Nancy Pelosi’s Magical Mystery Taiwan Tour – and its global aftermath

Nancy Pelosi’s Magical Mystery Taiwan Tour – and its global aftermath
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi leaves the Legislative Yuan after her meeting with Taiwanese legislators in Taipei on 3 August 2022. Pelosi is the highest-ranking US official to visit the island in 25 years, despite strong warnings of military action from China against the visit. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ritchie B Tongo)

US Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s quick stopover in Taipei has raised Chinese hackles, buoyed Taiwanese spirits, and put a spotlight on more questions than there are – yet – answers.

A quick but high-visibility visit by US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi – a Democratic Party congresswoman from San Francisco, California – to Taipei, has become the latest disruptive factor in American-Chinese relations.

It has also given the Taiwanese some difficult but important things to think hard about, especially once the Chinese carried out a vast, island-straddling live-fire exercise that included missiles, naval vessels and fighter jets. 

So far, at least, much of the breathless commentary and reporting on the visit and its aftermath has painted this sequence of events as likely to be the proximate cause for a new zone of hostilities – or, even, with some of the most breathless, the spark poised to ignite a new war in the Pacific Basin. Not so fast. Things are obviously dangerous, but much of this has been something of a mutual chest-beating of choice.

First, let’s deal with some basics. Taiwan is a smallish island – about half the size of Scotland and a little bigger than the US state of Maryland – off the southeastern coast of China that has, over the centuries, been home to indigenous Taiwanese, bands of Chinese pirates, Portuguese and Dutch colonists.

More recently, after the assertion of a territorial claim by the Manchu dynasty in China, the island became Japanese territory after that country’s defeat in the Sino-Chinese War of 1895.

With the defeat of Japan in World War 2, the island was awarded back to China, then rather shakily ruled by Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) Party.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (right) and US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi meet at the Presidential Palace in Taipei on 3 August 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Taiwan Presidential Palace)

However, as the KMT was driven from power by the Chinese Communist Party and its army, Chiang’s government fled the mainland and set up shop on Taiwan – crucially maintaining the notional concept they were still the legitimate Chinese government, including the hanging on to China’s seat on the UN Security Council as a permanent member. 

Diplomatic recognition

With the loss of its seat on the Security Council in 1971, and then the establishment of full diplomatic recognition by the US of the Beijing government in 1979, Taiwan’s claim to represent all of China lost its main basis. Its diplomatic presence is now limited to a few scattered, small nations, largely in the South Pacific. 

Many nations, including the US, the UK and South Africa, still have unofficial, near-diplomatic and vigorous trade relationships with Taiwan, however, and Taiwan-Chinese trade is extensive as well.

Throughout the Cold War, American military assistance was provided to the government on Taiwan and eventually the KMT and the old guard and its successors lost their grip on Taiwanese political life and government, and an exuberant, democratically elected governmental system came into being instead.

Along the way, that leadership has nurtured a rapid economic growth trajectory on the island, making it one of the four little dragons (or sometimes tigers) of development economics lore, together with South Korea, Singapore and, arguably still, Hong Kong. 

In recent years, the island’s industrial boom has even led to significant Taiwanese investment in China, largely in nearby Fujian Province, as well as the growth of its domestic high-tech industrial base, most especially TSMC, the manufacturer of all those high-tech microchips critical for nearly every kind of advanced electronic gear, for manufacturing processes and so much else for the entire world.

Meanwhile, across the Taiwan Strait, once China freed itself from the depredations of the Cultural Revolution and all-encompassing central economic planning, farseeing leaders such as Deng Xiaoping set the country on a rapid economic development trajectory — as well as a major movement forward in constructing a modern military establishment.

Growing unease 

Borrowing many ideas from the history of Japan’s developmental state and the success of those four little dragons, and then as it joined the World Trade Organization and pushed an export-driven growth strategy, Chinese manufacturers turned the country into the newest “workshop of the world”. 

A group of pro-China supporters steps on a mock up funeral photo of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi outside of the US Consulate General in Hong Kong and Macau, in Hong Kong, China, 03 August 2022. EPA-EFE/JEROME FAVRE

This economic liberalisation and growth was not, however, matched by a more open style of political life or democratisation. This can be seen in a harsh, enforced Sinicisation of Tibet and Xinjiang, in its failure to preserve the main features of the “one country, two systems” understanding for Hong Kong, the harsh repression of the Tien Nam Men students’ uprising in 1989, and the growing imposition of President Xi Jinping’s autocratic views as central in the nation’s constitution together with his drive for yet another, unprecedented, five-year term as president. 

