Pelosi in Taiwan

A ChinaFile Conversation

On the evening of August 2, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, landed in Taipei to begin an official visit. The trip, the first by a U.S. official of comparable rank in 25 years, came amid debate about how Beijing would likely respond and what it would mean for Taiwan’s future, its relationship with Beijing, and the U.S. role in both. We asked contributors for thoughts on the trip’s significance ahead of Pelosi’s arrival. —The Editors


The prospect of a Pelosi visit to Taiwan became controversial immediately after news that it might take place broke through a Financial Times scoop. It’s likely, though, that there would not have been such controversy if the trip had simply taken place and Pelosi’s presence were only announced after she had arrived in Taiwan, minimizing the window for China to react.

Visits to Taiwan by U.S. elected officials have generally taken place in a low-key manner under the Biden administration, rather than with the grandstanding characteristic of the Trump administration.

Pelosi may intend the visit as a career capstone. Or it is possible her motivations involve the upcoming U.S. midterm elections; showcasing strong relations with Taiwan may be aimed at making the Democrats appear tough on China.

Openly visible splits between Joe Biden and Pelosi over the visit perhaps illustrate that the Democrats do not have consistent messaging on Taiwan. But since news of the visit broke, Beijing’s warnings of the possible consequences became so heated that it is probably now obligated to take a strong response, for fear of losing face or appearing weak. This illustrates one way in which rapidly shifting international commentary on Taiwan can, in fact, have tangible consequences. Professed concern that the U.S. also not appear weak has also become one of the main arguments from U.S. politicians, often Republicans, as to why such a visit should take place.

Either way, there have already been some direct responses from China, including both economic and military threats. Shortly before the visit, China announced bans on more than 100 food and agricultural products from Taiwan, continuing efforts to economically pressure Taiwan previously seen with import bans on fish or fruit. Likewise, Chinese naval vessels were spotted off the coast of Taiwan’s Orchid (Lanyu) Island, an increasingly common move in China’s repertoire of actions used to militarily intimidate Taiwan, and almost all flights in the coastal province of Fujian–the nearest Chinese province to Taiwan–were canceled. Air incursions by 21 Chinese warplanes took place the day of Pelosi’s landing. After Pelosi touched down, China announced military drills around Taiwan, in areas that crossed into Taiwan’s territorial waters. For its part, the Taiwanese military has stated that it will step up military readiness in the next three days and conduct live-fire drills next week. U.S. naval vessel military aircraft activity has also been interpreted as in response to China’s actions.

It remains to be seen whether the Pelosi visit leads to a pattern of tit-for-tat escalation between the U.S., China, and Taiwan. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has much to lose from premature action, particularly given that he is likely to obtain an unprecedented third term at the upcoming National People’s Congress later this year, and may require stability for this to take place–unless Xi’s position is precarious and risky military action is a gambit aimed at consolidating his position.

Either way, as with other incidents in which Taiwan was militarily threatened by China, this did not lead to panic in the streets. Despite much of the world trumpeting about the dangers of the visit, and that it would be Taiwan directly in the line of fire from military reprisals from China, there was little discussion in policy circles of what the viewpoint of Taiwanese were on whether a visit was advisable or inadvisable. Nevertheless, news of Pelosi’s visit broke around the time of talks between Biden and Xi, and whenever such talks take place between the U.S. and China there is concern from Taiwan that its fate could be negotiated away as part of a deal between the two superpowers.

On paper, Pelosi’s trip should not have been a big deal. Even though someone of her rank has not visited Taiwan since the 1990s, U.S. delegations of elected senators have become routine. But when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) chose to take an existential attitude towards this trip, the meaning of her travel changed, and it became something much more than perhaps either side originally bargained for.

U.S.-Taiwan relations today are at an all-time high, with clear bipartisan support from Biden, congress, and civil society. At the same time, U.S.-China relations are at an all-time low. The hope for many is that Biden and Xi can find ways to rekindle the relationship in meaningful ways to make sure that the two powers can return to having a productive relationship.

Pelosi in the end chose to prioritize improving an already very strong U.S.-Taiwan relationship, knowing that China might use this as a moment to further resist rebuilding U.S.-China relations and increase threats towards Taiwan. Whether or not she was right to go, Taiwan will likely face retaliations from the PRC in the form of heightened military threats, economic coercion, and political punishment. Finding ways to mitigate these retaliatory measures without further escalating tension between the U.S. and China is the difficult balancing act the U.S., Taiwan, and its allies must find going forward.

