’s team contrasts with the more exaggerated approach taken by Donald Trump’s administration, with a trade war, bad words and approval of more than $18 billion in weapons sales to Taiwan. (Biden has approved more than $1 billion so far.)

Trump as president-elect broke U.S. policy with a phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. As secretary of state, Pompeo’s remarks were interpreted as threatening regime change in China. Since leaving the administration, Pompeo and former Defense Secretary Mark Esper have both visited Taiwan. With Biden’s low approval ratings and another presidential election in just two years, many in China’s government believe a more anti-China Republican government is imminent — while members of both parties in the United States are spending Empty “One China” policy.

Rhetoric aside, Trump and Biden share some similarities in their approach to China and Taiwan. Suffice to say, Biden is implementing the hawkish China strategy that former deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger promoted in the Trump White House. Biden’s commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo, even hosted Pottinger in March to discuss and coordinate industrial policy.

In Washington, there is a bipartisan consensus on the Taiwan issue. “Republicans are louder than Democrats on Taiwan,” Nachman said, but explained that “every Taiwan bill that has ever passed Congress, whether in the House or Senate, has been bipartisan. supported by Democrats and Republicans alike.”

For now, Pelosi finds herself in a bind. Cancelling a visit to Taiwan would make the United States appear weak, China would win, and it might be reckless to go. Pelosi’s face downgrade could be delaying the visit until after the party convention.

Bonnie Glaser, Head of Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund Think Tank in Washington, D.C., debate The United States and the world need a Biden administration to clarify how it views U.S.-Taiwan relations, lest the president’s off-the-cuff remarks inadvertently define policy. If it doesn’t, and Pelosi prepares to travel, it could add new dangers to what she calls a toxic U.S.-China relationship.

“Try to convince the Chinese that this is not part of a grand plan to change our policies, and it is very difficult to do so,” she told me. “They think our policies are more coherent than they should be.”

Correction, 12:30pm: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the reason for the Taiwanese airstrike exercise. The drills have been going on for decades; Pelosi’s potential travel plans to the island have added to the pressure on routine drills.

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