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The Pelosi Visit to Taiwan: No War, But Not Good For America

F-35
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in the Netherlands. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The United States Speaker of the House left her one-day visit to Taiwan that went counter to express and committed wishes of the People’s Republic of China. Concerns over whether Pelosi’s visit would incur immediate military reaction seem, for the moment, to have been overblown. However, the impact of the visit in the medium- and the long-term do not appear to have been carefully considered.

At this very moment, the apparatus of American foreign policy does not require an additional crisis, which Pelosi’s visit at the very least risked triggering

Let’s Be Realistic

Many of the justifications for Pelosi’s trip have centered around the right of politically relevant U.S. citizens to visit Taiwan, the right of Taiwan to host U.S. political officials, and in general the need for democracies to push back against the growing global strength of autocracy. Indeed, Pelosi has described the reasoning for her visit in such terms. For her part, the Speaker has long had a troubled relationship with the CCP, having criticized Beijing on the grounds of human rights and its ongoing occupation of Tibet. 

None of these claims are untrue, precisely. However, simply because they are true does not make a visit wise. If there is an insight that realism holds for progressivism, it is to accept that there are limits to the parameters of the possible. Provocation is a tool of statecraft and on certain occasions can be used productively. Provocation can clarify threats and relationships, eliminating ambiguity. But the general utility of provocation as a tool does not mean this provocation was the right call at this moment.

The Polycrisis

Even setting aside for a moment America’s unsettled domestic situation for a moment, the Biden administration has a lot on its plate. The U.S. is simultaneously experiencing something like half a dozen international crises. The Iran Deal seems to be on its last legs. Ukraine is still in flames. Finland and Sweden have yet to complete the process of joining NATO. Kosovo is on the edge of conflict. North Korea is making noises about another nuclear test. Of course, the world is always a messy place and we tend to only see stability in hindsight, but it’s not a hard sell to suggest that the U.S. faces a complicated and immediate set of problems. In this context, we have to take a hard look at whether making the relationship between the U.S. and China worse really benefits American interests. 

The Relationship

Are relations between Beijing and Washington so bad that the visit could not possibly make things worse? Not likely. It is NEVER the case that a competitor (or enemy) is already maximally hostile and maximally committed. The U.S.-China relationship has certainly grown more antagonistic over the past decade, a trend that Biden’s succession of President Donald Trump has not disrupted. 

China is far more powerful today than in 1996. It can project power farther into the Pacific, and threaten U.S. interests at great distances from its coasts. Assessments of the cross-Straits military balance still equivocate on whether China could seize Taiwan, but its position has undoubtedly improved. Moreover, as a CNAS exercise demonstrated, China doesn’t need to invade Formosa directly in order to put pressure on the alliance; it can attack the outlying islands and force either Washington or Taipei to respond. 

And China need not even launch a war in order to cause problems. Beijing can obviously take more aggressive steps to support Moscow’s war on Ukraine. This could include the supply of military equipment to Russia as well as economic, financial, and technological assistance. China has been an incomplete participant in the sanctions regime against Russia, but it could cause much greater damage if it wished. China can also readily take steps to enhance the capacity of Iran and North Korea to make trouble for the United States. Strategists in Beijing undoubtedly have thought of other clever ways to hurt the U.S. if need be. 

Parting Thoughts 

The U.S. could use cordial (if not friendly) relations with Beijing to pursue its goals in other parts of the world. Even if Washington cannot rely on China for friendship, at the very least it could benefit from moderating the degree of animosity. China can hurt the United States in subtle and unsubtle ways, which makes choosing a time and place for conflict particularly important. 

The United States clearly needs to prioritize its commitments, no matter what that priority structure may look like. Moreover, it is not at all obvious that U.S. allies in the region see Pelosi’s visit as necessary to convey U.S. commitment. 

Biden has already stepped up America’s rhetorical commitment to Taiwan by inching away from the policy of ambiguity, which has guided U.S. statecraft for four decades. For the moment (and this is a very early moment indeed) it does not appear that Pelosi’s visit will incur any direct military retaliation from Beijing. However, this hardly means that. Beijing will remember this visit and will respond in ways that are difficult to predict.

The decision to visit Taiwan may well convince China to undertake policies that run counter to U.S. interests in other parts of the world and certainly won’t do anything positive for the long-term relations with Washington.  

A 19FortyFive Contributor, Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

25 Comments

25 Comments

  1. Arash P

    August 3, 2022 at 8:27 pm

    Iran has all the oil and gas China needs and China has all the nuke technology Iran needs!