Taken together, these are contributing to a growing unease about China’s place in the world, particularly as seen through Western eyes, especially as its economic heft continues to grow. It is similarly giving Taiwanese their own unease about the future if they are – peacefully or forcibly – assimilated into China.

Throughout all of these events, the government in Beijing has insisted that the reunification of Taiwan with the rest of China is inevitable, even if no time schedule has been set and anything the US does to bolster Taiwan is an anathema to China’s government and history. 

A military advertisement marking the 95th founding anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is displayed at an office building in Beijing, China, 04 August 2022. EPA-EFE/WU HAO

As Qin Gang, the Chinese ambassador to the US, argued in American newspapers the other day: “The one-China principle is part of the postwar international order and has become a general international consensus. As a country that thinks of itself as a champion of the ‘rules-based international order’, the United States should naturally abide by the one-China principle.

“In the past, the United States has violated and undermined the principle by adopting the Taiwan Relations Act and the ‘Six Assurances’ to Taiwan. And it is doing so again now in a broader attempt to unilaterally change the status quo on Taiwan and alter the postwar international order.

“Fifty years ago, Henry Kissinger, who was personally involved in the negotiations for the normalisation of China-US relations, witnessed how the Taiwan question was properly handled on the basis of the one-China principle. Recently, he noted, ‘the United States should not by subterfuge or by a gradual process develop something of a “two-China” solution’.

People on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are Chinese. China will show the utmost sincerity and make the utmost efforts to achieve peaceful reunification, but China will not allow Taiwan to be divided from it in whatever form.

An advertisement to mark the 95th founding anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is displayed as people wait to cross a road in Beijing, China, 01 August, 2022. EPA-EFE/MARK R. CRISTINO

“The current Taiwan authorities have rejected the facts and legal grounds that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one and the same China, in a pursuit of independence with the help of the United States. Their tactics include trying to sever historical and cultural bonds with the mainland, erasing national identity and stoking confrontation. The United States, meanwhile, sees Taiwan as a means to contain China and has been hollowing out the one-China principle. In the past 18 months alone, the United States has made five rounds of arms sales to Taiwan.”

Crucially, this Chinese promise (or threat) of reunification bumps into the US’s own repeated pledge to help defend Taiwan from an attack and the promises in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 that the US would continue to provide military hardware to Taiwan for its defence. It should be noted that until this most recent Pelosi visit, the Chinese government largely elected to stay shtum on such questions. 

Declaration of independence

Concurrently, for a growing proportion of the people on Taiwan, their own growing preference is some kind of a safe version of the status quo, even if that means a less than cogent status as a full-fledged nation.

Awkwardly for China, among younger Taiwanese, there is real support for an actual declaration of independence as Taiwan, rather than integration into China, given the island’s increasingly robust democratic political world, its economic success and its concerns that any kind of integration into China would eventually bring about for them what the people in Hong Kong are now experiencing, despite any agreements otherwise that might pertain. 

Meanwhile, the Chinese government, per Ambassador Qin Gang’s statement: 

“President Biden has said many times that the United States will not change its one-China policy and does not support ‘Taiwan independence’. But for the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces, Pelosi’s visit represents an exceptionally strong signal that ‘the US is on Taiwan’s side’. This goes against the one-China principle, the three Sino-US joint communiques and America’s own commitments. Moreover, the Pelosi visit will lead ‘Taiwan independence’ forces further down a dangerous path, with peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait hanging in the balance.”

A metaphorical match that could ignite a fire

China is obviously even more vociferously opposed to any signs of independence for the island than it is to the status quo.

And so we come to Nancy Pelosi’s role as a metaphorical match that could ignite a fire. It is important to realise that Pelosi’s visit was not a sudden “one off” or impulsive decision. She has, after all, been an ardent supporter of demands for progress on human rights in China for decades, reaching back to the period after the violent crushing of the Tien Nam Men students protest.

As a junior congresswoman, in 1991, she travelled to Beijing and, together with another colleague, unfurled a banner in support of the students — those arrested, rusticated or killed — and their goals. 

Taiwan Navy’s battleships anchored at a harbour in Keelung city, Taiwan, 05 August 2022. EPA-EFE/RITCHIE B. TONGO

Over the years, she has made her feelings about China and its policies well known (and it should be clear that those views are popular with a significant share of her constituency, one that includes many voters with ties to East Asia). 

