The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pelosi visit is a test for Taiwan’s global status under Chinese pressure

A resident watches news about the expected visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in Taipei, Taiwan, on Aug. 2. (Ritchie B Tongo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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TAIPEI, Taiwan — For Taiwan, a successful visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week is about more than avoiding an immediate crisis in the Taiwan Strait.

It is also an opportunity to signal to senior politicians around the world that they can show support for Taiwan’s democracy in-person — despite vocal opposition from Beijing.

Taiwan’s military on Tuesday strengthened its state of readiness for expected saber rattling by China, which claims that the self-governing island is its territory and threatens to take it by force if the government in Taipei ever declares formal independence. Pelosi (D-Calif.) landed Tuesday night local time and is expected to meet with President Tsai Ing-wen on Wednesday.

Pelosi’s arrival fits within a broader trend of lawmakers from liberal democracies making more regular visits to Taiwan, especially in the context of the war in Ukraine. “It is highly symbolic, which is part of the reason China has responded so strongly,” said Fang-Yu Chen, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taiwan.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) landed in Taipei, Taiwan, on Aug. 2, defying Chinese warnings against visiting the self-ruled island. (Video: The Washington Post)

The trend, although years in the making, has accelerated rapidly in recent months as coronavirus travel restrictions have eased and high-level delegations of former officials and lawmakers from other democracies have visited Taiwan.

These demonstrations of democratic solidarity were given greater urgency by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which raised fears in Taiwan and internationally of an eventual Chinese attack.

Chen added that Beijing’s promises of “forceful measures” in response to the visit could backfire and end up galvanizing international supporters of Taiwan. “China is not very smart because it is demonstrating that it is a threat to a democratic society,” he said.

The visit comes at a time when high-level delegations from the United States, European nations and other liberal democracies, as well as return visits from Taiwanese officials and politicians, are increasingly common, reflecting Tsai’s efforts to raise Taiwan’s international standing.

Within the last two weeks alone, foreign delegations to Taiwan have included a vice president of the European Parliament, Nicola Beer; two former Japanese defense ministers; two former Australian defense ministers; and former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British House of Commons are planning a trip to Taiwan this year, the Guardian reported Monday.

Going the other way, You Si-kun, president of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s equivalent of House speaker, has also made trips to democratic countries, notably the Czech Republic, France and the Baltic countries in July.

China objects to all visits to Taiwan by foreign politicians, but it is especially concerned about the rising frequency of U.S.-Taiwan diplomatic exchanges. Chinese scholars claim these represent a change in the United States’ one-China policy, which neither challenges nor endorses Beijing’s sovereignty claims over Taiwan.

In an article published in May, Cao Qun, a scholar at the China Institute of International Studies, a think tank under the Chinese Foreign Ministry, argued that the United States in recent years has “hollowed out” its one-China policy and promoted the idea that Taiwan’s status is inconclusive as part of what he called a policy of “using Taiwan to control China.”

“The United States may increase its efforts to publicize this ‘true meaning’ of its one China policy” and attract more members into a club of nations who say the status of Taiwan remains undecided, Cao wrote.

Taiwanese analysts expect that China will go beyond large-scale military drills and adopt various forms of economic coercion to punish Taiwan for the visit. On Tuesday, Taiwan’s Ministry of the Economy confirmed that Chinese customs has halted imports of thousands of Taiwanese goods, impacting about 65 percent of products sent to China.

Any response by China must consider the long-term interests of Beijing and avoid a “counterreaction” of worsening the situation by making visiting Taiwan a kind of “pilgrimage” for U.S. politicians, wrote Ren Yi, a Chinese political commentator.

Both the United States and China have concerns that the visit could set a precedent that is not in their interests, said Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at Australia National University’s Taiwan Studies Program. For Beijing, the fear is that a visit by someone of Pelosi’s political prominence normalizes future visits, while Washington wants to avoid allowing China to effectively veto diplomatic exchanges by raising an outcry.

Chinese President Xi Jinping “faces a dilemma to optimize the robustness of China’s response to Pelosi’s visit,” Sung said. “If China doesn’t come up a strong response, then there is a risk that he will be seen as a weaker leader. At the same time, though, right now what he wants and needs is stability.”

As evidence of the supposed shift in the U.S. position, Chinese analysts point to factors such as the Taiwan Travel Act, confirmation of U.S. troops in Taiwan and President Biden’s vow that the United States will defend Taiwan from a Chinese military attack.

Last month during a visit to Taipei, former defense secretary Mark T. Esper said the United States should “move away” from its long-standing position of “strategic ambiguity” that is intentionally vague about the circumstances under which the U.S. military would come to Taiwan’s aid during a Chinese attack.

The White House, however, maintains that the United States’ Taiwan policy has not changed.

For Tsai and many others within her Democratic Progressive Party, raising Taiwan’s international status is not, as Beijing charges, a change in the status quo. Rather, it is Taipei’s only viable response to a decades-long campaign by Beijing to isolate Taipei by poaching diplomatic partners and seeking to bar Tsai’s government from participation in multilateral forums and trade pacts.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also undermined beliefs that the United States would come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a Chinese attack. According to Taiwanese survey data, only 35 of those polled in March were confident that the United States would intervene, down from 65 percent in November.

Some in Taiwan, especially among the opposition of Nationalist Kuomintang politicians, have also accused Pelosi of not doing enough to make the visit substantive.

Yeh Yu-Lan, a Kuomintang legislator, wrote on Facebook on Monday that the trip would do little to advance bilateral trade talks, let alone the prospect of Taiwan joining regional agreements such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

“But Pelosi isn’t to blame,” Yeh added. “The House speaker leading members of Congress to loudly support Taiwan doesn’t mean that executive branch officials will give Taiwan the assistance we need.”

Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report.