    As an Iranian, I would want to ask US policy makers to upset China more and more pretty please! Thank you very much!

  2. Ben Leucking

    August 3, 2022 at 9:36 pm

    Farley (the turtle) needs to crawl back into his shell where he feels safe. Here is a list of other American Senators and Congresspeople that have visited Taiwan in the past year:
    Senator Tammy Duckworth
    Senator Richard Burr
    Senator Robert Menendez
    Senator Lindsey Graham
    Senator Ben Sasse
    Senator Robert Portman
    Senator Dan Sullivan
    Senator Chris Coons
    Rep. Ronny Jackson
    Rep. Nancy Mace
    Rep. Sarah Jacobs
    Rep. Mark Takano
    Rep. Elissa Slotkin
    Rep. Colin Allred

    China’s reaction to Pelosi’s visit was aimed at intimidating Biden, the man with a trap door in his brain.

  3. Old Desert Coyote

    August 3, 2022 at 10:48 pm

    Well Dr. Farley;

    Welcome to a Replay of 1939 except China is now Germany. You know all those Munich accords and peace in our time thing. China and Russia are in an expansionist mode, (China=German, Russia=Italy or Maybe Japan) Both China and Russia are run by men who have no moral objection to murdering 100’s or millions to achieve their goals. The last thing we need to do is to try and crawl into bed with them.

    We need to put an immediate tariff of 250 percent on all Chinese manufactured goods the round up most of the Chinese citizens in this country cancel their green cards and ship their asses home.

    China cannot win an economic war with us, and with the worlds growing good crisis the need our agricultural output. (see https://www.battleswarmblog.com/?p=52147)

  4. Jon

    August 4, 2022 at 12:10 am

    Wrong. Pelosi’s visit is no more a misstep than Gingrich’s was.

    More attention should be paid to China’s increasingly histrionic and bellicose statements and actions, far in excess of prudential behavior.

    You might notice that China has become more totalitarian over the past few years, reneging on Hong Kong agreements, victimizing Uigurs, continuing the suppression of Tibet, making a show or aggression with India, and trying to dominate the South China Sea.

    All of that deserves a strong response, not least of which is to assert continuing free transit of the oceans, and the rights of trade and commerce.

    Taiwan wants to be democratic and have close ties with the West. We rely on them for advanced computer chip technology, among other things. It is our obligation to give them every support.

    China is a rapidly developing country, and that’s generally a marvel to behold. But it needs to join the world and not seek to subject it to dicktat.

  5. pagar

    August 4, 2022 at 1:19 am

    No war, but the way forward has been irreparably damaged by Biden who thinks he’s the Mike Tyson of US imperial america wanting to kickstart WW3 during his tenancy in the white house (which is allegedly haunted by Lincoln’s ghost &possibly other apparitions).

    The next pres after Biden will enter oval office to find world has changed due to biden’s myopic vision caused by his disease-damaged brain.

    Biden now stands to lose his family’s secret financial backer, xi jinping, who will get surely ejected from power.

    Along with xi, america stands to lose the massive army of paid agents it has established in china and Hong Kong. THANKS, BIDEN !

    In Europe, Biden will lose support of his allies when Russia decides it has had enough of biden’s rocket missile shenanigans and starts exploding tactical nukes against biden’s neo-nazi underlings in Kyiv.

    Europe, under the cloud of a nuke winter, will hurl curses at Washington, realizing at last Biden was merely playing them for fools or leading them up the garden path. THANKS, BIDEN !

  6. Jacksonian Libertarian

    August 4, 2022 at 3:54 am

    I disagree, ignoring Communist intimidation operations is precisely what America should be doing.

    In fact the US should be threatening to destroy China’s illegal militarized artificial islands in the China Sea. As well as arming the 1st and 2nd island chains surrounding the China sea in preparation for a Full Strategic Blockade of China’s shipping. 98% of China’s trade, and 40% of China’s GDP would be permanently lost if China keeps up their Belligerence.

  7. anybody

    August 4, 2022 at 7:47 am

    It has to be done. To remind the world there are really two worlds out there. The sooner we face that reality, the better and the cheaper the final price of dividing the world into two will be. Does author really suspect the West and the ‘other’ world can coexist and live happily ever after under globalization?

    Globalization is a myth. Deal with it.

    Peace has a price. We all need to get ready to pay up.

