ANALYSIS — Speaker Nancy Pelosi touched down in Taiwan on Tuesday despite the White House for weeks urging her otherwise, defying a president of her own party and poking America’s biggest rival.
President Joe Biden said last month that military officials had said it would be unwise for Pelosi to lead a trip with other lawmakers that included a stop in Taiwan. “The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now,” Biden told reporters on July 20. Chinese leaders said the same, with one official on Monday warning that the Asian giant would not “sit idly by” if she did visit.
After the possible Taiwan stop during a broader Asia swing leaked, Biden and other White House officials tried persuading the speaker and her staff to avoid inflaming China, which considers the self-governing island to be Chinese territory. Some regional analysts say, in part because of Russia’s war in Ukraine, it is a matter of when — not if — China will move to take over the island militarily.
John Kirby, chief spokesman for the White House National Security Council, on Monday altered the administration’s line to say Pelosi had every right to go to Taiwan.
Pelosi “has the right to visit Taiwan and the speaker of the House has visited Taiwan before without incident, as have many members of Congress, including this year,” he said, referring to former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who visited in 1997.
Senior Chinese officials this week continued warning her to limit her Asia trek to stops in Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan. “We are fully prepared for any eventuality,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Monday, according to reports from the region. “The People’s Liberation Army will never sit by idly.”
Democratic Reps. Gregory W. Meeks of New York, Mark Takano of California, Suzan DelBene of Washington, Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois and Andy Kim of New Jersey joined Pelosi on the recess week trip. Here are three takeaways after they defiantly landed in Taiwan.
Conflict is avoidable
Chinese officials have been rattling the saber. But neither side this week sounded interested in a direct military confrontation.
Zhao called a Pelosi visit a “gross interference in China’s internal affairs,” warning that it would trigger “very serious developments and consequences.”
He also warned that China would respond to a Pelosi visit to Taiwan by taking “strong and resolute measures to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Chinese officials have been vague about how they would respond. But Kirby said U.S. officials have a few ideas.
They could launch military operations, for instance, that would “break historic norms, such as large-scale entry in Taiwan Air Defense Zone,” he said. Or Beijing could opt to fire missiles into the waters of the Taiwan Strait.
Chinese officials also might launch unplanned military exercises. That could include various operations meant to simulate how it would invade Taiwan. And a seemingly inevitable response would be what Kirby predicted would be “further spurious legal claims” about China’s legal right to the island.
Notably, both sides were creating wiggle room as the delegation’s trip began in earnest.
“If she dares to go, then let us wait and see,” Zhao said Monday, temporarily sheathing his rhetorical saber.
Here was Kirby, from the White House briefing room, hours later: “There’s certainly no reason for this to come to blows. There’s certainly no reason for this to escalate.”
‘Say less and do more’
“That is entirely her decision, and one that we respect one way or the other,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Monday.
The speaker once again flashed her steely side by opting to visit Taiwan.
Pelosi defended her stop in a statement issued minutes after she landed.
“Our discussions with Taiwan leadership will focus on reaffirming our support for our partner and on promoting our shared interests, including advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” she said. “America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.
“Our visit is one of several Congressional delegations to Taiwan — and it in no way contradicts longstanding United States policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, U.S.-China Joint Communiques and the Six Assurances,” she added. “The United States continues to oppose unilateral efforts to change the status quo.”
But experts have warned that her visit risks further straining U.S.-Chinese relations.
Evan Medeiros, an Asia analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has said a visit now by the sitting U.S. speaker could be “very destabilizing.”
“I think the United States needs to say less and do more, with a greater focus on deterrence and less commentary and discussion about actual U.S. policy, which is muddying the waters,” Medeiros said. “I see hardening positions on all sides, especially in mainland China. I see growing military capabilities.”
Pelosi’s appearance on the island likely will be read by Chinese officials as saying more, akin to Biden several times saying the U.S. would respond militarily if China invades Taiwan.
“I worry less about the outbreak of armed conflict — an actual amphibious assault on the part of the People’s Republic of China. What I worry about is a convergence of trends that could precipitate a fourth Taiwan Strait crisis,” Medeiros said. “I am concerned that if Beijing becomes sufficiently frustrated [or] anxious that it [will] decide to throw the equivalent of a strategic brushback pitch against Taiwan.”
And that could put the region on “a dangerous trajectory because of growing anxieties, concerns, [and] changes in intentions and [military] capabilities,” he added.
On the latter point, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is slated to mark up legislation Wednesday that would allow Washington to sell deterrent, not just defensive, weapons to Taiwan.
That would be doing more in the long term than a congressional delegation spending a few hours on Taiwanese soil.
As the White House was cool to the visit — before Monday, that is — GOP lawmakers found themselves in an odd position: supporting something Pelosi might do.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said it was “unseemly and counterproductive” for the Biden administration to publicly discourage the trip.
“I welcome the speaker’s display for support for Taiwan’s democracy,” the Kentucky Republican said. “But I hope she returns from Asia more mindful of the military dimensions of the Chinese threat and more committed to working with Republicans to address the changing balance of military power out in the region.”
House Foreign Affairs ranking member Michael McCaul, R-Texas, told Fox Business on July 29, “Members of Congress who go to Taiwan show our commitment to Taiwan against Communist China, irrespective of party, and the speaker is included.”
Opting against going would show that the United States is “intimidated so much by them that we’re giving in to their whims. I think she should go,” McCaul said.
“It is Speaker Pelosi’s decision alone on whether or not to travel to Taiwan, not any other country,” Illinois GOP Rep. Darin LaHood, co-chair of the U.S.-China working group, told CNN. “In our democratic system, we operate with separate but equal branches of government.”
“It is inappropriate for foreign governments, including the Chinese government, to attempt to influence the ability or the right to travel for the speaker, members of Congress or other U.S. government officials to Taiwan or anywhere else around the world,” LaHood added.
McCaul, who was invited to join the speaker but declined, said Pelosi’s visit would serve another purpose.
“I plan to go there as well, and I think members of Congress should go to show we are committed to them,” he said, “particularly as China is now threatening Taiwan, just like [Russian President Vladimir Putin] threatened Ukraine.”