Representative Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is at the center of a diplomatic firestorm amid reports that she is planning to travel to Taiwan next month.
Financial Times broke the story that Pelosi is looking to travel to Taiwan in August, making up for an April trip that had to be cancelled when Pelosi contracted COVID-19. “Six people familiar with the situation said Pelosi would take a delegation to Taiwan in August,” FT’s Demetri Sevastopulo and Kathrin Hille wrote. The trip would be part of a broader visit to Asia that will also include stops in Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
There has been no official confirmation of the trip as yet. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said “it had not received any information about a planned visit to Taiwan by Pelosi,” according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency. The ministry added that “it always welcomes the visit of American congresspersons to the country.”
In response to an emailed inquiry from The Diplomat, Taiwan’s de facto embassy in the United States, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, said, “We have no further information to share at this time.”
Pelosi also refused to comment on reports about the trip, telling reporters on July 21, “I don’t ever discuss my travel plans… it’s a security issue.”
The saga took a dramatic turn on July 22, when U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters that the U.S. military thinks such a trip is “not a good idea right now.”
According to Politico, “White House and Defense Department officials have already been quietly relaying the risks of a potential trip to Pelosi’s office.” But with Biden’s public warning, the dispute is now happening in plain sight.
Responding to questions from reporters, Pelosi suggested that Biden’s comments stemmed from a fear that “our plane would get shot down or something like that by the Chinese. I don’t know exactly… I haven’t heard it from the President.”
Pelosi added more generally that “it’s important for us to show support for Taiwan,” while emphasizing that “none of us has ever said we’re for independence when it comes to Taiwan. That’s up to Taiwan to decide.”
Amid the apparent disagreement between the White House and Pelosi’s office, questions have turned to what potential actions China might take in response.
Asked about a potential Pelosi trip in a press conference on July 25, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded, “The Chinese side has repeatedly made clear to the U.S. side our serious concern over Speaker Pelosi’s potential visit to Taiwan and our firm opposition to the visit.”
Zhao added, “We are fully prepared for any eventuality. If the U.S. side insists on making the visit, the Chinese side will take firm and strong measures to safeguard our sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
That is fairly boilerplate language from China on Taiwan-U.S. interactions, and typically there is little to no concrete reaction from Beijing after such visits. However, this time may be different, if reports are accurate that China is warning more strenuously than normal against Pelosi’s trip. The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin, for instance, wrote that “administration officials tell me that they have particular cause for concern right now. China, they say, is planning a potentially destabilizing response.”
There’s certainly reason to suggest Beijing would feel forced into a strong response. China’s political elites are jockeying for position ahead of the once-every-five-years Party Congress. Xi Jinping, currently seeking a precedent-breaking third term as Communist Party leader, cannot afford to be seen as weak on Taiwan.
More broadly, China’s government has already been increasing the volume on its warnings about U.S. engagement with Taiwan, concerned by a gradual uptick in the frequency and scope of such exchanges. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in June, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe devoted the bulk of his remarks to strident warnings about China’s resolve on Taiwan.
“If anyone dares to secede Taiwan from China – let me be clear – we will not hesitate to fight,” Wei said. “We will fight at all costs and we will fight to the very end.”
Most recently, Chinese officials have begun answering the Biden administration’s calls for “guardrails” in the China-U.S. relationship by pointing to previous U.S. commitments on Taiwan.
“The ‘guardrails’ for China-U.S. relationship already exists — the three China-U.S. joint communiqués,” a Foreign Ministry spokesperson declared on July 7. “…The U.S. needs to abide by the provisions in the joint communiqués and the commitments it has made to China.”
If the United States moves forward with yet another precedent-setting trip to Taiwan, Beijing may well feel that its warnings are having no effect – and see a need to up the ante.
The Global Times, long a mouthpiece for nationalistic sentiments in China, said Pelosi’s visit would be a “strategic level provocation” and urged China “to make its determination clear and show its strengths, and let the U.S. side decide to avoid a crisis.” In other words, the pressure is on for Xi to issue strident warnings – and back them up if the visit goes ahead.
On the other hand, the Biden administration is now coming under political pressure to ensure the trip does occur.
Republican Senator Ben Sasse made it very clear that he would see a decision to postpone Pelosi’s trip as “feebleness.”
“Speaker Pelosi should go to Taiwan and President Biden should make it abundantly clear to Chairman Xi that there’s not a damn thing the Chinese Communist Party can do about it,” he said in a statement. “No more feebleness and self-deterrence. This is very simple: Taiwan is an ally and the Speaker of the House of Representatives should meet with the Taiwanese men and women who stare down the threat of Communist China.”
Other Republicans have also spoken out urging Pelosi to carry on the trip, suggesting that if the trip is cancelled it would be tantamount to capitulating to Beijing. Now a high-stakes political game is underway, and either Beijing or Washington is set to swallow a very public embarrassment at a politically sensitive moment.
The current imbroglio is exactly why U.S. congressional visits to Taiwan are generally not publicized in advance. In November 2021, for example, four U.S. senators and two representatives visited Taiwan. As Brian Hioe noted for The Diplomat at the time, “[T]he names of the visiting politicians were not initially confirmed by the Tsai administration, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs only issued its formal press release about the visit on November 15. This was several days after the delegation had already left.”
Likewise, a visit by three other U.S. senators in June 2021 was not announced in advance. In both cases, the U.S. legislators were traveling on board a U.S. military plane during broader tours of Asia before making their previously unpublicized stops in Taiwan. Those are exactly the circumstances under which Pelosi would reportedly take a congressional delegation to Taiwan in August.
The key difference is that Pelosi’s planned trip is now incredibly public, which dramatically raises the pressure on China’s government to do something to stop it. And China’s strident warnings increase calls for the Biden administration – itself facing a difficult midterm test this November – not to give in to Beijing’s pressure.
Biden and Xi are expected to hold virtual talks in the next week. Pelosi’s potential Taiwan trip will certainly be high on the agenda. Ultimately, however, Pelosi – not the White House – will make the decision on whether to travel or not.