  8. Univ of Saigon 68

    August 4, 2022 at 9:36 am

    To paraphrase FDR (or possibly Cordell Hull – attribution varies): “She may be a son of a bitch, but she’s OUR son of a bitch.

    When the CCP starts telling us where and when our political leaders can go, it’s time for us to close ranks and tell them where they can shove it.

  9. Jim

    August 4, 2022 at 10:16 am

    Ben Leucking, I’d call Pelosi’s visit the culmination of a series of visits, but the Speaker has special significance, as the highest ranking official.

    (Almost all probably encouraging independence sentiment among the Taiwanese, privately, if not always publicly.) [And the Chinese undoubtedly know it.]

    So, how is China supposed to look at that?
    Are they expected to ignore it?

    That’s a problem with Neocons, they don’t believe mutual reciprocal treatment. It’s all one way.

    (Some call it the “Golden Rule”… treat others as you would have yourself treated… at a nation-state level.

    Yes, it was a message to Biden, after all he is president, but the message is broader than Biden, it’s also pointed at the Uni-Party in general, and the pundit class… to a lesser extent.

  10. Jim

    August 4, 2022 at 10:36 am

    Jacksonian Libertarian, stated, “I disagree, ignoring Communist intimidation operations is precisely what America should be doing.”

    Seriously, an example of Neocon hypocrisy, given what you recommend after that.

    However, those steps may be necessary given what we have seen from China, in the South China Sea, but just be forthright in your thought process.

    Respecting the One China Policy, the U. S. official position, is a good start to take other actions, like stopping the “seven deadly sins” as spelled out by Navarro, in regards trade practices and rip off practices China does engage in against America and must be stopped.

    Not seeing the forest for the tree of Taiwan…

    Direct trade and spying activities are what must be stopped… and China is in no position to object to that course of action.

  11. Jim

    August 4, 2022 at 11:07 am

    I suggest Taiwan is a bright shinny object taking our eye off the “real ball.”

    The real ball is the actions China takes directly against America, their trade practices, spying activities, the infiltration of American institutions, and intellectual property theft (and more).

    Again, it is the “seven deadly sins” and more that the U. S. government needs to focus on.

    Not a shiny object that causes war, but the real nuts & bolts which weaken America and hand China the rope that they intend to eventually hang us with.

    That (trade practices & more) is what we should focus on like a laser.

  12. Doug Hasler

    August 4, 2022 at 11:47 am

    Without a doubt, the Biden administration has made many stumbles concerning China and Taiwan . . . just thinking of the President’s misstatements about treaty obligations to Taiwan which his staff immediately walks back. Kind of makes you wonder who is in charge, but that is another post. This article lacks an appreciation for the CCP’s determination . . . without regard to US policies to moderate relations with China . . . to overturn the existing world order, to extend their authoritarian rule, and to dominate the world economically, militarily, and politically. Any “discussions” China undertakes with the US is either window dressing, or undertaken to buy time to grow stronger.

  13. Jim

    August 4, 2022 at 12:27 pm

    A hypothesis:

    Both the American elite & the Chinese Communist Party want average Americans to get distracted from the real nuts & bolts of the problem between the U. S. and China.

    Is there corruption in high places in the American elite?

    Hunter Biden, the “Big Guy”, and other insider scams.

    Corruption breeds corruption (if let to run rampage).

    Does anybody get the sense from the Biden administration that they want to stop “the seven deadly sins”, including, trade practices, spying activities, the infiltration of American institutions, and intellectual property theft…

    And encouraging corruption in America sponsored by China, that doesn’t just soften U. S. action against China, but encourages corruption all throughout American society (which further weakens America, generally).

    So what better way to take the spotlight of of all the above… which the American elite want to keep hidden & secret from the American People… by acting like you are doing “something” about China.

    The Taiwan Question and the saber rattling involved is a sophisticated “double game” by the American elite to take the Peoples eye off the real ball.

    And neoliberals, neocons & warhawks can be distracted because they always focus on war, not the underlying, critical issues which have and will continue to be the huge factors on whether America stays strong & free.

    In effect, they become “useful idiots” for the elite who don’t want to solve our real problems at all.

  14. Steven

    August 4, 2022 at 12:32 pm

    Yeah, let’s cow-tow to the CCP. Sureee

    What an idiotic article, sorry.

  15. Jim

    August 4, 2022 at 1:37 pm

    Steven, no, it’s called keeping our eye on the ball, not getting distracted on the bright, shiny object.

    It’s the trade practices, spying activities, the infiltration of American institutions, and intellectual property theft… the encouragement of corruption.

