In the end, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was brief — she spent 24 hours on the island — but it was historic and controversial, and its implications may be felt for a long time. The California Democrat became the first House speaker to visit the self-governed island in 25 years, and this time the visit elicited the wrath of a much stronger and more assertive China.
With U.S.-China tensions at historic highs, the trip sparked controversy from the moment news leaked in July that it was in the works. At the time, President Joe Biden warned that “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now.” And the Chinese government opposed it loudly, claiming that the visit would violate U.S.-China policy toward Taiwan, which China considers to be part of its sovereign territory. The argument that a member of Congress can make such trips without the endorsement of the White House was either lost or ignored by Beijing. Chinese leader Xi Jinping himself warned that the U.S. was “playing with fire.”
Pelosi went ahead nonetheless, and the details of her visit were a close-held secret almost until she landed in Taiwan. The trip itself went smoothly enough; there was no intervention by the Chinese air force or other overt action to disrupt her visit.
Pelosi was welcomed warmly by the Taiwanese leadership. During their televised meeting on Wednesday, President Tsai Ing-wen called the House speaker “one of Taiwan’s most devoted friends”; for her part, Pelosi said that the United States’ support for Taiwan was “ironclad,” while reasserting that U.S. policy toward Taiwan has not changed.
But China had a different interpretation of the visit. The Chinese slapped bans on Taiwanese imports and announced a series of military exercises in the waters surrounding Taiwan, which experts say will amount to a stronger response than China has made following previous official U.S. visits to Taiwan. Among other things, the exercises are planned in areas that are unusually close to Taiwan; some may take place in waters that the Taiwanese claim as theirs (see map below).
And beyond their proximity to the island, such exercises carry weight because China has vowed to reunite with Taiwan — and refused to rule out the use of force. In a statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote that Pelosi’s visit had “a severe impact on the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and seriously infringes upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It gravely undermines peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and sends a seriously wrong signal to the separatist forces for ‘Taiwan independence.’”
As Pelosi left Taipei, Grid hosted a Twitter Spaces conversation with Shelley Rigger, professor of East Asian politics at Davidson College and one of the country’s leading Taiwan experts, to understand the impact of the speaker’s visit for U.S.-China relations and for the future of Taiwan.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: How dangerous of a moment do you think this is, as someone who has watched and studied Taiwan itself and all these dynamics around Taiwan, from Beijing to Washington and so forth? How worried are you right now?
Shelley Rigger: I don’t think there’s going to be a war tomorrow, but I think we have seen a significant deterioration in U.S.-China relations as a consequence of the Pelosi visit, and that will be very hard to come back from. It looks like the U.S. doesn’t have a policy, or can’t control its own policy, and it has become totally unpredictable and out of control in terms of the signals that get sent from voices that, at least in the People’s Republic of China [PRC], are understood to be authoritative. There might actually be some pretty scary fallout for Taiwan. But the biggest fallout is likely to be the deterioration in U.S.-China relations, which inevitably will create problems for Taiwan.
G: I’m grateful to hear you start with “We’re not going to have war tomorrow.” Could you help me, and our listeners, understand what we are likely to see in the next few days? There will be these live fire drills, perhaps closer to Taiwan itself than they have been in the past. They’re going to run through some commercial shipping lanes. Is this, in your view, a few days of a significant letting off steam by the Chinese, or are there risks of miscalculations and other things we should be worried about?
SR: There’s always a risk of miscalculation. That’s a serious challenge, one that everyone is well aware of, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is avoidable.
But I think what the Beijing leadership was trying to do in the run-up to this visit was to prevent it. It was about deterring the U.S. from pushing forward with a trend that the PRC leadership perceives — and I don’t think they’re totally justified — I think they’re seeing it through worst-case scenario lenses, but they perceive a trend in which the U.S. is increasingly supportive of Taiwan, taking actions that lengthen the political distance between Taiwan and the mainland.
If the Beijing leadership decided that this visit by Nancy Pelosi was a big step forward in that trend, they wanted to draw a line here. So, they did a lot of things — they said a lot of things that were aimed at deterring the visit, and they failed to deter the visit. Now they have got to show that they really meant it, that this is not just posturing in the hope of maybe influencing something around the margins.
I think it’s unlikely that it goes beyond a show of force and a demonstration of resolve and capability on the PRC’s part, because I don’t think the timing is right for them to go farther than that.
G: Is there going to be any risk of a Taiwanese response that ratchets things up?