In the years before she became Speaker, she had previously visited Taipei as well as Beijing. (Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich, when he was speaker of the house had previously visited Taipei as well, receiving some stinging criticism from Beijing, but nowhere near the reaction evinced by Pelosi’s lightning visit.)

What’s changed?

So, what is different about now versus past visits? For starters, the relative shift in the power relationship is crucial. To a considerable degree, the Chinese government increasingly sees itself as the rising global power even as the US is, at best, stable or beginning its relative decline.

The comparison, for many, increasingly represents a kind of parallel to the rivalry between an upstart Wilhelmine Germany and the longtime primacy of Great Britain in the late 19th century. 

Of course, further back in history, there to the wellsprings of the idea of the “Thucydides trap” as famously defined by Harvard’s Graham Allison — an idea originally drawn from the rivalry that pitted the previously dominant Periclean Athens’ naval empire against the rising power of Sparta and its allies in the 5th century BCE. 

As is increasingly well understood by and concerning to analysts in many of the nations of the Pacific and Indian Ocean basins, the Chinese have been busy building military bases in the islets of the South China Sea — a major international sea lane — as well as building a blue water navy, complete with aircraft carriers and advanced fighter-bombers that could compete with American carrier-based F-16s and F-35s, patrolling the Western Pacific and the waters around Taiwan. 

Policy engagement energy

Another important element is a likely perception on the part of Chinese leaders that the US was now sufficiently involved with aspects of the Ukrainian war that America will not have enough policy engagement energy to respond to a simultaneous crisis in the Taiwan Strait.



Add to this the feeling that the prestige of Chinese President Xi Jinping has been put on the line, especially since he is due to claim that unprecedented (at least since Mao Zedong’s time) third five-year term of office in November, after having had his thoughts on economic and political arrangements woven into the country’s constitution. 

New York Times’ reporter Li Yuan, reporting from China, noted there has been some unusually critical commentary on Chinese social media because of Beijing’s tepid response to Pelosi’s visit to Taipei.

As Yuan notes:

“It doesn’t often happen that ordinary Chinese say publicly that they’re disappointed with their government. That they’re ashamed of their government. That they want to renounce their Communist Party memberships. And that they think the People’s Liberation Army is a waste of taxpayers’ money.

“It’s even rarer that such angry comments come from the kind of nationalists who usually support whatever their leaders demand of them.

“For much of Monday and Tuesday, many Chinese applauded the tough rhetoric from government, military and media personalities who were attempting to thwart Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Then, as Ms. Pelosi’s plane was touching down in Taiwan late Tuesday night, some social media users commented on how disappointed they were with Beijing’s lame response. No military action in the Taiwan Strait, as they felt they had been led to expect. No shoot-down, no missile attack, no fighter jet flying next to Ms Pelosi’s plane. Just some denunciations and announcements of military exercises.

“Many people complained that they felt let down and lied to by the government. ‘Don’t put on a show of power if you don’t have the power,’ wrote a Weibo user with the handle @shanshanmeiyoulaichi2hao shortly after the flight’s landing. ‘What a loss of face!’.”

This could be an awkward time for the Chinese government on other fronts as well. Although those are not regime threatening, there is a significant banking and credit crisis spreading out from a real estate bubble as well as growing unhappiness with the country’s extraordinarily severe lockdowns in multiple cities in place in the country’s efforts to contain Covid-19. 

Encircling alliances

The Chinese authorities are also, undoubtedly, less than pleased by the development of what they will see as an effort at encirclement by the US and its allies through two new alliance-style structures.

These are the Quadrilateral group of the US, Japan, Australia and India, and the partially overlapping AUKUS tie — Australia, the United Kingdom and the US, including a deal to sell nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. 

There is, concurrently, growing concern in the AUKUS and Quad nations over the nature of Chinese engagement in nations like the Solomon Islands and other small South Pacific countries, as well as the effect of Chinese construction loans and building programmes in nations such as Sri Lanka. 

From Beijing’s seat, meanwhile, those developments, plus a growing willingness on the part of Japan to up its own game in defence spending and procurement of new high-tech kit, might well be generating some concern, despite the brave bluster by the Chinese ambassador, that just maybe time is not on their side with regard to Taiwan’s future status, especially given those recent statements by Biden that the US would come to the aid of Taiwan if it is attacked.

For its part, the Biden administration continues to insist such assertions do not represent a policy change. Nevertheless, such statements amid the new alliance structures could be concerning to those in authority in the Forbidden City.