    Steven, have you seen anything which suggests the Biden administration has taken action to combat the above abuses China carries out against America?

    It’s a sophisticated “double game” by both China & American elite to distract away from the true abuses that implicate our elite in treacherous and weakening behavior against the American Republic & the American People, the Sovereign.

    In effect, handing the rope to China that they will eventually hang us with.

    That’s what I care about, shouldn’t you.

  16. TotallyNotBiased

    August 4, 2022 at 4:14 pm

    @Jim, you can give a sign if CCP is holding you in a prison camp and forces you to spam all this nonsense in every post.

    Maybe we can help you.

  17. Jim

    August 4, 2022 at 6:03 pm

    I’m just a run-of-the-mill American who cares about America, like millions of other Americans.

  18. Eric-ji

    August 4, 2022 at 9:01 pm

    We ignore & allow Chinese aggression at our peril. Look at Japanese expansion prior to wwii – – connect the dots. Sometimes aggression must be countered. Just surprised the Biden admin did it. Happy US companies are finding other Asian partners. Keep it up.

    China Inc will fade away as an economic power as Japan Inc did in the 80s.

  19. Jon Goode

    August 5, 2022 at 1:17 am

    Dr Farley, I appreciate your commentary and analysis.

    That being said is the US powerless? If so why are we spending so much on our military then? If it’s going to happen better now than in 15 years. I’m tired of kissing these dictators asses and Im a Democrat.

    Our situation isn’t getting better in the next 10 years of China wants to do it let’s go now.

  20. Bihari Krishna Shrestha (Nepal)

    August 5, 2022 at 12:50 pm

    Looking at the current avoidable crisis in Taiwan from the Himalayan heights of Nepal, the most dangerous element around the world is America’s false sense of invincibility in imposing its own irresponsible will on the rest of the world. For instance, war criminal George Bush no longer steps out of the US after ruining Iraq. If US comes to term with the fact that Taiwan has always been an integral part of China. US’s role must be to contribute to harmonious reunification of the island with the Chinese nation. That will go a long way in ensuring peace in Asia. If you can’t do this, just don’t cause more trouble for our part of the world.

  21. George J Kamburoff

    August 5, 2022 at 12:52 pm

    Gosh folks, what would Xi do if Biden said one of their high level government workers could not travel to certain places?
    Facing a president-for-life election, Xi wanted to look powerful, and got faced down by a woman.

    Yes, now we will see great damage done by China in response. Can’t lose face, . . . especially to a woman!

  22. Tim Aaron

    August 5, 2022 at 10:47 pm

    What a mess US policy is making of things. Russia, China, Iran, India, Turkey, Brazil,South Africa…etc. Let’s do all we can to to push them into a political and economic block. The United States is in relative decline relative to the world and it should be building economic and political networks going into a predominantly Asian future. Instead it will be largely sidelined.

  23. dan mullock

    August 6, 2022 at 7:37 pm

    Appeasement never works. The Chinese have no rules and take every opportunity to shaft the US and the West. So those who concern themselves with what China thinks don’t understand them at all. Farley is one of the Blinken group of sheep that thinks that China respects other nations rights and so we should respect theirs. The CCP does not, they are opportunistic imperialist statists and the only thing they respect is power. Farley never really says what Pelosi did wrong other than angering the Chinese. Dr Farley, how many China editorials have you read recently where the author is similarly clutching their pearls at the thought of angering the US? Arms for Taiwan, cojones for the good professor.

  24. Michael

    August 7, 2022 at 9:39 am

    I think the U.S. should avoid any possible war with China. As a taxpayer, I was recently taken aback when viewing American troops on a large military base. About half are overweight and unfit. A not insignificant number of the women officers and enlistees, and some of the men, are obese. For sure, in the event of a serious crisis and immediate deployment, at least 30% will have to be culled from the ranks and left stateside.

    The recent articles about drag shows on military bases and twerking colonels also blunts my confidence in our armed forces.

  25. Daniel Duke

    August 10, 2022 at 12:24 am

    Strange western media pumps up the visit just like they did Ukraine. Does anyone really think the US government didn’t know this reaction was coming from China? It is just absurd. Why on gods earth did Pelosi of all people need to go to Taiwan. The US is scheming as they always have…maybe to detract from the rise in attention on Trump, or legislation being written, or from the large sums of taxpayer money the government is sending to Ukraine? I just wonder why no one is putting forth alternative views on this visit?

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