When President Joe Biden holds a rare virtual meeting with China’s leader Xi Jinping Thursday, the one sure item on the agenda is the ever-controversial matter of Taiwan. The issue is particularly fraught at the moment, given the news that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is planning a visit to the island in August. Pelosi would be the highest-ranking U.S. lawmaker to visit Taiwan since then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich traveled there 25 years ago. And times have certainly changed since then.
China has long frowned on any official visits to Taiwan; Beijing is adamant that Taiwan is a part of China and therefore should not receive the high-level recognition that such a visit implies.
Back in 1997, the Chinese leadership wasn’t happy about Gingrich’s visit, but the response was mild — nothing like the fury that the mere mention of a Pelosi visit has raised in Beijing. “If the U.S. insists on going ahead,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said of Pelosi’s plans this week, “China will take firm and resolute measures to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the U.S. will be responsible for all of the serious consequences.”
What exactly might those “serious consequences” be? And why is China so concerned about a U.S. visit? We spoke to experts on the Taiwan issue and the U.S.-China relationship, aiming to answer the core questions surrounding Pelosi’s plans.
1. Why are the stakes so high?
To understand why Pelosi has caused such a stir, it helps to understand the basics of the U.S.-China-Taiwan dynamic.
Taiwan has been self-governed since the end of China’s civil war in 1949, when the Chinese national party, the Kuomintang, fled to the island and the Communist Party established control over the mainland. Ever since, China has claimed that Taiwan is a breakaway province and vowed to reunite with Taiwan in order to achieve “national rejuvenation.” Chinese leaders have left open the option to use military might to ensure that reunion happens.
The U.S., meanwhile, has long recognized the “One China Policy,” under which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is considered the sole government of China, but the U.S. has never backed China’s intention to reunite with Taiwan. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s leadership and the Taiwanese people by and large support maintaining the status quo, under which the island rules itself but doesn’t declare formal independence from China.
As the U.S.-China relationship has frayed in recent years, Taiwan’s future has become a central point of contention. Under Xi, China’s foreign policy has become more aggressive and the country has built a formidable military. That military power has been used repeatedly to send warning signals to the U.S. and Taiwan. The number of Chinese military aircraft flying in the vicinity of the island has increased significantly in recent years, and Taiwanese and U.S. military officials have warned that China’s military is strong enough now that it could attack the island within the decade.
At the same time, the U.S. has been more visibly supportive of Taiwan. President Donald Trump broke with tradition by calling President Tsai Ing-wen when he took office in 2016, and his administration continued to take a stronger stance on Taiwan, which Biden has largely adopted. Since Biden became president, he has said on at least three occasions that the U.S. would come to the defense of Taiwan if the island were attacked, directly contradicting a long-standing policy of “strategic ambiguity” under which the U.S. keeps its potential response unknown. All three times, administration officials have reaffirmed that the policy of “strategic ambiguity” still holds, but Biden’s remarks certainly haven’t reassured Beijing.
“Taiwan is a flashpoint for the U.S. and the PRC,” Shelley Rigger, a professor of East Asian Studies at Davidson College, told Grid. “But the U.S. and the PRC are struggling with their relationship for many reasons across multiple dimensions.”
So tensions were already high along the Taiwan Strait before Pelosi hatched plans for her visit. But the timing of her potential trip also raises the stakes. Xi is seeking a third term at this fall’s Communist Party congress. With China challenged by an economic slump, and other issues that have arisen because of its strict zero-covid strategy, Xi may feel the need to assert China’s strength on Taiwan.
“[The timing] creates a potential dynamic of Xi Jinping not wanting to be seen as weak,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund, told Grid. “He may be vulnerable on this issue altogether; he probably has to be seen as defending China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and therefore, if this is seen as a challenge, then he will have to respond.”
2. What is motivating Pelosi?
Pelosi’s plans aren’t without precedent. Over the past few years, members of Congress, military and intelligence officers, and former officials have all paid visits to the island to show that the U.S. stands behind Taiwan.
And while Pelosi hasn’t formally confirmed her trip, she has been a champion of Taiwan’s cause for a long time and recently cited the same rationale to reporters: “It’s important for us to show support for Taiwan.”
Experts question whether the trip is the best way to achieve that goal.
“I think the idea that the U.S. wants to be a strong supporter of Taiwan and to help Taiwan resist being coerced by mainland China makes total sense,” said Rigger. “But we need to do things that are substantively valuable and not just sort of symbolic gestures or big political performances.” In her view, Pelosi’s visit doesn’t fall in that category. “I cannot find the substantive value in it — I don’t see how this visit makes Taiwan any more secure. But I do see how it could potentially make Taiwan less secure and how it could continue what is a very dangerous cycle of deteriorating relations between the U.S. and China.”
Glaser also expressed concerns about the visit. “There is quite a bit of anxiety right now in Taiwan,” she told Grid, “and so I think that it is important for the U.S. to find ways to reassure Taiwan, but we should do so in ways that do not provoke China. So this would not be the first on my list of ways to reassure Taiwan.”
There are also domestic political reasons driving Pelosi’s trip. Antipathy toward China and support for China are rare examples of bipartisan consensus in Washington, and Democrats have been eager not to be labeled as soft on China heading into the midterm elections. Pelosi has invited members of Congress from both sides of the aisle to join her trip.
3. What are the risks?
When Gingrich visited Taipei in 1997, he stopped in Beijing on the way and heard the concerns of the Chinese leadership. That was the extent of the Chinese response. Today, there would at minimum be a far greater level of rhetorical bluster. It’s possible that there will be much more than that.
The most recent high-level trip to Taiwan by a U.S. official was made by then-Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in August 2020. The trip made Azar the highest-ranking U.S. cabinet official to visit Taiwan since the U.S. rapprochement with mainland China in 1979. China responded by sending military aircraft across the median line of the Taiwan Strait — not a first, but a provocative warning timed precisely before the secretary’s meetings in Taipei.
Taiwan experts fear that, this time, China’s response could be more severe.
“It is likely I think that China will respond militarily,” Glaser told Grid. “I don’t think that they’re going to fire or try to shoot down Pelosi’s plane. But there are lots of other ways that they could try to interfere with the aircraft that she’s on. They could try and prevent her from landing or force her to land on the mainland instead of in Taiwan, or just simply try to escort her aircraft showing that they have sovereignty over the airspace. Even if the [People’s Liberation Army] aircraft fly within the territorial airspace of Taiwan, that would be a first. It would be unprecedented.”
Pelosi would likely fly to Taipei on a U.S. military aircraft, as is typical of such visits. Dramatic as it sounds, Glaser’s scenario of an aerial confrontation isn’t considered far-fetched. It would also be taken in D.C. as a serious escalation. And this is one reason why Pelosi’s visit is that rare thing — an area of agreement for the leaders of the U.S. and China. President Biden has cited the Pentagon, saying officials there believe the trip is “not a good idea right now.” Certainly Xi feels the same way.
“If Chinese aircraft tried to force Pelosi’s aircraft out of Taiwan’s airspace or prevent her from landing,” Glaser said, “then that just increases the potential for a dangerous incident. And that then would certainly cause a political crisis. Whether it would escalate to a broader military crisis remains to be seen, but it would certainly cause a political crisis.”
Rigger called the Taiwan issue a “symptom” of a larger “disease.”
“The disease is the U.S.-PRC strategic competition across multiple domains,” she said. “And Taiwan is being dragged into that in ways that could ultimately be extremely harmful to Taiwan’s security.”
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.