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Taiwan Question Becomes a Flashpoint

Aug 09, 2022
  • Zhong Houtao

    Associate Professor, School of National Security at the Institute of International Relations

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently kidnapped China-U.S. relations for her own selfish ends, and even the executive branch of the United States government, led by President Joe Biden, expressed reservations. Biden revealed that “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now.” But Pelosi defied all parties and made the visit anyway. The reasons are complex. 

One reason was to increase her media exposure to facilitate Democratic Party prospect in the coming midterm elections. Recently, Pelosi has been in trouble over her husband's drug-related DUI charge, as well as allegations that he engaged in insider trading, and she was eager to use Taiwan as a politically correct tool to take back the game and bathe herself in positive U.S. media coverage. 

Another reason was to gain practical benefits. In December 2016, Tsai Ing-wen sent $140,000 to a U.S. lobbying group to speak with President Donald Trump, who was newly elected. In March, former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Taiwan, raking in $150,000 from the Taiwan authorities. In the same vein, Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is bound to yield more benefits from Taiwan. 

A third reason was to create “personal historical positioning.” The United States will hold its midterm elections in November, and it appears the Democratic Party will find it difficult to retain a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. If it loses, Pelosi’s top leadership position will go to a Republican. The trip to Asia was likely to be Pelosi’s last trip as speaker. Her visit to Taiwan was mainly an opportunity to create a historical endnote — a final highlight of her political career. 

Clearly, Pelosi visited Taiwan for her own selfish reasons, but the trip will, of course, bring huge changes to China-U.S. relations. Even former President Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform: “Why is Crazy Nancy Pelosi in Taiwan? Always causing trouble.” 

Pandora’s Box 

Although Pelosi's visit to Taiwan has been widely questioned around the world, the follow-up effects it triggered should not be underestimated. 

First, her trip created a broken window effect. Before the trip, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly stood up for Pelosi’s decision to visit Taiwan, stating that “this is very much precedent in the sense that previous speakers have visited Taiwan.” The visit of Pelosi to Taiwan as the No. 3 person in line for the U.S. presidency may prompt more politicians in the United States to make excuses to visit Taiwan and continue to seriously undermine the one-China principle. 

Second, moves in support of Taiwan may be activated. In recent years, the U.S. Congress has concocted a number of legislative acts including the Taiwan Travel Act and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, but most of these have been shelved and not implemented. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is an implementation of the Taiwan Relations Act. If not effectively controlled in the future, some of the previously shelved acts in support of Taiwan may be reactivated. 

Third, the United States may accelerate play of the Taiwan card, using the good cop/bad cop technique. The Pelosi visit to Taiwan shows that President Biden and the executive branch were fully capable of stopping it in time to prevent it from escalating. In the end, however, the U.S. executive branch gave Pelosi the green light under the guise of “separation of powers” and an “independent” Congress. In the future, the U.S. is likely to repeat the same tactic, continuously enhancing substantive relations with Taiwan. 

Mixed mindset 

The DPP authorities have long colluded with pro-Taiwan forces such as the U.S. Congress — including the Congressional Taiwan Caucus —and have invited Pelosi to visit Taiwan several times. They engineered this visit for political reasons. 

One reason was to create a new breakthrough in Taiwan-U.S. relations. After returning to power in 2016, the Democratic Progressive Party has been highlighting ideology for a long time but has been incompetent in governance, with problems emerging such as inflation, shortages of epidemic prevention supplies, power outages across Taiwan and a high unemployment rate and misery index. The DPP sees the relationship with the United States as a lifeline and tries to divert public focus — for example, by inviting Pelosi to Taiwan to cover up the governing dilemmas on the island. 

Another reason was to facilitate the year-end elections in Taiwan. The DPP is not doing well as local elections approach later in the year to elect county magistrates, county councilors, township mayors, township councilors and chiefs of villages in six municipalities and 16 counties. It is of particular note that Chen Shih-chung, head of the region’s epidemic command center known for his failure to keep COVID-19 at bay, was named as the DPP’s candidate for mayor in Taipei. Lin Chih-chien, who has been accused of plagiarism, accepted the DPP’s nomination to run for Taoyuan mayor. All this has disappointed the general public. The DPP authorities seek to highlight Taiwan-U.S. relations by way of Pelosi’s visit to prove that the DPP is capable of staying in power and attract light green and swing voters to continue supporting the DPP. 

The third reason was to stiffen reliance on the United States to resist China. Against the backdrop of Taiwan’s limited power and the superiority of the Chinese mainland’s military power, the DPP, even while building a party platform for Taiwan independence, knows that relying on itself for independence is tantamount to seeking its own death. Therefore, the DPP is trying to bring in supporting foreign elements. The invitation to Pelosi to visit Taiwan was just another ploy by the DPP authorities to make use of external forces. 

At the same time, the DPP authorities also know that inviting Pelosi to Taiwan would touch Beijing’s bottom line and take the already high tensions in the Taiwan Strait to even more dangerous levels. At one point they were ready to withdraw the invitation, but later, under Pelosi’s pressure, they found themselves riding a tiger, from which they could only agree to send the invitation. 

All in all, Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has seriously violated China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, undermined the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait region, trampled on international law and basic norms of international relations and brought great uncertainty to the Sino-U.S. relations. The United States should stop supporting and condoning Taiwan secessionist forces in any form, abide by the three China-U.S. joint communiques and push China-U.S. relations back on the right track. 

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