While many want to paint this trip in black and white terms as “good” or “bad,” it is far more complex. Indeed, it is good for Pelosi to visit Taiwan and demonstrate the U.S.’s support in a way that is not dictated by China. But the U.S.-China relationship is critical, especially now, and her trip may further set back relations. This has become a major victory for U.S.-Taiwan relations, but perhaps it was not a victory that was needed at this moment. It also is a victory that comes with the cost of further strain in the Taiwan Strait and between the U.S. and China.

Writing this while inundated with headlines of Nancy Pelosi’s brief visit to Taiwan and a flood of unhelpful takes by many people who have never even set foot there makes one thing clear: If there is any hope of navigating what promises to be at best challenging relations among Taiwan, China, and the U.S., we need a helluva lot more people who have spent serious time in at least two and preferably all three countries.

I’m not advocating that Nancy Pelosi should move to Taiwan, and I don’t see her ever getting a visa to China. Nor am I saying that the experience of living in another country for some time gives magical insights into the needs and desires of the people who truly call that place home.

Having returned to the U.S. after two years in Taiwan, what concerns me is, first, despite an increasing number of Taiwan-based journalists providing on-the-ground perspectives, voices expressing what people in Taiwan think are still muted in the U.S. We need more Americans to read pieces like this one by Albert Wu and Michelle Kuo.

Second, I worry that Taiwan’s role is often relegated to passive object in a center-stage story of U.S.-China relations. The U.S. needs to cultivate a deep bench of Taiwan expertise that can bring texture to policy debates. Strengthening the already robust Taiwan Fulbright Program, increasing expertise across all three branches of the U.S. government through the proposed Taiwan Fellowship Program, and supporting Taiwan studies programs at more than the current handful of U.S. universities are all concrete steps to change this.

At the same time, we need to get American scholars and students back into China. Hopefully China will start to relax tight visa restrictions after the 20th Party Congress. On the U.S. side, there are certainly reasons to be wary even if borders open, but the blunt State Department warning does not address how risks vary among different people or ways to mitigate those risks.

Being a student in China during the Third Taiwan Strait crisis in 1995-1996 impressed upon me the depth of emotion connected to Taiwan and gave me an opportunity to probe, and push back on, those views. How many American students are in China today having those conversations?

And how many Chinese students are in the U.S. today having those conversations? The U.S. needs not only to make visas available but also to make the country a welcoming place for people of Chinese, and broader Asian, heritage.

Investing in deepening human connections among Taiwan, China, and the U.S. will not avoid all conflicts. But it can lessen the chances that simmering tensions erupt into full-blown crises. Right now as I’m toggling to refresh my browser for news updates from the other side of the world, avoiding full-blown crisis sounds pretty good.

Some commentators argue that Taiwan, the U.S., and China are sliding into the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis. I beg to differ. First of all, it seems misguided to compare the U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan with the three past Taiwan Strait crises. The first two crises were a continuation of the Chinese Civil War, fought between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang on the Chinese mainland, and the third began with Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s visit to Cornell University. None of the previous crises were initiated by the U.S.

Second, while Western media tends to depict the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government as saber-rattling, as of August 2, I tend to view China as exercising a degree of restraint on the issue. The news of Pelosi’s visit was revealed by the Financial Times on July 19, and it is hard to argue that the Chinese government has tried to escalate the issue into a diplomatic or military crisis in the past two weeks. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has not, in fact, dominated official Chinese news media like the events of the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis or the U.S.’s accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in the ’90s. Furthermore, although spokespersons of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China have issued several warnings to the U.S. at press conferences, their rhetoric has followed typical propaganda regarding Taiwanese independence. The Chinese senior leadership at and above the Politburo level has not yet publicly talked about this issue. On the military front, we have not seen Chinese aircraft intrude into Taiwan’s airspace on as large a scale as in the past. China could have flexed its muscles much more to pressure Taiwan or the U.S., but it chose not to.

Certainly, this non-confrontational response from China does not mean that it will not retaliate against Taiwan militarily or diplomatically in the future. But the reaction may suggest that China is trying to send a political message to leaders in Washington or other countries that in terms of Pelosi’s visit, the Chinese government does not intend to resort to using force against the U.S. If there is any lesson to be drawn from the military history of the People’s Republic of China, it is that China is rarely interested in challenging the U.S. militarily. Targets of China’s use of force are primarily small countries on its periphery. Therefore, the likelihood that China will punish Taiwan after the visit is high, but in my view, the probability of a U.S.-Chinese military showdown is low.