SR: I think that’s pretty unlikely, because Taiwanese people have television and they’ve seen footage from Ukraine. This is Taiwan on the front line, Taiwan as the target. Taiwan is the battlefield. So the idea that they’re going to mess around with that, I just think that’s really unlikely. I think it’s easy for Americans to think in those terms. I think it’s a lot harder for people in Taiwan to seriously consider ratcheting up military confrontation without the war already having started from the other side.
G: And the U.S. military?
SR: You know, the U.S. military is trying to be ready. But the president said that they advised against Pelosi’s visit, so they didn’t think it was a good idea either, precisely because the risks that we’ve all seen here simply do not justify or are not justified by any benefit that might be derived. I think that’s how it looked to the White House.
G: There’s a train of thought that suggests that because of the Party Congress that looms in China, the economic issues — from shrinking population concerns to youth unemployment to income inequality, and GDP numbers nowhere near the forecasts — that there may be an element here of “You can’t possibly show any weakness on Taiwan when you’ve got those other domestic issues in play.” How much does that factor in? Do you think this is a much stronger Chinese leadership than 25 years ago when Newt Gingrich came to Taiwan?
SR: Well, it’s certainly a little of both. I think absolutely, the timing of this visit was especially problematic because of the reasons you mentioned, all of the problems in the PRC at the moment, and there are some really big ones.
I read something yesterday that I thought was really interesting, that this whole Taiwan brouhaha that has been front and center in the U.S. for several days has not really been front-page news in the PRC domestic media. There’s a lot of other stuff going on. And the really big thing that’s going on, of course, is the 20th Party Congress in the fall, where everyone expects Xi Jinping is going to seek a third term. And Xi Jinping just needs things to be calm, he needs the situation to stabilize so that the Party Congress can go forward without interruption or challenge from some kind of external emergency. It’s understandable that the Chinese Communist Party leadership is nervous about how things are going to be when they are undertaking this big process, that is a critical part of their political calendar.
I think part of what was going on here is the PRC leadership just thinking, “We cannot deal with another crisis. We can’t have the Taiwan Strait blowing up when we’re still fighting covid, we’ve got mortgage strikes around the country, the economy is flagging, and we have this huge political process that we got to do in the fall.”
I think they really thought there might be the possibility of preventing the visit. Now, the visit goes through; they definitely ratcheted it up way too high. They can’t back down; they have got a lot of face invested in winning here. Now, everybody’s propelled along by the logic of the situation, which was not what anyone intended but which is now kind of impossible to reverse.
G: How does such a trip go forward in terms of dialogue and discussion with the White House? Are we to believe that this was purely and simply a decision made by Speaker Pelosi, that she really had no backing from anywhere in the U.S. government?
SR: Well, I don’t know. I don’t talk to people in the White House. I read the statements that they make. I think the U.S. government is not a monolith. You can talk to people in the State Department, in the intelligence community, in the Defense Department who have a range of views about things, and it’s possible that they talk to people in Congress outside the chain of command, which would not be fantastic, but they probably do. But I think if this were a sort of White House initiative or the White House had kind of greenlighted it, I don’t know why Biden would have said the military doesn’t think it’s a good idea.
I think it’s not three-level chess. I think it’s domestic politics. The whole thing really feels to me, at this point, like domestic politics — on the U.S. side with Pelosi showing how tough she can be, and on the PRC side with Xi Jinping trying to distract everybody from the mortgage strikes and the empty buildings and all the other stuff.
G: It goes to your earlier question about U.S. policy. If indeed we take all the statements at face value and nobody wanted her to go, then it isn’t really U.S. policy. It’s her independent decision.
SR: Yes. And it doesn’t matter to China. And that I think is the most important thing. The White House was very adamant yesterday that the legislature’s a coequal branch of government and they do what they want, but the fact that she’s a member of the president’s political party and a leading member of the state apparatus is neither here nor there, we don’t control her or tell her what to do, etc.
I think that would be hard to believe for people from many political backgrounds in a parliamentary system; it’s inconceivable that there would be that kind of daylight between the executive and legislative functions in government; but from the PRC perspective, it’s just laughable. Nobody in the Communist Party does anything that is not approved by the Politburo Standing Committee and probably by the party head himself. I think they think this is the U.S. using all its little levers to do sneaky things that add up to a policy of creeping support toward Taiwan, permanent separation from the mainland.
