U.S. House speaker’s initiative lacks consistency with Biden policy toward China
MASAHIRO OKOSHI, Nikkei Washington bureau chief
WASHINGTON — Deterring China’s efforts to alter the status quo in the South and East China seas ultimately comes down to U.S. power. Whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan advances those efforts is questionable.
Her visit, against the advice of the military, may have brought forward the risk of a U.S.-China crisis when preparations in Taiwan and Japan are not yet adequate. In terms of what it aims to accomplish within the broader context of U.S.-China relations, Pelosi’s visit is lacking in any apparent strategic component.
“America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy,” Pelosi said in a statement on her visit, echoing her previous tributes to Taiwan’s democracy.
This is a natural thing for a democratically elected lawmaker to say. Both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress are united in their criticism of China’s abuses.
But the problem with Pelosi’s visit is that it burdens the Biden administration with dealing with the consequences of one politician’s actions, however principled they may be.
Biden admitted to reporters that his military advisers thought Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan was a bad idea. Yet he was unable to stop an initiative by a coequal branch of the U.S. government. This reveals a breakdown in communication between the two top figures in the president’s Democratic Party.
The timing of Pelosi’s visit owes simply to the U.S. Congress being in summer recess. With the Democrats forecast to lose their majority in the House of Representatives in November’s midterm elections, her days as speaker seem numbered. In this light, the visit appears intended more as a personal achievement — becoming the first incumbent speaker in 25 years to set foot in Taiwan — than a part of U.S. strategy toward China.
From the American perspective, Pelosi’s move could be explained as having some strategic value for preempting any Chinese attempts to unify Taiwan by force. From Beijing’s perspective, however, Washington appears to be gradually neglecting the “one China” policy that is the foundation of the U.S.-China relationship.
Both sides are talking past each other with an eye to public opinion. The risk is that a vicious cycle is about to break out in which hard-line discourse will lead to hard-line action. All this is a reminder that the issue of Taiwan’s status is a powder keg in Asia whose fuse can be lit by the slightest misstep.
Both Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping have now lost face after having held a phone call last week in hopes of avoiding such misunderstandings.
The Biden administration has not presented a vision of what happens after Pelosi leaves Taiwan. Its calls for de-escalation from Beijing have been met only with blame. Shortly after Pelosi’s arrival in Taiwan, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said “China will definitely take all necessary measures to resolutely safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity in response to the U.S. Speaker’s visit.”
Some Japanese companies are already preparing for a Taiwan crisis. Judging by the current situation, they may need to brace for recurring crises.