Roy Blunt lived his last name when he said this week“So I’m about to use four words in a row that I’ve never used that way before, and those four words are, ‘President Pelosi was right.'”
The Republican senator praised Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwanthe first by a Speaker of the United States House of Representatives in a quarter century.
But not everyone was so sure. To sting the hornet’s nest and to enrage Chinawhich claims the self-governing island as its territory, Pelosi has deepened a rift between the world’s two most powerful countries – and may have hurt the very cause she sought to advance.
On Thursday, China fired several missiles into the waters surrounding Taiwan and began a series of huge military drills around the island; the White House summoned the Chinese ambassador, Qin Gang, to protest. Friday, China said he was ending the cooperation with the United States on key issues such as the climate crisis, anti-drug efforts and military talks.
It was yet another moment of peril in a world already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s war in Ukraine and massive food shortages.
So why did Pelosi leave? The speaker is a strong supporter of Taiwan and criticizes human rights abuses in China. During the visit, she highlighted a global struggle between autocracy and democracy, a favorite theme of Joe Biden, and told reporters in Taipei: “We can’t back down from this.”
But 82 year old man may also have rushed for a final hurray ahead of November’s midterm elections in which she is set to lose the president’s gavel. His TV dates in Taiwan, certainly recorded in Beijing, appeared to some as a vanity project.
Writing just before the trip, Thomas Friedman, author and New York Times columnist, describes Pelosi’s adventure as “utterly reckless, dangerous and irresponsible”, arguing that Taiwan will not be safer or more prosperous through a “purely token” visit.
Friedman warned that the consequences could include “the United States being embroiled in indirect conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia and a nuclear-armed China at the same time,” without the support of European allies in the latter.
Biden himself had publicly admitted that the U.S. military said the trip was “not a good idea at the moment,” not least because President Xi Jinping is gearing up to seek a third term at the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress later this year.
In a call last month, the White House said, Biden sought to remind Xi of America’s separation of powers: that he could not and would not prevent the president and other members of Congress to travel where they wanted.
But Biden and Pelosi are close allies of the same political party, a different scenario from 1997 when Democrat Bill Clinton was president and Republican President Newt Gingrich went to Taiwan. Pelosi, second in line for the presidency, flew to the island on a US military plane with all the government clout that entails.
It was perhaps telling that Biden and the Democrats remained mostly silent, while the speaker’s loudest cheerleaders were right-wing Republicans and China hawks, including Gingrich.
Some commentators believe that a superpower dispute between America and China over Taiwan or some other problem is someday unavoidable. White Pelosi may have cut a few years off that forecast, one could argue that Biden himself provided some of the kindling.
For months, the president has cast doubt on the US’ commitment to the “One China” policy, under which the US recognizes formal ties with China rather than Taiwan . In May, when asked if the United States would get involved militarily to defend Taiwan, he responded forcefully: “Yes. This is the commitment we have made.”
Although America is required by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, it has never directly promised to intervene militarily in a conflict with China. This delicate balance helped deter Taiwan from declaring full independence and China from invading. But some fear Biden is replacing this longstanding position of “strategic ambiguity” with “strategic confusion.”
Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the American think tank in Washington, told a Council on Foreign Relations Podcast this week: “There has been a lack of clarity, a lack of consistency, a lack of discipline, shall we say, and even a lack of consistency, I think, in American policy statements.
“The Biden administration continues to say that the United States has a one-China policy, that the United States does not support Taiwan independence, but there are other things that the United States does. , which, from China’s point of view and using their language, looks like we slice salami. We are moving towards supporting a legally independent Taiwan.
Glaser added, “So President Pelosi going to Taiwan doesn’t really, I think, per se cross a red line, but I think the Chinese are seeing a slippery slope… And then on top of all that, we have the President Biden talking about Taiwan policy in a confusing way.
Other analysts agreed that once news of Pelosi’s plan to visit Taiwan surfaced, it would have been impossible to back down without giving Beijing a propaganda victory.
Bill Gallston, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank and former political adviser to Clinton, said, “I can see the arguments on both sides. Argument on the one hand, it was probably an inappropriate move on his part. Argument from the other side, once the issue was addressed, allowing the Chinese to bully him out of the trip would have been a very bad sign for the region.
“If she hadn’t put the issue on the table, it would have been one thing. But once she did and once it was clear that she was strong enough to do it, it would have been a mistake, say, for the president to put a lot of pressure on her to don’t go. This would have been both a fundamental error and a political error.
Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution think tank in Palo Alto, Calif., wrote in an email: “Pelosi wanted to convey our commitment and resolve. I respect her for that. However, I still think the trip was a mistake. This has caused a serious escalation of military intimidation from Beijing without really doing anything to make Taiwan safer.
“What Taiwan really needs now is more military assistance, especially a large number of small, mobile, survivable and deadly weapons, like anti-ship missiles. Paraphrase [Ukraine’s Volodymyr] Zelenskiy, they don’t need visits anymore, they need weapons. And they have to do much more themselves to prepare for a possible attack.