02 August 2022
On 2 August, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan, becoming the highest-ranking US official to visit Taipei since then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997. Pelosi addressed the Taiwanese parliament and met with President Tsai Ing-wen, reiterating US support for Taiwan's security and democracy, and stating that solidarity with the Taiwanese people is “crucial”. In response, China, which claims Taiwan as one of its provinces and had voiced its strong opposition to the trip through several stern warnings in previous days, approved a series of trade bans against Taiwan and launched military drills in the waters surrounding the island, accusing the US government of jeopardising US-China relations and cross-strait security.
Pelosi's visit adds stress to the already tense relationship between China and the US, in which cross-strait security has become an increasingly central issue since President Joe Biden was elected in 2020. For the Communist Party of China (CPC) the foundation of US-China relations is the One China principle: that there is only one China, that Taiwan is part of China, and that the People's Republic is the only legitimate government of China.
Under these conditions, the Chinese government tolerates US commercial and cultural exchanges with Taiwan to an extent but sees any sort of political support as an attack to its own national sovereignty. The US response to the One China principle is the One China policy, whereby the US government acknowledges China's position and follows a policy of strategic ambiguity to prevent any unilateral challenge to the status quo by either side of the Taiwan Strait.
However, as President Xi Jinping's rhetoric on reunification and actions around Taiwan intensify, maintaining strategic ambiguity is becoming increasingly difficult for the US, with Biden stating on three different occasions in the last year that the US would defend Taiwan militarily in the event of a Chinese invasion. Although White House officials have scrambled to explain on each occasion that this did not mark a departure from the policy of strategic ambiguity, the CPC has perceived arms sales, visits by lower-ranking officials and former policy makers, and US military activity in the Strait as a demonstration of increasing US support for Taiwan. Consequently, the CPC perceives Pelosi's trip as the latest in a series of actions effectively supporting Taiwan independence, threatening the sovereignty of the People's Republic, and ultimately aiming to prevent China from achieving “national rejuvenation” and becoming a global power.
The CPC increasingly sees US conduct as proof that the US is gradually abandoning its One China policy, despite Biden's clarification to Xi and the media that Pelosi's trip was not endorsed by the US presidency or the Department of Defense. For the Chinese government, these are threats to China's integrity and future, and there is no room for compromise.
Pelosi's 19-hour visit is a significant diplomatic victory for Taiwan, as it reinforces ties with the US at a crucial point in the island's relationship with China, and it has the potential to encourage allies to intensify contacts with Taiwan. Tsai referred to Pelosi as “Taiwan's most steadfast friend” and stated that her conduct demonstrated “the United States Congress' rock solid support for Taiwan”. However, this success is perceived in mainland China as a humiliation, and the CPC is highly likely to seek to deter foreign diplomats from emulating the US House Speaker.
Additionally, China's strong rhetoric in the days leading to Pelosi's visit, the CPC's perception of the visit as an attack against the country's sovereignty, and the proximity of Xi Jinping's probable re-election at the 20th National Congress of the CPC in October-November 2022, will almost certainly result in Chinese government retaliation to avoid losing face. Such a response is almost certain to focus on several aspects, including:
However, there are two main factors that have the potential to mitigate the intensity of China's response:
China's response is almost certain to develop in the short-to-medium term as an accumulation of different measures, and its full extent will better be assessed over the next year. This will provide the opportunity for diplomatic channels to defuse the situation and use this crisis to build structures that prevent US-China tensions from further escalating.
(Note: Items from news/wire services are abstracted from the originals and are not verbatim)
Author: F Xavier Casals, London, UK
Key pointsUS House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan on 2 August, addressing the Taiwanese parliam...