Launching a military exercise

In a seeming response to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the Chinese announced and then began a massive, multifaceted military exercise involving air and naval units that virtually bracketed the entire island of Taiwan.

Some of the declared zones for the live-fire exercises (that is, shooting of real rockets, attacking waterborne targets and carrying out simulated combined arms attacks) have impinged on the Taiwanese declared defence exclusion zones and the Japanese and Taiwanese economic zones. (The Chinese, of course, would insist that since Taiwan is not an independent nation, Taiwan cannot have such national zones.) 

Crucially, the Taiwan Strait — where some of the live-fire exercises took place — is one of the world’s busiest sea lanes. It connects trade between much of China, Japan and South Korea to the rest of the globe, including the export of vast amounts of finished manufactured items and the importation of materials such as petroleum and other primary commodities to those nations.

The possibilities of exercises affecting shipping — or even accidentally having a mistaken firing on a commercial vessel — were always something to be concerned about, especially if future such exercises designed to influence Taiwan have something that goes awry. Accidents do happen — just ask shipping companies, pilots and the military operating in the Persian Gulf.

But this massive Chinese military exercise was not specifically planned in response to Pelosi’s recent in-and-out trip to Taipei. This is because such complex exercises are intricately planned months in advance of their execution. Accordingly, these exercises were already planned, but the Pelosi trip became a convenient opportunity to make several points: to the Taiwanese that Chinese military power is growing rather than shrinking; to the Americans that any real actions to come to the defence of Taiwan would have major costs to America’s own military and the nation as a whole; to the Chinese population, despite the griping on social media, that their country’s military is ready to carry out the longtime pledge of uniting the island with the mother ship; and to the Taiwanese population that any moves towards a declaration of independence would be a real no-go area. 

People look towards the location where the Chinese military believed to conduct a live fire drill from the coast of New Taipei city, Taiwan, 04 August 2022. EPA-EFE/RITCHIE B. TONGO

But Pelosi’s visit was just a convenient hook to hang the start date of the Chinese military exercise on while simultaneously demonstrating China’s serious annoyance with the secretive but ultimately high-profile visit. (In the process, the Chinese managed to muddy the waters by implying this was an official visit on behalf of the Biden administration, rather than one more of a number of congressional visits. Pelosi is a very senior person, yes, but she was not speaking on behalf of the president.)

And in America…

For Americans, meanwhile, the Pelosi trip may possibly have complicated the Biden administration’s goal of restraining China from resupplying Russia with the kinds of weapons they have increasingly been burning through at a rapid rate in their invasion of Ukraine. To the extent the Chinese are less inclined to be fence-sitters in that conflict, it makes the Western effort to supply the Ukrainians that much more complicated. 

For that reason, among others, the Biden team reportedly tried hard to convince the Speaker to postpone her trip. (In actual fact, the trip took place months after its original date in April, postponed because the Speaker was infected by Covid.)

The trip has also managed to split American foreign policy observers. Two influential commentators, Brett Stephens and Thomas Friedman, in the same pages of the New York Times, reached entirely different conclusions about the utility and meaning of the visit.

Stephens went through the litany of why it should not have happened but then concluded that for Pelosi to have cancelled her visit — under pressure from China and/or Biden — would have demonstrated the lack of American resolve, making things that much harder in the future. 

Friedman, meanwhile, argued that the trip simply put the Chinese in an unenviable position of being forced to act tough at the expense of all the other American goals for its China relationship.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Suspected drones over Taiwan, cyber attacks after Pelosi visit

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Pelosi Vows US Won’t Abandon Taiwan in Face of China Threats

Read more in Daily Maverick: “White House: US will not be intimidated by China; Pelosi has right to visit Taiwan

Bolstering Friedman’s argument may be the most recent Chinese decision to cease cooperation with the US on a number of global environmental concerns.

In its announcement for a colloquy on the visit, the Foreign Policy Research Institute set out the agenda of future concerns this way:

“House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a congressional delegation stopped in Taiwan as part of a trip to US allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.  The visit by so high-ranking a US figure — the first by a House Speaker in a quarter-century — attracted widespread international attention, was warmly welcomed in Taiwan and highly controversial in US political and policy circles, and prompted dire warnings from Beijing. 

“China launched large-scale, live-fire military exercises near Taiwan, and imposed new economic sanctions against Taiwanese entities [including major aquaculture exports of specialised products from Taiwan and grades of sand crucial in making those microchips]. 

