by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/WikiCommons/CC BY-SA 2.0
A SCOOP BY the Financial Times on Tuesday reported that US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi planned to visit Taiwan next month.
This was not the first time that there were reports of a planned trip to Taiwan by Pelosi. Pelosi planned to visit Taiwan in April, not too long after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. However, plans for the visit were canceled due to Pelosi catching COVID-19.
Pelosi would be the first US Speaker of the House to visit Taiwan in 25 years. The last time that this took place was in 1997, when Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan.
For its part, Taiwan claimed to have no information about a planned Pelosi visit. Even if there were plans for such a visit in the works, Taiwan would likely disclaim advance knowledge of the visit, so as to avoid giving China a pretext for strong reactions.
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government indeed condemned the possibility of Pelosi visiting Taiwan. Spokesperson Zhao Lijian stated that China would “take determined and forceful measures to firmly safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity” if the visit went ahead.
However, US president Joe Biden surprised today with apparent off-the-cuff comments suggesting that his administration viewed the Pelosi visit as a bad idea. When asked about the prospect of a Pelosi visit, Biden stated, “Well, I think that the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now. But I don’t know what the status of it is.”
This is not the first time that Biden has created a significant degree of ambiguity on Taiwan through comments. In May of this year, Biden answered “Yes” when asked if the US would defend Taiwan in the event of a military invasion.
Biden subsequently said, “That’s the commitment we made. We agree with the One-China policy, we signed onto it and all the attendant agreements made from there. But the idea that it could be taken by force, just taken by force, is just not—it’s just not appropriate. It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine.” Biden’s comments were quickly walked back by the White House.
Likewise, in October 2021, Biden also stated “Yes and yes,” when asked if he would vow to protect Taiwan during a CNN town hall event. These comments, too, were walked back by the White House shortly afterward.
Similarly, in November 2021, after a virtual meeting with Xi, Biden again confused by stating that the US is supportive of Taiwan “mak[ing] its own decisions” and “its independence.” These comments were walked back by Biden himself an hour later, with Biden stating that “They have to decide—Taiwan, not us. We are not encouraging independence.”
Nevertheless, Biden’s October 2021 comments took place shortly following a meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping. After the meeting, Biden stated that both he and Xi had agreed to abide by the “Taiwan agreement”. There is no agreement between the US and China called the “Taiwan agreement” and the US and China do not share any official agreement on Taiwan’s status. These earlier comments by Biden were seen as compromising on Taiwan, as to be contrasted to comments by Biden since then.
Biden suggesting disapproval of a Pelosi visit–which could still take place–is probably due to the fact that he plans to speak to Chinese president Xi Jinping in the next ten days. As with these previous occasions, it is possible that Biden will make comments on Taiwan after his meeting with Xi, and that he could unpredictably veer off script.
As has been true for a long time, Chinese military threats directed at Taiwan are nothing new. Nor could China launch an invasion of Taiwan with no advance warning, seeing as this would be telegraphed by troop movements detectable by satellite, though there have been warnings regarding grey-zone tactics employed by China directed at Taiwan’s outlying islands.
At the same time, the notion of a Pelosi visit prompted fears among some western commentators, including the suggestion that it could lead to another Taiwan Straits Crisis. It is true that China is currently seeking to highlight its improved naval capacity, such as with regard to its aircraft carriers. Nevertheless, China is dealing with domestic unrest regarding extensive lockdowns due to COVID-19, and Chinese president Xi Jinping may be hoping for stability before the 20th National Congress later this year, when he is expected to be confirmed for an unprecedented third term.
Biden’s comments, however, are likely to be interpreted as lending credence to an unrealistic view that Taiwan faces imminent military threats. Such comments may not be helpful for Taiwan, in terms of how that shapes global perceptions of it–and the odds of an actual conflict in the region may be heightened by the perception that a Chinese attack on Taiwan is a realistic possibility. This is all the more so in that the comments were made in an off-the-cuff manner, rather than in a measured, moderated manner.
Some reports suggest that there would have been fewer reservations about a Pelosi visit if this had taken place shortly after the invasion of Ukraine. In the current timeframe, a Pelosi visit would take place not too long after a visit to Japan by vice president William Lai to mourn the recent death of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe–making Lai the highest-ranking Taiwanese government official to visit Japan in fifty years.
It is possible that a Pelosi visit could still happen. First, Pelosi may visit in spite of Biden’s disapproval, though Biden’s comments suggest discord or lack of coordination among Democrats on the issue of Taiwan, and a Pelosi visit could exacerbate such tensions.
However, if Biden’s comments are more strategic than they initially appear, it is possible that Biden simply aimed to distance himself from Pelosi before his talks with Xi to minimize tensions. After his talks with Xi, the visit could still go ahead–or the talks could lead to no visit taking place. It is also to be noted that with midterm elections taking place later this year, Biden is wary that the Pelosi trip would be read by voters as unnecessarily provoking China.
Nevertheless, as with speculation regarding Biden’s previous comments about Taiwan being deliberately planned rather than instances of his venturing off the script, the truth is likely somewhere between the unrealistic scenario that Biden–a politician known for frequent gaffes–is playing four-dimensional chess with China, or that he simply misspoke, when there are already many examples of Biden misspeaking on a number of significant policy issues. Sometimes, the simplest explanation may be the best one.