Pelosi’s Flight to Taiwan: Poking China in its Achilles’ Heel?

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on August 2 is an explicit demonstration of American resolve in the Indo-Pacific and commitment to the U.S. allies and partners throughout the region. Unsurprisingly, it has generated extensive controversy and poked China in its Achilles’ heel, eliciting a multitude of warnings and actions (from economic coercion to military escalation). Not only is it the first such high-level delegation in over two decades, but Pelosi is also second in line to the presidency – the visitor in 1997, Newt Gingrich, was from the opposition. Importantly, China at the time was still in the throes of “peaceful rise,” a notion that seems anachronistic today.   

The U.S. maintains that the visit in no way crosses its interpretation of the so-called “One-China policy” outlined in the 1972 Shanghai Communique. This interpretation is tied to a firm commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act along with the six assurances while following the legally non-binding three joint communiques between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Notably, China and the U.S. follow different versions of the “One-China Policy”. The U.S. does not subscribe to the “One China principle” – a core tenet that claims Taiwan as an inalienable part of China and the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China – but acknowledges its long-standing “One-China policy” that does not allow it to support Taiwan’s independence. Over the years, the U.S. has followed what is termed a policy of “strategic ambiguity” with Taiwan, but has begun tilting the balance by recently including it as a regional partner in its 2022 Indo-Pacific strategy.

Notwithstanding the historical concerns and didactic policy nuances, the question is why stoke the dragon now. The answer largely lies in opportune timing and includes twofold aspects: 1) The Ukraine war has energized the U.S. to launch a concerted Western effort against the Chinese-led socialist rejuvenation that includes Russia in Europe and North Korea in Northeast Asia. Both Russia and North Korea have called the trip “a pure provocation” and extended support to the PRC. 2) Pelosi’s Asia trip following soon after her Kyiv visit is a concrete message by the U.S. that aligns Taiwan with Ukraine, firming up speculations that abounded in the wake of the war.

Why Contesting the Obvious?

In her opinion piece in the Washington Post prior to the visit, the speaker – a vocal China hawk and Communist Party critic – highlighted the autocracies versus democracies rift, Russian invasion of Ukraine, and China’s rising aggression as grounds for offering solidarity with Taiwan.

Besides, Taiwan occupies a critical part of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. First, it plays a central role in crucial sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that ferry at least $3.34 trillion dollars of trade, as well as energy resources to the second, third and 11th largest economies in the world (namely China, Japan, and South Korea respectively).

Second, Taiwan is a salient, if not an irreplaceable, cog in technology supply chains. The Taiwan Semi-Conductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), one of the world’s most valuable companies, produces cutting-edge semiconductor chips that are found in jet fighters, iPads, iPhones, and automobiles. Amid escalating global shortage and vulnerabilities in chips supply, the U.S. plans to increase its fabrication capacity via tie-ups with Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea (the three accounting for about 80 percent of world’s production).

The U.S. and like-minded states have an existential interest in ensuring these technology supply chains remain out of the control of Xi’s China with its abysmal track record of economic coercion, as highlighted in Bonnie Glaser’s report, “How China Uses Economic Coercion to Silence Critics and Achieve Its Political Aims Globally,” to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. A U.S.-led multidirectional “proactive agenda,” including engagement with key local allies and regional developing states in critical and emerging technologies, supply chain resilience, and connectivity (digital and infrastructure) will in the longer term help tide Beijing’s military expansionist behavior in the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea, East China Sea, and the Indo-Pacific region in general as China strives to become a Great Power by 2049.

Third, Taiwan represents a pointed counter-narrative to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s long standing claims justifying state-fueled repression as its own “unique” brand of democracy, human rights, and transparent government. Chinese academic Yan Xuetong has expounded on the CCP’s position by emphasizing that it is a difference in definitions (electoral politics and individual expression versus social security and economic development) and that the West would need to adapt to China’s way, not the other way round.

In 2021, writing for Foreign Affairs, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen warned of “catastrophic consequences” for the democracies in Asia, if the PRC were to succeed in occupying or even launching an attack on Taiwan. By maintaining the status quo, the United States is sending a signal to states within the region that it is willing to defend democratic institutions and political entities that embody those values – in not just rhetoric but via action-oriented diplomacy. The U.S. government’s flip-flop after Biden’s comments on defending Taiwan in May and on Pelosi’s visit in July have, however, muddied the waters of a clear-cut U.S. approach.

A Strategy to Entice Xi’s Patience?

Undoubtedly, Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is aimed to showcase that Xi Jinping – dubbed by Geremie R. Barmé as “chairman of everything” – does not have the power to push back against the combined strength of United States and its allies. Pelosi’s provocative diplomacy has to be seen in concert with the recent attempts by the U.S. to coalesce partners so as to counter China holistically – be it through the G7 promulgated Global Investment and Infrastructure Partnership (GIIP), Biden’s launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), or the India-Australia-Japan-led Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI). However, a retaliation (both military and economic) in kind from China goes as a given.

Furthermore, it is not the U.S. alone that is resisting Xi’s China; the anti-Xi factions within China are not necessarily unhappy with Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. This gives them an opportunity to ensure that Xi Jinping loses face in front of his political opponents at home. They will highlight the U.S. resolve as evidence that under Xi’s leadership, the PRC has failed to push back against the U.S., let alone reunify the mainland with Taiwan.

Amid muted economic growth and resurgent COVID-19 breakouts, it would not be easy for the CCP to dismiss accusations that the stewardship of China under Xi’s leadership over the past 10 years has put China in a worse position. The rock-bottom bilateral relationships with the United States and much of the Western world – key markets for the consumption of Chinese produced products – as also worsening ties with Japan and South Korea have been a bitter pill to swallow. Dismissing comparisons with the 1997 visit, PRC’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Zhang Jun called out the legitimacy of Pelosi’s action while admitting that Gingrich’s visit was a “mistake,” referring to also perhaps China’s token resistance at the time. The repercussions will no doubt linger this time. Nonetheless, as Xi prepares for the 20th Party Congress, Pelosi’s visit may indeed resurrect the ghost of past mistakes, upending at least some of his plans. What the U.S. will be hoping is that its action does not backfire like it did in Europe – still, the Indo-Pacific should be ready to douse the fires of an impending escalation.