Friday, September 22, 2023

The controversy over Pelosi’s travel plans in Taiwan, briefly explained

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How reckless can a trip to Taiwan be?

For House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Potential travel plans have already led to a domestic political debate and a minor conflict over foreign policy.

On Monday, Taiwan air strike exercises. The cause: Fears that China, opposed by a high-ranking US representative who plans to travel there, will pursue military escalation against Taiwan, the neighboring democratic island that Beijing claims as its own.

Everyone from President Joe Biden to Trump alumni to a former speaker of the House has weighed in on Pelosi’s itinerary.

The visit, possibly scheduled for next month, draws new attention to the balancing act of how the US is dealing with Taiwan’s status. It is a complex policy full of diplomatic nuances, in an effort to smoothen relations with China while supporting Taiwan against Chinese aggression. All of this has been accentuated by China’s rapid economic and military rise, which has focused US energy on countering its global influence.

That has created an atmosphere of dangerous competition between the two nuclear-armed countries, where even a trip abroad has strategic implications.

The travel plans – and everyone’s reactions to them

Pelosi had canceled a trip to Taiwan for April when she tested positive for Covid-19, and she rescheduled it for August, a move first reported by the Financial Times.

President Joe Biden said Going from Pelosi last week, “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now.” (Some Biden officials have said that China could go so far as to ground its trip by introducing a no-fly zone over Taiwan, potentially putting the US and China in direct conflict.)

In a press conference a day later, Pelosi . said replied: “It is important for us to show support for Taiwan.” She said she never discusses international travel plans “because it’s a safety issue”, but added she hadn’t heard anything directly from the administration about the plane problem. But several senior US officials, according to the FTthink it is a particularly dangerous moment for her in US-China relations to travel.

Congress occasionally clashes with the White House, contradicting it on foreign policy, at least rhetorically. And congressmen often travel abroad to hot spots; Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Adam Smith (D-WA) led a group of lawmakers to Ukraine only in the past week, for example. Republican Representative Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan when he spoke in 1997, the last time anyone second in line for the US presidency visited the island. But besides Pelosi being a leading member of the same party as Biden, relations with China have deteriorated since the 90s. In response to Pelosi’s trip, China has brutally threatened”strong measuresto Taiwan, conveying serious concerns to the White House about the trip.

Much of the turmoil in Washington and Beijing during the trip may have to do with timing. Next month, the Chinese Communist Party will hold its 20th Congress, a major gathering that takes place every five years and in which Xi Jinping is expected to take up an unprecedented third term as president. At the conference, he is also likely to discuss Taiwan at a time when experts see parallels between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the power China wants to wield over Taiwan. (Many wonder what? classes China is adopting Vladimir Putin’s brutal adventurism and the West’s response to it.) And Biden and Xi are due to a call on hold to facilitate relations between the US and China.

“There’s bad timing and worse timing, and this is definitely worse timing,” Lev Nachman, a researcher at the Harvard Fairbank Center for China Studies, told me. “The concern is that Pelosi’s departure could be a drop that breaks the camel’s back.”

China regularly annoys Taiwan with military exercises, but this time it could be a little more provocative. “Almost when there’s a congressional delegation, when there’s an arms sale that goes through to Taiwan, China does a whole song and dance,” Nachman said. “When China says they’re going to do something to get revenge, the worry is: will that be the same, you know, shtick they always give us? Or is there something else to come?”

Even if Pelosi supports Taiwan, her office has not officially confirmed the trip. (A spokesperson reiterated to cafemadrid that they do not confirm or deny international travel due to “security protocols.”) The status of the trip at this point is as ambiguous as the US’s exact commitments to Taiwan.

A nuanced China policy and an unscripted Biden

The ambiguity surrounding US-Taiwan relations is mind-boggling for those not fully adept at the ‘One China’ policy, which has been in effect since the 1970s. Officially, the US recognizes China’s claim to Taiwan, but does not endorse that claim. The US officially says it does not support Taiwan’s independence, but safeguarding Taiwan’s autonomy is central to US action in Asia. And Pelosi’s future visit to Taiwan could upset the delicate balance.