Several years after his wife died, I had lunch with a friend in a crab shack in Annapolis and noticed that he no longer wore his wedding band. When I asked why, he said “If I wear the band, it sends a signal to society that I don’t quite intend, and if I take it off, that sends a different signal, which I also don’t intend, but my only options are to wear or not wear the ring.”

That’s the problem with enforced binary symbols: no nuance, no evolution, no explanations allowed.

The United States and China are now struggling with the results of the most successfully navigated binary in our diplomatic history. Both sides were already set on rapprochement when they wrote the Shanghai Communique in 1972. All they needed was a plausible rationalization for the Opening. China had forced a binary—we must choose either Beijing or Taipei—and we decided to take it, swallowing its inherent contradictions and lurking dishonesty for the sake of countering the Soviet Union. To borrow a famous phrase from the USSR: China pretended we embraced the One China Principle and we pretended to respect the pretense, sort of. This kept the peace and enabled the prosperity of Taiwan and China for almost 50 years.

It was an extraordinary record, but it couldn’t last.

In the wake of the Pelosi visit to Taiwan, America is claiming that its policy toward Taiwan hasn’t changed. This is disingenuous. The One China Policy cannot be reduced to mere technical recognition of Beijing over Taipei as the sole government of mainland China because One China has also been a set of deeply ingrained practices that guided American diplomacy; it has been a genuine commitment to keeping up the pretense of the Shanghai Communique in the interest of peace. We abandoned that commitment several years ago and entered a period of drift.

China is disingenuous too. It is unwise for one country to force another to accept a proposition it doesn’t believe in, and then behave for half a century as if acceptance of the binary choice was sincere and eternal.

The deal of ’72 was made untenable, first, by the evolution of China, the U.S., and Taiwan itself and, second, by China’s assertion of prerogatives that it believes should accompany its growing power. China hopes the U.S. will have the wisdom to continue to wear the One China ring and behave like we mean it; American hawks want Washington to have the honesty to pull the damn thing off and throw it away.

The challenge now is to lower the temperature by adhering to past agreements as best we can while building a new foundation for U.S.-China relations based on current and emerging conditions. Even at the starting line, this will be nearly impossible. China will not want to compromise over Taiwan and the United States will not want to sanction any extension of Chinese Communist Party influence beyond China’s borders.

But the attempt must be made. Theocritus said, “The Greeks got into Troy by trying, my pretties; everything's done by trying.”

Beijing and Washington aren’t even trying. They’re too busy escalating their rivalry in the Western Pacific and hoping, absurdly, that the other side won’t notice.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on August 2 ended more than a week of speculation during which the world wondered whether escalating threatening rhetoric by authoritarian China would succeed in its aim of deterring such high-profile engagement with Taiwan.

Pelosi’s visit was carried out under the spirit that the U.S. must support fellow democracies and push back against authoritarian aggression. After Pelosi landed in Taipei, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the visit as “provocative” and a “serious violation” of the Three Joint Communiqués and the “one China” principle.

Such statements are factually wrong on several counts.

The Pelosi visit is entirely permissible under the agreements that have governed relations between the U.S. and China over more than four decades, including the Communiqués. There is a precedent for such a visit: Newt Gingrich visited as Speaker in 1997. Furthermore, although Pelosi is second in the line of succession in the U.S. government, she heads the legislative branch, which does not operate under the same constraints as the executive branch when it comes to high-level contact with the Taiwanese side (that is why senior parliamentarians from several countries have visited Taiwan in recent years).

Pelosi’s visit was therefore a reaffirmation of that fact, and it is Beijing that decided to reinterpret that agreement and to threaten a crisis in the Taiwan Strait, all of which is completely unnecessary.

Beijing’s insistence that the U.S. violated the “one China” principle is also misleading. The U.S. does not abide by Beijing’s “one China” principle; rather, it has its own “one China” policy, under which it decides what type of engagement to have with Taiwan.

