The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The real crisis over Taiwan will start after Pelosi comes home

Demonstrators gather in Taipei, Taiwan, in support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit on Aug. 2. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her delegation have landed in Taiwan, where the immediate worry is the small, but serious possibility, of direct military confrontation with China. But the larger impact of Pelosi’s visit will play out after she goes home, over weeks, months and years.

The pace and intensity of U.S.-China competition are set to go up, changing the relationship forever, with Taiwan caught squarely in the middle. For several weeks, President Biden’s senior national security officials privately tried to persuade Pelosi to delay her trip, arguing that the risks of Chinese retaliation were not worth the benefits of a high-profile visit at this time. But as confirmation of her impending arrival leaked out Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly expressed support for her trip and urged China not to escalate the already tense situation.

To avoid the appearance of provocation, the U.S. Air Force plane carrying the Pelosi delegation flew around the Philippines on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei. No U.S. fighter planes flanked Pelosi’s jet, although there was plenty of U.S. military firepower nearby, just in case. The administration’s urgent priority is to reduce the risk of a miscalculation that could spark a confrontation.

But several administration sources told me that while the Chinese military is likely to make some aggressive moves today, such as shooting off missiles or flying jets close to Taiwan, China’s leaders will also probably try to avoid a military confrontation over Taiwan — at least for the time being. Beijing’s response will come in phases and not primarily in the military domain. That could forever change the U.S.-China relationship and subject Taiwan to longer-term pain.

“China appears to be positioning itself to take further steps in the coming days and perhaps over longer time horizons,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Monday.

In his phone call this past week with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden both defended Pelosi’s right to travel to Taiwan and also reaffirmed that U.S. policy toward Taiwan had not changed, officials told me. U.S. officials have been telling their Chinese government interlocutors that Pelosi’s trip is not an intentional provocation, but Chinese leaders don’t believe that Biden is powerless to stop her.

Some American officials believe that there is a contingent within the Chinese leadership that is eager to use Pelosi’s trip as an excuse to change the status quo on the ground between China and Taiwan. Beijing’s near-term retaliation will likely be aimed at Taiwan’s economy and society, these officials believe. Before Pelosi even landed, the Chinese government announced a ban on more than 100 Taiwanese export goods. Taiwanese politicians have correctly denounced the move as a “weaponization of trade,” but there will still be pain for their constituents.

Over the longer term, Beijing will likely use Pelosi’s visit as an excuse to make changes to its military posture toward Taiwan, widening China’s military advantage across the Taiwan Strait. China could also ramp up its cyber and information warfare attacks on Taiwan in the cyber and information warfare realms, further menacing the Taiwanese population. On Monday, China shut down the communication and social media app Weibo in Taiwan.

“China has a very broad array of tools to hurt Taiwan,” one administration official said. “What we’ve learned over the years is that when China sees a misstep by its adversary, it often steps in aggressively to take advantage. That’s what they are likely to do here.”

Bilaterally, Beijing can now claim a pretext for rejecting the Biden administration’s current pitch for putting “guardrails” on the U.S.-China competition to manage it responsibly. To be sure, the Chinese leadership might well have rejected that idea anyway and Pelosi’s visit may be a convenient justification. Nevertheless, this latest Biden administration initiative for the bilateral relationship now appears less likely to succeed.

When China tried to change the status quo across the strait in 1995, in what later became known as the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, the Clinton administration showed resolve, and after nine tense months, eventually the Chinese government backed down. An immediate crisis was averted, but the strategic game changed forever. Since then, China has engaged in what U.S. military officials call “the largest military buildup in history.”

There’s little to no debate in Washington or Taipei about the principles at stake. U.S. lawmakers have every right to visit Taiwan and Taiwan has every right to host them without being punished. But there’s also a practical reality, one that Pelosi won’t have to deal with. That burden will fall mostly on the Taiwanese, but the Biden administration also has a responsibility to help.

The silver lining is that Beijing’s overreaction to Pelosi’s visit might result in Taiwan and other countries accelerating their own plans to reduce their dependence on China. Beijing’s use of economic coercion and military aggression are only set to rise over time. Therefore, the international effort to bolster Taiwan militarily, economically and diplomatically must increase accordingly.