There are no formal diplomatic ties between the US and Taiwan, but many unofficial ties; relations are dictated by a series of diplomatic protocols and laws – the Taiwan Relations Act (passed by Congress in 1979), the three Joint Communiqués (between the US and China in the 1970s and 1980s), and the Six Guarantees (between the United States and China in the 1970s and 1980s). the US and Taiwan). For example, the US can sell weapons to Taiwan for its self-defense against China, while maintaining relations with China.

The policy of strategic ambiguity – whether or not the US would support Taiwan in a Chinese attack – persists, as National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan emphasized last week. But Biden has suggested otherwise.

As president, Biden has sparked controversy by describing “the commitment we have made” to defend Taiwan if China were to attack it, even though US policy contains no such commitment. Biden’s persistent, unscripted comments about this have led many to speculate that he is changing policy. Even a small change in wording is a big deal. When the US State Department changes a sentence on its website, China gives a formal conviction. So the president who contradicts his own government multiple times is undermining himself or porting China. After each episode, the White House has downplayed the comments as, essentially, Biden being Biden.

Biden’s comments suggest, as New York Times reporter David Sanger has: positedthat hawkish personnel in the Biden administration are “winning the day” and “this administration is that they may be rethinking the usefulness of strategic ambiguity.”

Jessica Drun, a Taiwanese expert at the Atlantic Council, says China is able to lead the way because its approach to Taiwan is explicit and declaratory — that Taiwan belongs to them and that the US is militaristic by arming it. “Ours is packed in nuances, and some words have different meanings from a diplomatic perspective,” she told me. “There are things that need to be reserved every time, and that’s why it’s harder for us to articulate clearly, at least to a public audience, what our positions are. That’s why there’s so much misunderstanding about US policy toward Taiwan, sometimes even by elements within our own government.”

When Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke about China policy, such as with the Shangri-La Dialogue in June, he actually read the Taiwan Relations Act aloud. He was careful to stay on the script. Minister of Foreign Affairs Tony Blinken has added some more details about the American approach to Taiwan in a short explanation important speech about Asia in May. He pointed out that the policy “has been consistent across decades and governments” and said: “While our policies have not changed, Beijing’s increasing coercion has changed.”

Biden’s team’s caution stands in stark contrast to the more bombastic approach taken by the Donald Trump administration, which has seen trade wars, bitter words and approval from more than $18 billion in arms sales to Taiwan. (Biden has approved just over $1 billion to date.)

Trump, as President-elect, broke US policy by making a telephone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. As Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo delivered a speech that was interpreted as: impending regime change in China. And since leaving the government, Pompeo and former Minister of Defence Mark Esper have both visited Taiwan. With Biden’s low approval ratings and new presidential elections in just two years, many in the Chinese government view a much more anti-Chinese Republican government as imminent — all as members of both parties in the US erode the ‘One China’ policy.

Rhetoric aside, Trump and Biden’s approach to China and Taiwan shows some similarities. Biden, one might say, implements a aggressive China strategy that former Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger urged at Trump’s White House. Biden’s Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo even hosted Pottinger to discuss and coordinate industrial policy in March.

In Washington, there is a bipartisan consensus on Taiwan. “Republicans are louder about Taiwan than Democrats,” Nachman said, but he explains, “Every Taiwanese law that has ever passed through Congress, both at the House and Senate levels, has been supported bipartisanly and unanimously by both Democrats and Republicans.”

For now, Pelosi is in a predicament. Canceling the visit to Taiwan would make the US look weak and China triumph, while leaving it could be reckless. The face-saving de-escalation for Pelosi may be to postpone the visit until after the party congress.

Bonnie Glaser, who leads the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund think tank in Washington, argues that the US and the world need clarity from the Biden administration on how it sees the relationship between the US and Taiwan so that the president’s unscripted comments don’t accidentally set policy. Without doing so, and as Pelosi is about to travel, it risks adding new dangers to what she describes as toxic US-China relations.

“Try to convince the Chinese that it is not part of a grand plan to change our policies, and that is very difficult,” she told me. “They attribute more coherence to our policies than they should.”


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