WASHINGTON DC – On 20 July, the US president Joe Biden gave a vague and somewhat non-committal response to reports that the House speaker Nancy Pelosi plans to lead a delegation to Taiwan in August. “I think that the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now,” Biden said. “But I don’t know what the status of it [the trip] is.”
It is possible that Biden was attempting to play the role of “good cop” ahead of an expected call with the Chinese president Xi Jinping, signalling to Beijing that the White House was not involved with the trip, and that “bad cop” Pelosi was acting on her own initiative. But then again, perhaps Biden was just doing what he has often done before – wading into one of the country’s most complex and consequential foreign policy challenges, and going off-script.
In any case, the mere suggestion that Pelosi might travel to Taiwan has already drawn a predictably furious response from Beijing, which claims sovereignty over the self-governing island. “Should the US side insist on making the visit, China will act strongly to resolutely respond to it and take counter-measures,” warned the foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on 21 July. “We mean what we say.”
Pelosi’s proposed visit, which was first reported by the Financial Times and has not been confirmed by her office, had been planned for earlier in the year, but was postponed in April after she caught Covid-19. If it goes ahead, it will be the first time a US official of her rank has visited Taiwan in 25 years (the then-House speaker Newt Gingrich went there in 1997), and would come at a particularly fraught moment in the US-China relationship. Ties between the two are at their lowest point in decades, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has focused Washington minds on the danger that Beijing could soon try to seize the island by force. Avril Haines, the US director of national intelligence, warned in May that the threat to Taiwan in the next eight years was “acute”.
Xi has stressed that “time and momentum” are on China’s side and there is no reason to believe that an attack is imminent, but it is notable that he has stepped up pressure on the island in recent years through economic coercion, disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks and military posturing. Chinese warplanes have significantly increased their flights into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, with incursions almost doubling in 2022.
If Pelosi does travel to Taiwan, “no one will believe it is because Biden ‘cannot control her’,” wrote Hu Xijin, the outspoken former editor of the nationalist tabloid Global Times. “People are more likely to believe that her visit is part of Washington’s tactic of ‘good cop/bad cop’.” He urged Beijing to declare a “no-fly zone” over Taiwan and suggested Chinese warplanes could “accompany” Pelosi’s plane, flying over her landing site and the island itself, which would be an extremely provocative and dangerous move.
While it is unlikely Xi will take Hu’s advice, the Chinese leader may well feel the need to demonstrate Beijing’s displeasure by staging a major aerial incursion or even missile drills close to Taiwan, as took place during the last major Taiwan crisis in 1995-96. The US responded then by sending two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area.
Biden has not helped to calm the situation by stating three times in the past 12 months (most recently in May) that the US would defend Taiwan militarily if it was attacked. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act requires America to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, but successive administrations have maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” as to whether US troops would fight. Biden’s aides have insisted that he is not abandoning that policy, but those assurances ring hollow in Beijing. Chinese officials are likely to be similarly unimpressed by the claim that the US president was not aware of Pelosi’s impending trip.
This article first appeared in the World Review newsletter on 22 July. It comes out on Mondays and Fridays; subscribe here.