“Why was Pelosi’s visit controversial?  What will be its longer-term effects on cross-Strait and US-China relations?  Will the trip and its fallout help or hurt the interests of the US, Taiwan and China?”

And even before the plane had landed, the Economist was already speculating about the ultimate outcome of the trip. Reacting negatively, it wrote:

“The last time a Speaker of America’s House of Representatives visited Taiwan, the Chinese government could do little more than grumble. Newt Gingrich, who held the position from 1995 to 1999, stopped over in 1997 and met the island’s president at the time, Lee Teng-hui. A few days earlier Mr Gingrich had visited China and warned its leaders that America would intervene if they invaded Taiwan, which China claims. ‘Ok, noted,’ he described them as responding. ‘Since we don’t intend to attack, you won’t have to defend’.

Three Taiwanese Air Force Mirage 2000-5 fighter jets taxi on the runway before take off at an airbase in Hsinchu, Taiwan, 07 August 2022. EPA-EFE/RITCHIE B. TONGO

“There is scant hope of such a meek response if the current Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, goes ahead with a plan to visit Taiwan in August… “China has already made its feelings clear, threatening ‘strong and resolute measures’ if the trip goes ahead. Hu Xijin, a former editor of a nationalistic Chinese tabloid, proposed that China’s armed forces impose a no-fly zone on Taiwan or at least fly aircraft over the island. He also suggested that Chinese warplanes should escort Ms Pelosi’s aircraft and that, if they came under fire, China should attack Taiwan’s military aircraft and bases.”

At least for now, the robust response from China appears limited to carrying out their previously planned large-scale military exercise, limited economic measures against Taiwan, a few downward changes in an already disappointing US-China relationship, and lots of dirty looks towards the US.

Perhaps the Chinese leadership ultimately recognised Pelosi’s trip was not US policy and that the Speaker was tending her own gardens, rather than Biden’s bidding even though she and the president are in the same party and share a wide range of economic, political and legislative concerns. 

Irreducible facts

But regardless of such understandings, several irreducible facts remain: China sees Taiwan as part of its nation; the Taiwanese leadership sees things rather differently; and there is a slow but steady drift towards the idea of independence on the part of the island on the part of many of its inhabitants. (Chinese threats seem likely to encourage that position — check out the Ukrainian population’s views in the wake of the Russian invasion.) 

Fareed Zakaria argued on that score that: “It is Xi’s policies that are making the Taiwanese people reject any prospect of cooperation with the mainland, let alone eventual reunification. On the issue of Taiwan, Beijing now recognizes time is not on its side. Every year the island becomes more likely to break free, and this has created a strategic challenge for Beijing, one that could turn into a catastrophe for the world.”

If such a movement were to achieve real momentum, the Chinese would undoubtedly decide they must act to prevent it, almost regardless of the implications for larger security concerns in the region.

As things stand, then, one of the last remaining territorial issues left over from World War 2 and its immediate aftermath remains locked in an awkward stasis — so far, at least. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Lionel Krause says:

    Nancy Pelosi wearing a Chinese KN95 mask sums it up?

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    A very good article. It is true that this exercise would have taken a long time in planning but it could have been contingency or scenario planning with no intention to impliment. Armies do that. If so the visit was a grave error together with all the recent US provocations against a thin skinned China. The ambiguous China Taiwan policy was working fine. Both sides pretended Taiwan was part of China but treated it as an independent state.

    • Dave Martin says:

      Well said Sydney. Often it is best to just leave very complicated political situations alone and let them evolve gradually and dynamically. We’ve seen some bad examples of the downside of forcing nations to take a stand when they’re not ready. Brexit, being an obvious example:they could have just prevaricated and delayed but instead Cameron gambled on a vote he was certain would be in his favour and it ended up going the wrong way. Hong Kong being another case: all China experts knew that the yellow umbrella protests could never be successful and would end in greater pressure from Beijing for heavier handed policies to bring order and stability. And now Hong Kong is worse off.

      There are way too many leaders and “experts” who think the world is a Hollywood movie where the “goodies” always win and the action is over quickly.

      Stand back, listen, try understand what the other side is saying, and don’t start a war unless it is absolutely necessary for survival.

  • Dave Martin says:

    A refreshingly balance article on a complex issue. It is rare these days to read stories that make a genuine attempt to “steel-man” both perspectives in a complex conflict.

    There is no “us” versus “them”. Give us the respect as readers to let us engage meaningfully with complex issues. Don’t mislead us with spectacular defeats of straw-man arguments.

    Good work Spector!

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