Tuesday saw the arrival of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Taiwan, putting an end to speculation over whether or not she would travel to the autonomous island democracy amid rising tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Pelosi made the trip despite the backing and engagement of other nations, as well as the warnings and threats of a potential military response from China, which regards Taiwan as its territory and is adamantly opposed to its independence.
Prior to Pelosi’s arrival, China issued a statement saying that its military would “not sit idly by.” As the US military plane carrying Pelosi touched down in Taiwan, Chinese state media reported that Chinese Su-35 fighter jets were operating in the Taiwan Strait for an unspecified reason.
“Our delegation’s visit to Taiwan honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant Democracy. Our discussions with Taiwan leadership reaffirm our support for our partner & promote our shared interests, including advancing a free & open Indo-Pacific region,” Pelosi said in a tweet on Tuesday. Before she touched down, Pelosi declined to confirm she was visiting Taiwan, citing security concerns.
The House Speaker is the highest-ranking US lawmaker to travel to Taiwan in 25 years, since then-Speaker Newt Gingrich visited the island in 1997.
There are a confluence of factors contributing to China’s anger over Pelosi traveling to Taiwan.
China signaled that it would view Pelosi’s visit as undermining the US’s One China policy, which has guided Washington’s approach to Taiwan for decades.
Under the One China policy, the US does not support Taiwan’s independence and offers diplomatic acknowledgment of Beijing’s position that there’s only one Chinese government.
The US has not had formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan since 1979, when it established official ties with China. That said, the US maintains a robust partnership with Taipei, and it is Taiwan’s top supplier of arms, much to Beijing’s frustration.
The extent of US engagement with Taiwan is at the heart of the present contentious dynamic with China, which is led by the increasingly authoritarian Xi Jinping.
Xi is on the precipice of an unprecedented third term as China’s leader, and analysts say he does not want to appear weak on Taiwan, a core Chinese national interest.
Adding fuel to the fire is that Pelosi has repeatedly decried Beijing over human rights abuses throughout her career, drawing the ire of the Chinese government.
And on top of this, President Joe Biden, since entering the White House, has been accused of repeatedly undermining the longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” by suggesting the US would come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a Chinese attack, enraging Beijing. The US has long left that uncertain, and the White House was quick to walk back Biden’s comments.
Top China experts have said the US government’s inconsistent approach to Taiwan has exacerbated the thorny state of relations with Beijing.
The US needs “to be more clear and more consistent in our policy” toward Taiwan, Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Insider last week.
“The US says it doesn’t support Taiwan independence. We have to be clear about what that means we will not do,” Glaser added.
But Glaser also underscored that this issue is “not one-sided,” adding that the Chinese “have been using economic, diplomatic, and military coercion against Taiwan in ways that are extremely destabilizing.”
“I think it is not wrong to say that the Chinese bear more blame — certainly more blame than Taiwan — in changing the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and introducing the degree of instability that exists today,” Glaser said.
“But the US is a factor, it’s not only Beijing and Taipei,” she said. “And I just don’t think that this has been handled very well by the US. Congress is part of it too. It’s Congress, it’s the executive branch. We just have not been very consistent.”