Now that her plane has left Taiwan and she is on her way, and now that we, the wider world, are waiting for and watching China’s response, perhaps we can ask – what did Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan achieve? What did it get Taiwan, which, unlike the US House Speaker, is left to live with China’s reaction? Is Taiwan safer than it was before the visit? Is its democracy more secure? Is it less threatened by Beijing than it was before she touched down?
What we did most certainly get were stories about Pelosi’s long commitment to Taiwan, her long history of standing up to China. We got history-focused essays, the images of Pelosi standing in 1991 with a banner in support of “those who died for democracy in China” in the Tiananmen Square protests two years earlier, and stories of her pushing Bill Clinton to pressure China to protect US software in 1996. We were reminded of her speaking on Capitol Hill for the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square in 2009, and unveiling a statue for the 30th anniversary in 2019. We received the pictures of her in Taiwan this week, in a white outfit surrounded by interlocutors in black suits.
I believe Pelosi believes in standing up to authoritarianism in China, and that Taiwan is a cause she holds dear. But everything about how this was handled – including the insistence on going now, during Congress’s summer recess, yes, but also at a time that would make the visit riskier and more fraught within the context of Chinese politics – put not Taiwan, but Pelosi, at the centre.
Then there was the rhetoric leading up to the visit. Newt Gingrich, the last Speaker to visit Taiwan back in 1997, said Pelosi should call China’s bluff and go. A conservative news website, the Free Beacon, ran a story under the headline “Pelosi Must Go”. Washington’s right-wing think tanks pushed out commentary pieces saying the same. There was an element of this visit that was, or became, about party politics: if such a high-profile Democrat cancelled or postponed her visit, what would that mean for the Democratic Party’s position on China? That domestic politics often factor into foreign policy and diplomacy does not mean that it was good that they did so in this case.
None of this is to say that a visit at any point should have been off limits. Taiwan, by all accounts, welcomed the visit, which should count for at least as much as Beijing’s warnings. The United States, if it is going to support Taiwan and avoid conflict with the Xi Jinping, the Chinese president (and his military), will certainly have more difficult diplomatic balancing acts between Washington, Taipei and Beijing ahead of it. But watching events unfold this week, I, at least, could not shake the uneasy feeling that the visit benefited American politicians more than the island they were meant to be supporting.
A visit is a symbol, not a policy. Symbols are not unimportant, but they should not be mistaken for the end of the story, or even for the story itself. What is at stake here is bigger than any one member of Congress. All American politicians – including, yes, the Speaker of the House – would do well to remember that.
[See also: Xinjiang: a region of suspicion and subjugation]