Aug 1, 2022 - World

Why Pelosi's Taiwan visit matters to China

Pelosi with the Dalai Lama in 2014. Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP via Getty

China is promising a “strong and resolute” military response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s expected arrival in Taiwan on Tuesday.

Driving the news: According to National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, Beijing’s “provocations” are likely to include missiles fired into the Taiwan Strait and a large-scale breach of Taiwan’s air defense zone.

What they're saying: Kirby argued that such reactions would be totally disproportionate, because there is precedent for Pelosi’s visit — then-Speaker Newt Gingrich traveled to Taiwan in 1997, and lower-level lawmakers have visited as recently as this year — and U.S. policy on Taiwan is unchanged.

The other side: China’s government sees things very differently.

  • For one thing, Gingrich had three days of meetings in Beijing before stopping in Taipei, notes Ryan Hass, a Brookings fellow and former NSC director for China and Taiwan.
  • China’s relative strength has increased dramatically since then, as has the degree of deference it demands — particularly over Taiwan, which it claims is an integral part of its territory.

Then there’s Pelosi herself.

  • “The Chinese have very strong feelings about the speaker,” Hass tells Axios. Her public protest in Beijing over the Tiananmen Square massacre was more or less her “first foray on the national stage,” he notes.
  • She’s taken high-profile stands for decades on Tibet and other human rights issues that infuriate Beijing.
  • Now, she’s third in line to the presidency and expected to make the trip despite weeks of warnings of “serious consequences.” She hasn't confirmed the visit, but several media outlets have. She'll meet Taiwan's president on Wednesday morning, per the FT.

The trip would come at the peak of China’s annual military training cycle, a day after a public holiday celebrating the People's Liberation Army, and as high-level Communist officials gather for an annual retreat, Hass notes.

  • More importantly, it comes ahead of the Party Congress at which President Xi Jinping is expected to seek a third term, making this an inopportune time for him to show any weakness over Taiwan.
  • “President Xi has spent the last 10 years investing in building a political brand of being strong, resolute, and standing firm in the face of American pressure,” Hass says.
  • At this critical juncture, "all the political incentives will point him towards erring on the side of muscularity in response,” Hass adds.

The big picture: A showdown over Taiwan was always possible even without Pelosi's trip.

  • When Xi — who has vowed repeatedly to capture Taiwan, by force if necessary — warned President Biden not to "play with fire" over Taiwan last Thursday, he was repeating language he used in their virtual summit last year.
  • And while Biden said publicly that the U.S. military felt Pelosi's trip was "not a good idea right now," he's also riled Beijing by saying repeatedly that the U.S. will defend Taiwan against an invasion.

What to watch: China is unlikely to take any action that endangers Pelosi or presents a real risk of war.

  • The longer-term question is whether the U.S. and China will be able to reset on Taiwan and find a stable status quo. If not, the possibility of a much larger confrontation over the island will loom larger, and potentially closer.
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