• Pelosi and China and Taiwan; Is the Domestic Political Juice Worth the Foreign Policy Squeeze?

    August 3, 2022 // 1 Comment »

    The Biden administration is increasingly concerned about a trip  to Taiwan next month by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They should be. The visit is pointlessly provocative for little gain. Pelosi would do well to remember the the Chinese proverb: “Always know if the juice is worth the squeeze.”

    The domestic political juice is points for Pelosi from her large, pro-Taiwan, constituency back home as she runs for reelection. A third of Pelosi’s congressional district is Asian American and taking on Big China has long been a major part of her political identity. She, for example, made a public show out of meeting with pro-democracy protestors out of Hong Kong and urging a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

    The foreign policy squeeze — the negative political fall out and possible repercussions from such a visit — is extensive. When Pelosi proposed a visit in April, the Chinese responded “If the U.S. House speaker, a political leader of the United States, deliberately visits Taiwan, it would be a malicious provocation against China’s sovereignty and gross interference in China’s internal affairs, and would send an extremely dangerous political signal to the outside world.” China often fails to understand the impact of domestic politics on U.S. actions abroad, and no doubt imagines Pelosi as some sort of messager heralding a new strategic thinking out of Washington. They would likely make much of the Pelosi visit, envisioning it as a follow-on to Mike Pompeo’s March travel to the island.

    Almost unique globally, the China-Taiwan-U.S. relationship exists in a kind of strategic stasis. Each side of the triangle (the U.S. side tends to speak for interested third parties like Australia, Japan, and Korea at present) talks the talk of reunification and independence, but officially the line is based on the 1979 U.S.-Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and follow on diplomacy which states there is only one China and Taiwan is a part of it. That line, one of the cleverest phrasings in modern diplomacy, has kept the peace for 73 years through things as varied as the Vietnam War, multiple changes of power in all three entities (part of the deal is not to call Taiwan a “country”) the fall of the Soviet Union and multiple incidents and kerfuffles. It is a sturdy but not unbreakable basis for the relationship. It all speaks to the origins of the diplomatic base here, the TRA, which grew out of Mao’s threat to “liberate” Taiwan and Chiang Kai-shek’s demand for U.S. support to reclaim the Mainland by force. With the Korean War sopping up American blood in the initial phase of the three-side relationship, Washington had no desire to join what would have been a land war to rival World War II. The U.S. Cold War policy was to assure Taipei’s survival, all formalized in 1979 as the inevitable forced a change of plans and the diplomatic recognition of Beijing alongside Taiwan.

    This all came to be known colloquially as “strategic ambiguity,” a policy understood by all parties (Biden gaffes to the contrary aside) to mean the U.S. doesn’t have to defend Taiwan, but it can, and probably will. The circumstances and means of defense are left unspoken. China matched this with a policy of “strategic patience”: China will not wait forever, but China also understands the time between now and forever is long. The TRA works. The Mainland has not invaded Taiwan. Despite changes in leadership from Mao to Deng to Xi, the Mainland has not invaded. Taiwan changed from a military dictatorship to a democracy, and the Mainland has not invaded. Beijing and Taipei are more politically and economically integrated than any point in modern history.

    One part of the unspoken deal is that official visits between Taiwan authorities and U.S. officials (note the accepted nouns) should generally occur on a mid-to-lower level. The idea is the higher the rank of those involved, especially on the U.S. side, the more “legitimacy” is conferred on to Taiwan’s status. So today the standard is some diplomatic grumpiness out of Beijing over visits to Taiwan by U.S. Congress persons but a tacit agreement the U.S. will confine higher level visits, such as from Taiwan’s president, to American soil and only then under some pretense, such as the president refueling enroute to somewhere else, or visiting the American mainland as part of a UN trip. These things shift, grow, and recede over time, but Pelosi as Speaker is clearly tweaking China by her planned visit.

    Another part of the unspoken deal is the timing of visits, and here again Pelosi is coming close to the edge of understood propriety. Not by coincidence the most sensitive period marks a holiday in both entities, October 11 (celebrated in Taiwan on October 10) the anniversary of the Xinhai 1911 Revolution, aimed at the foreign Manchu Qing dynasty. The chosen occasion is important, because Xinhai, ideologically midwifed by Dr. Sun Yat Sen, is acknowledged by both the most hardcore Communists in Beijing and the most fervent Nationalists in Taipei as the common origin point for modern China. This is drilled into every schoolkid on both sides of the Strait and forms a common vocabulary among their diplomats. Pelosi’s trip would come in the lead up to this date and the follow-on 20th national Congress of the Communist Party. During these no-go periods, Beijing is likely to respond more aggressively to perceived provocations. In particular, President Xi Jinping, who is expected to achieve an unprecedented third term as leader, second only to Mao historically, is keen not to suffer any slights in the lead-up to the conference.

    In other words, the bigger the perceived political and ideological slur, the bigger the required response, and then the bigger the required counter-response and so on until someone calls it quits. Or a war starts.

    That said, Pelosi is more likely to start a war in Washington as Speaker of the House than by visiting Taiwan. An invasion of Taiwan would leave the China politically isolated, economically damaged, and reputationally crippled. And ironically, a failed attack could lead to a Taiwanese declaration of independence China would be incapable of stopping. There is no rational, risk vs. gain, no reason for hostilities with or without Nancy Pelosi visiting.

    It is likely Pelosi will be talked out of her planned visit, as she was once before using a case of Covid in April as the excuse then. President Biden himself on Wednesday told reporters “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now” Pelosi travel to Taiwan, a very weak response from the lame duck president now further removed from his own foreign policy by Covid. Nonetheless, given the seriousness of the matter, among those briefing Pelosi were General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Defense, military and intelligence officials have “tried to explain the risks associated with the timing of her proposed trip,” said one administration official.

    Pelosi is a smart woman; she gets nearly 100 percent of the political gain in her home constituency just by proposing the trip, and tallies an owed favor from Biden for not going. She can again “postpone” the trip, keeping the door open to placate Taiwan while keeping the door open so Beijing can feel the heat. There is no urgency, no need to be seen “standing with Taiwan” at the present moment, no chance this could be seen as “weakness” especially if U.S. diplomats explained quietly to Beijing the domestic political side they likely do not understand. In other words, Pelosi gets most of the domestic political juice for none of the foreign policy squeeze.

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