Aug 2, 2022 - World

Pelosi's Taiwan visit has echoes of 1996 crisis

Photo illustration of Nancy Pelosi set against a red background which blends into a satellite photo of Taiwan and Taiwan Straight
Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photos: Gallo Images / Orbital Horizon/Copernicus Sentinel Data 2019, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Soaring U.S.-China tensions around House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan highlight parallels — and important differences — with the last major cross-strait crisis in 1996.

The big picture: The 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis was a dangerous flashpoint in U.S.-China relations that was sparked by a high-profile visit and featured a highly public split between the White House and Congress.

Flashback: In May 1995, the U.S. granted Taiwan's then-President Lee Teng-hui a U.S. visa to attend an alumni celebration at Cornell University, his alma mater.

  • The White House had opposed the visit at first, and President Clinton had assured Beijing Lee would not get a visa. But then Congress passed a resolution supporting Lee's visit, essentially forcing the White House to issue the visa.
  • It was the first time the U.S. had allowed a visit by Taiwan's top leader, though it was not a formal state visit, and Beijing viewed it as a major provocation.
  • Tensions between the U.S. and China rose over the next few months. China deployed more than 100,000 troops to Fujian and conducted missile tests, with missiles landing in waters off Taiwan and one flying almost directly over the capital Taipei. The U.S. sent two aircraft carrier groups through the Taiwan Strait.

The similarities with today are clear, as a visit of another top official has ruffled Beijing.

  • Pelosi's planned trip has garnered bipartisan support, while President Biden warned that the visit was "not a good idea."
  • China has held military exercises since Pelosi's trip became known, and Beijing has warned of "forceful measures."

Yes, but: There are important differences between now and 1996.

  • In the past 26 years, "the military balance across the strait has changed significantly," Jingdong Yuan, a professor at the University of Sydney who researches Asia-Pacific security, told Axios in an interview.
  • "In 1996 when Clinton sent in 2 aircraft carrier battle groups, there was really nothing China could do. But this time, China would have many options," Yuan said. "That’s why this time is more unpredictable. There is no guarantee that any of these actions will remain contained."
  • Additionally, Lee's 1996 trip to the U.S. was informal. Pelosi, on the other hand, will reportedly meet with Taiwan's president.

Meanwhile, Pelosi's long career of standing up to Beijing has made her visit especially bitter for the Chinese government.

During her tenure in Congress, Pelosi has also pushed to link China’s trade status to its human rights record, opposing several of the country's bids to host the Olympics and working to attach conditions to China's entry into the World Trade Organization.

  • Ahead of the Beijing winter Olympics in February, she urged the U.S. to denounce China's human rights record, saying, “If we don’t speak out against human rights violations in China because of commercial interests, we lose all moral authority to speak out for human rights violations anywhere.” 

What to watch: The Chinese government's military response to Pelosi's visit. Additional live-fire drills and incursions into air space near Taiwan are expected, but missile tests and flyovers across Taiwan's main island are not.

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