In his essay, “Why Speaker Pelosi Should Invite President Tsai Ing-wen Before Congress,” Gerrit van der Wees claims that the time has arrived for Taiwan’s president to deliver an address to Congress. This argument deserves some scrutiny. Is it wise policy to invite Tsai to deliver an address to the U.S. Congress?
Van der Wees begins his essay with a recitation of some “facts” about China’s behavior. These “facts” are intended to serve as a premise for his argument. So let’s begin with a few “fact checks.”
Van der Wees claims that Beijing has “pressured five nations to withdraw diplomatic recognition from Taiwan.” Not true. It was Tsai who ended the “diplomatic truce” that had existed for roughly eight years. She criticized the truce during her presidential campaign and signaled her intention to junk it. And despite repeated warnings of dire consequences by leading political figures in Taiwan (including members of her own party), she refused to endorse a loose framework that had served as the foundation for stable relations with Beijing since 2008 — the so-called “1992 Consensus” (or “one China, different interpretations”). Diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks confirm that small countries had approached Beijing wanting to dump Taipei during this era of détente. But China refused their requests at the time. Now, it is slowly agreeing to recognize these countries.
In addition to losing diplomatic allies, van der Wees complains that China is “blocking Taiwan’s international space.” This is true. But he doesn’t explain why doors that had been open for Tsai’s predecessor — such as participation in the World Health Organization — are now closed. Again, it appears that Tsai’s unsound approach toward relations with Beijing came with a high cost and the Taiwanese people (and global health) must pay the price.
Van der Wees then quotes a small group of lawmakers who claim that Beijing has escalated its rhetoric toward Taiwan. This is true. But Taipei has likewise escalated its rhetoric. For example, in 2018, William Lai, then premier, boldly declared that he was a “worker for Taiwan independence.” When Beijing complained, Lai shot back that, “I am absolutely a Taiwan independence worker!” The premier knew well that independence is the most explosive issue in cross-strait relations and that his statement would infuriate China. And no one can forget Tsai’s infamous telephone call to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. These are just two examples. The point is that there are now knuckleheads in both Taipei and Beijing who rarely miss an opportunity to abuse each other.
Having warmed up to his main argument, van der Wees advances some dubious reasons in his attempt to explain why the time is now ripe to invite Tsai to Washington. For example, he claims that Tsai should be invited because things have changed in Taiwan. But this isn’t news; Taiwan democratized long ago. Alternatively, he claims that a visit could be a part of celebrations commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) — the law that guides America’s “unofficial” relations with Taiwan. However, a series of congressional resolutions and dry academic meetings were enough for the past 39 anniversaries. And he seems to suggest that a visit might somehow help convince China to rule out the use of force to take Taiwan. But he fails to mention that China has consistently pledged to pursue peaceful reunification since 1979, and that the one thing guaranteed to spark a war is the very cause that he has championed for over three decades (Taiwan’s de jure independence from China). One could go on, but the fact of the matter is that none of reasons voiced by those who want to invite Tsai to Congress make a lot of sense. So, why would any rational person want to do this?
Some familiar with the Taiwan issue believe that there might be more going here. Namely, they suggest that the real reason some elements are pushing lawmakers to invite Tsai to Washington could be traced to domestic politics within Taiwan and the activities of lobbyists on Capitol Hill. As it happens, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suffered a crushing defeat in the island’s “9 in 1” local elections on November 24, 2018. Tsai was forced to step down as chairperson of the independence leaning DPP, and there were even calls for her to resign or step aside as president. Consider for a moment that the latest Taiwan National Security Survey (TNSS), a scientific poll that was conducted during January 3-7, 2019, found that the percentage of Taiwanese who are “dissatisfied” or “extremely dissatisfied” with the president’s performance has jumped from 57 percent in late 2017 to 66 percent today. Only 24 percent approve of her performance. To put that in terms some Americans might more easily understand, she is more unpopular than Trump at his worst.
In a nutshell, Taiwan’s current president is a controversial and unpopular politician who is in deep trouble at home. And it is possible that some elements believe that a visit to Congress would be just the kind of public relations gimmick to give her a boost in the polls (in political science the practice is called “diversionary foreign policy”). At this time, this remains a matter of speculation — to the best of my knowledge, there is no “smoking gun” to conclusively prove this hypothesis is correct. However, it would be naïve to overlook the possibility as lobbying groups linked to Taiwan are credited for gaining approval for then-President Lee Teng-hui’s controversial 1996 visit to America — an event that touched off a missile crisis in the Taiwan Strait. As an article in the Los Angeles Times observed at the time, Lee’s support in Congress for the visit was the result of “assiduous — and extravagant — lobbying.”
In the final analysis, one can set aside all the facts about Taipei’s troubled relationship with Beijing. And speculation about the motivations that drive some to support a Tsai speech also can be ignored. Setting all of that aside, it would be most helpful if van der Wees and others pushing this initiative would come down to earth for a moment and state plainly how they believe China will respond to a Tsai speech in the U.S. Congress. To be sure, there is a chance Beijing might do nothing — if we are lucky. On the other hand, we might witness a repeat of the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996 when President Bill Clinton had to dispatch two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region. The only difference is that — as Van der Wees astutely observed — things have changed in past decades. Not only is China’s economy now 20 times the size of Taiwan’s economy, the People’s Liberation Army has a lot more military muscle than it did in the 1990s. In fact, it’s been stocking up on “carrier killing” anti-ship missiles. This time, a crisis might escalate into a cataclysmic militarized conflict.
Americans should ask themselves whether hosting a speech by an unpopular Taiwanese president is worth taking such a risk. Given the fact that an October 2018 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that an overwhelming majority of the U.S. public does not want to go to war with China over Taiwan, the answer to that question should be obvious.
Dennis V. Hickey is Distinguished Professor and the James F. Morris Endowed Professor of Political Science at Missouri State University. The opinions expressed in this essay are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of Missouri State University, the state of Missouri, or the United States government.