The highly symbolic visit, which has received rare bipartisan support in the U.S., is confirmation that Taiwan figures in the U.S.’s strategy to counter authoritarianism in an inclusive manner, and that leaving out a democracy that is on the frontlines of that ideological contest would be self-defeating. It demonstrates to Taiwan, to the world, and to China, that intimidation will not succeed in breaking that bond and key link in the alliance of democracies’ efforts to push back against authoritarian expansionism. Conversely, failure to visit, at a time when, despite the absence of official confirmation, it was widely assumed that Pelosi intended to come, would have sent a terrible signal of weakness, one that would only have emboldened Beijing.

No doubt there will be consequences for that defiance (and the live-fire military exercises around Taiwan announced by Beijing a mere 16 minutes after Pelosi’s plane landed is a strong reminder of that), and it is incumbent upon the U.S. and Taiwanese governments, along with likeminded allies, to compel Beijing to act with restraint.

Just as in 1997, when Speaker Gingrich visited after China had threatened stability in the Taiwan Strait with missile exercises, Pelosi’s visit comes amid intensifying efforts by Beijing to coerce Taiwan and limit its international space. In both cases, the visits were necessary correctives.

Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan elicited heated discussion on China’s Internet weeks before her arrival. The online celebration of China’s renewed strength and bravery, its resolve in the face of U.S. provocation, in many ways pre-determined popular reaction to the visit itself: a rare show of anger among China’s most nationalist netizens directed at the government for not living up to the expectations the bombast of its representatives had set.

On July 19, when Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the nationalist state-owned Global Times, suggested that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) planes could “accompany” Pelosi’s plane at close range, his post received nearly six thousand comments and 34 thousand likes.

Excitement grew on July 28 when the 80th Group Army of the PLA posted the words “preparing for battle” on its official Weibo account. That post received more than two million likes within five days. Among the top comments were numerous expressions of willingness to donate money should China go to war. A particularly popular one read, “If you attack Taiwan, I’ll donate the price of a cup of milk tea; if you attack America, I’ll donate a month’s wages; if you attack Japan, I’ll give you my life.”

Chinese influencers followed suit. A Weibo user called “Sima Nan” posted, “Whether Pelosi comes or not, DF-17 [the Dongfeng-17 hypersonic ballistic missile] is ready.” “Qiao Mu DC,” who resides in the U.S., posted: “If there’s a war, I’m coming home.” Such comments appear to have led large numbers of Chinese Internet users to believe that China would stop Pelosi’s visit by force.

A friend of mine posted on his WeChat Moment on August 1: “If the imperialists infringe on us, they’ll be the lucky winners of a chance to test our prowess.”

My friend Penny told me that she was feeling conflicted: “I don’t want to go into war, but I don’t want to lose face.” While she worried that if China attacked Taiwan the majority of Chinese would suffer, she also said that if someone “scratches you in the face” and you don’t fight back, you’re a disgrace.

Like hundreds of thousands of Chinese netizens, she stayed up late on the night of August 2 and followed Pelosi’s plane closely on various flight-tracking websites. “Are we going to witness history?” she asked around 5:00 p.m. when Pelosi’s flight took off, “I feel nervous.”

Around 10:00 p.m., she suddenly couldn’t use Weibo, Douban, and Douyin anymore. Many Chinese users reported the same issue. They posted screen grabs showing that content couldn’t be loaded; it was suspected that these apps blocked users located within mainland China.

Public opinion shifted dramatically after Pelosi landed in Taiwan and was welcomed by Taiwanese officials. In a few WeChat groups I’m in, I witnessed netizens criticizing the official announcement made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “They set our expectations high, but now nothing was done,” said one group member. Another expressed frustration with China’s propaganda officials who “only talk and pretend to be tough.”

When Hu Xijin posted after Pelosi’s plane landed, the feelings of disappointment and anger intensified. Ren Yi, a prominent online commentator, openly criticized Hu: “If you raise the volume too high, your actions will fall short of people’s expectations. Misunderstanding and disappointment will follow and this will damage enthusiasm and morale and maybe even squander the government’s credibility.”

Meanwhile, China tried to boost people’s morale. On its highly-controlled Weibo trending list, throughout the night of August 2 until the morning of August 3, the top 10 trends were all related to Taiwan, ranging from “PLA launches joint military operations around Taiwan Island” to “Taiwan residents chant ‘Go back, Pelosi.’” My friend Penny didn’t seem to buy this propaganda anymore. “Couldn’t we put the money they’re spending on military excises to better use?” she messaged me, “Who are we trying to impress? What’s the point?”