Long before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plane touched down in Taiwan on August 2, relations between China and the United States had been on a downward spiral. The Biden administration had been working to encircle China with a network of hostile military alliances, while China had been increasing its aggressive military maneuvers in the East and South China Seas. Still, bilateral relations had not deteriorated to the point where it had become impossible for US and Chinese leaders to discuss cooperation on climate change and other vital matters, as Presidents Biden and Xi Jinping did in their teleconference of July 28. But Pelosi’s visit produced a new chasm in the US-China relationship: From now on, all prospects for cooperation have been swept away, and all that remains is intensified military competition and increased risk of war.
To comprehend the damage wrought by Pelosi’s August 2 visit, it is important to understand the context in which her trip took place. At the core of this all is Taiwan’s relationship with China and US policy regarding that relationship.
Taiwan is said by Beijing to constitute a renegade province of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), while the island itself has chosen to remain an autonomous, self-governing entity it calls the Republic of China. Ever since the Carter administration established diplomatic relations with the PRC in 1978, US officials have adhered (at least in public) to the “One China” principle, under which Washington acknowledges that Taiwan and the mainland are both part of “one China,” although not necessarily parts of a single political entity. Under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, moreover, the United States is obliged to provide Taiwan with defensive arms as needed and to regard any Chinese attempt to alter the island’s status by force as a matter of “grave concern”—a stance known as “strategic ambiguity,” as it leaves undetermined whether the US will intervene in such a situation.
In combination, these two precepts have helped sustain stability until now: “one China” by suggesting an inherent bond between Taiwan and the mainland, and so deterring a hasty Chinese military move; “strategic ambiguity” by leaving both Taiwanese and Chinese leaders uncertain as to the US response should the former declare independence and the latter invade, thereby deterring rash action by both.
Although US officials continue to profess adherence to these ideas, top congressional and administration leaders have in recent months suggested a shift away from both precepts toward a “One China, One Taiwan” policy and “strategic clarity,” or an unambiguous commitment to intervene on Taiwan’s behalf should China invade the island. President Biden himself has helped fuel this move by declaring, on several occasions, that America has a “commitment” to defend Taiwan, even though that is not formal US policy. Biden and other senior officials have also suggested a shift in policy by seeking commitments from such allies as Australia, Japan, and South Korea to assist US forces if they become involved in a war with China over Taiwan. On the congressional side, the process has been abetted by numerous high-level visits to Taiwan, strong bipartisan support for US arms transfers to the island, and plans to replace the TRA of 1979 with a new version that replaces “strategic ambiguity” with a specific pledge to help defend Taiwan if attacked by China.
Chinese leaders have been watching all these moves with growing dismay. For the PRC leadership—and especially Xi Jinping, who is seeking a third five-year term as China’s paramount leader—reunification of Taiwan with the mainland has become the ultimate goal of government policy, a prerequisite for China’s rise to national “rejuvenation.” “Resolutely safeguarding China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity is the firm will of the more than 1.4 billion Chinese people,” Xi told Biden regarding Taiwan during their July 28 call. “The public opinion cannot be defied.”
To signal its dismay and demonstrate that China’s will cannot be “defied,” the Chinese military has steadily increased its pressure on Taiwan by sending more and more warplanes into the airspace abutting Taiwanese territory, forcing the Taiwanese to scramble their fighters and chase off the intruding jets—an inherently risky operation.
Speaker Pelosi was aware of all this when she traveled to Taiwan, and she knew her trip was bound to exacerbate the situation. Both Pentagon and White House officials warned her that a visit at this time would antagonize the PRC leadership and provoke a harsh reaction of some sort. Yet she chose to go, and by cloaking her trip in uncertainty, she ensured that it would trigger maximum international attention. We can only assume, then, that she visited Taiwan with every intention of provoking China and accelerating the drive toward a “One China, One Taiwan” policy, with all that entails.
If that were her intention, it appears that she has largely succeeded. Despite White House efforts to inform their Chinese counterparts about the separation of powers in the US political system, it has proved difficult for Beijing to accept the notion that Pelosi was speaking for herself alone and not for the US government. From Beijing’s perspective, her visit represented the culmination of a combined Congress/White House drive to repudiate the “one China” policy and commence the recognition of Taiwan as an independent state. The Biden administration has tried to salvage the situation by insisting that there’s been “no change” in US policy, but these pleas haven’t swayed anyone in Beijing. From now on, they seem to be saying, all that remains in the China–US/Taiwan relationship is an amalgam of crisis and conflict.
As indications of this new stance, China has undertaken several worrisome moves:
- On August 4, the PLA Rocket Force fired 11 DF-15 ballistic missiles into waters north, south, and east of Taiwan, indicating intent to blockade the island in the event of a future crisis or conflict. Five of the missiles are said to have landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, suggesting that any war over Taiwan will quickly expand to involve Japan, which hosts numerous US military bases.
- On August 6, Chinese officials announced that they were canceling communications between the PLA and the US military aimed at avoiding an unintended clash between their respective air and sea forces, while suspending talks on such vital issues as climate change and global health.
- On August 7, state media outlets in China reported that the PLA will now conduct “regular” military exercises on the eastern (Taiwan-facing) side of the median line of the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese have largely kept their forces on the western side of the line until now; by conducting regular exercises on the eastern side, they are both increasing the psychological pressure on Taiwan and hinting at plans for a future invasion.
All of these moves have been denounced by US leaders as “irresponsible” and “provocative.” “We should not hold hostage cooperation on matters of global concern because of differences between our two countries,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted at a press conference in Manila on August 6. “Others are rightly expecting us to continue to work on issues that matter to the lives and livelihood of their people as well as our own.”
Sadly, there is considerable truth in Blinken’s remarks. But to blame the impasse entirely on China is both inaccurate and irresponsible. Blinken has spent most of the past year trying to line up alliances aimed at containing China’s rise while issuing ultimatums to the Chinese leadership on a wide range of issues that they cannot possibly satisfy. Yes, he’s also called for cooperation on climate change, but only as an afterthought. From China’s perspective, it is Washington that is holding hostage cooperation on matters of global concern.
And so, with Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, we have entered a new era of intensified tension and military competition with China. The priority now must be to set aside the blame game and resume business-like talks with Chinese leaders over measures intended to reduce the risk of unintended escalation, such as direct talks between US and Chinese military officials. The United States should also promise to halt transits by its warships through the Taiwan Strait while seeking a pledge from Beijing to keep its forces on the western side of the median line there. The Biden administration must make clear that it does not support Taiwanese independence at this time and will not provide Taiwanese leaders with an automatic guarantee of military support should they move in that direction. We cannot go back to the pre-Pelosi-visit era, but we must do everything possible to prevent these new conditions from erupting into war.