G: Here’s a devil’s advocate question. Not mine, but from a Bret Stephens column in the New York Times. His point, summarized, is basically that for her to cancel would have been the opposite of any show of resolve and support for Taiwan. And if the United States were to cave and just say, “Oh, they made a stink over this, so we won’t let our speaker go,” then how are we to hold up our end of any shows of support or resolve in the future? It’s just a visit from the House speaker.
SR: What can I say? “I have a terrible idea. You tell me it’s a terrible idea. So I say, ‘OK, now I have to do it.’” We can’t afford to think like that. We especially can’t afford to think like that when there’s 24 million people in Taiwan whose ability to live a normal life is on the line.
I think it is always possible for decisions to change. Pelosi’s office never publicly announced it. They could have said the leak was a mistake. A million ways that you don’t have to do something that you know is a bad idea. I think what’s driving that kind of thinking is this anti-China sentiment that seems to have no ceiling on it. Anything we can do that will tweak the PRC, why would we not do it? And I just think there’s a lot of good reasons not to gratuitously undermine Taiwan’s security and the relationship between the PRC and the United States.
G: If you’re coming to the State Department or the White House to say, “OK, we’re in the mess we’re in right now,” what are some tangible things that you think might help in terms of the claw back, if you will, given where things stand between the U.S. and China?
SR: One thing that I would be remiss not to mention is that while she was in Taiwan, Speaker Pelosi did affirm that the core of U.S. policy toward Taiwan includes the three communiqués with the People’s Republic of China, one from 1970 to one from ’79, and one from ’82 — all of which affirm that the U.S. does not recognize Taiwan as a state and that the U.S. does not challenge the position in mainland China.
She did read the catechism that affirms long-standing U.S. policy, and that long-standing U.S. policy was also affirmed in the White House statement. I think these officials are trying to say, “Look, this is not part of a campaign to move Taiwan incrementally toward a point where it is comfortable saying we’re going to bust a move and declare independence.” But I don’t think it’s enough for Beijing because Beijing sees that as just words, ”Your actions are speaking much louder, and your actions seem to be headed in that other direction.”
G: Are there avenues for common ground between China and the U.S. outside of Taiwan right now? What’s the bridge-building repair work here? Is there any?
SR: I think it’s really sad that this followed and completely overshadowed President Biden’s phone call with President Xi earlier in the week. I think there is a realization or an appreciation on both sides that the world is going into a difficult period in terms of economic but also diplomatic and political trends. It will not do for the U.S. and China to be causing additional trouble in this kind of pissing match over world domination.
I don’t think the Beijing government wants a war with anybody at this moment — for precisely the reasons that were laid out earlier in this conversation. I think they are worried that the U.S. does, and I am worried not that the U.S. government or the Biden administration wants a war with China, but I hear people talking in the media and in some of the more hawkish corners of the think tank world, talking as if they think this is something that maybe the U.S. needs to get ahead of, in terms of the rise of China, in a really strong way.
I don’t think the PRC wants that conflict. I think they want the stability that will enable them to continue moving forward and continue solving or at least addressing these domestic problems. I think there is potential. What really troubles me is there’s so little political will for that on the U.S. side and instead enormous pressure on leaders like President Biden and also Speaker Pelosi to make political gains by tweaking China.
G: What’s your broad assessment of the response from Taipei?
SR: My usual sense of how people in Taiwan view these kinds of issues is that they are much less focused or concerned than Americans might expect or even believe they ought to be. Taiwan has lived under this dangling sword for 70-odd years, and the sword just kind of hangs up there, gathering dust, and never comes down.
On the other hand, the last few years in Taiwan, especially under President Tsai Ing-wen, have been characterized by a lot more military intimidation and coercive pressure, both actual military and cyber and other sorts of information attacks. The Taiwanese have woken up a bit. The Ukraine War woke them up even more. I think there’s more attention now to the possibility of a serious confrontation with the PRC than was the case in earlier episodes of a similar sort. But still, most people in Taiwan do not think the war is starting tomorrow either. I think they view the Pelosi visit through the lens that Pelosi has put forward. This is a gesture of support for Taiwan. This is us saying, “We believe in you; we believe in your democracy. We want you to continue to thrive. I’m coming over here and standing with you for that.”
At the same time, though, I think there is a lot of controversy in Taiwan over whether this is good timing, whether this is actually beneficial to Taiwan or just kind of a symbolic gesture. And certainly, some people have pointed out that any amount of military intimidation is not good and becoming accustomed to living under that sword is not necessarily healthy for Taiwan in the long run.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.