Tip of the Iceberg: Pelosi’s Taiwan Visit and Surging U.S.-China Tensions – Defying Beijing’s objections and warnings, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has fulfilled her plans to include Taiwan as a stop on her trip to East Asia. She is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the island in 25 years. Beijing’s warnings about Washington’s growing support for Taiwan have soared since Pelosi announced her intentions in July, with one state media figure even advocating shooting down her plane, along with any U.S. military aircraft serving as an escort.
Fortunately, China’s government did not adopt such a reckless course. However, it did warn of “serious consequences” to U.S.-PRC relations if the visit went forward. It remains to be seen just how serious those consequences become, but it is clear that Pelosi’s visit has exacerbated already nasty tensions in bilateral relations. Her trip is just the tip of the iceberg, though, with respect to the reasons for the deteriorating relationship between Washington and Beijing.
In some ways, U.S. leaders are making the same mistakes concerning the Taiwan issue that they made in dealing with Russia regarding Ukraine. Taiwan is a vital interest for the PRC just as Ukraine is a vital interest for Russia. Vladimir Putin’s government issued a warning after warning over more than a decade that it would never allow Ukraine to join NATO or become a U.S.-NATO military asset. The escalating warnings culminated in late 2021 when the Kremlin demanded written security assurances from the United States and NATO that Ukraine would be ineligible for membership in the Alliance, the West would not deploy troops or weaponry in that country, and that the United States would reduce its troop presence in other East European nations that were already NATO members. Putin backed up that warning by deploying nearly 200,000 troops on Ukraine’s border.
U.S. officials in four administrations disregarded Moscow’s increasingly pointed warnings, and we are now witnessing the tragic results. It is imperative that Washington not make the same blunder with respect to China’s warnings about Taiwan. China is as likely to use military force to defend a vital national security interest as Russia was to repel U.S. meddling in Ukraine. Washington needs to take the PRC’s escalating warnings about outside powers interfering in Taiwan much more seriously than it has to this point.
The crisis has been building since Taiwanese voters shocked Beijing in 2016 by electing Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as president and giving the DPP control of the legislature for the first time. PRC leaders had worked with Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, of the more moderate Kuomintang Party to establish extensive bilateral economic ties. Beijing aimed to show the Taiwanese that closer cooperation would confer important benefits and pave the way for eventual reunification under the PRC’s proposed “one country, two systems” formula. The 2016 election indicated that the strategy had failed, and Tsai’s re-election in 2020 (following Beijing’s brutal crackdown in Hong Kong) and an even more sweeping DPP landslide than in 2016, emphatically confirmed that point.
Although Tsai is not a pro-independence zealot, her administration has pushed the envelope regarding the island’s de-facto independence to gain greater international status. Pro-Taiwan elements in the U.S. government became ever more enthusiastic supporters of her efforts. In 2018, Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act, reversing a 4-decade-old policy and authorizing meetings between high-level U.S. officials and their Taiwanese counterparts. National Security Advisor John Bolton then met with Taiwan’s National Security Council Secretary-General, David Lee, during the latter’s visit to Washington in May 2019. Other congressional measures increased U.S. backing for Taiwan, and that trend has continued unabated—with Taiwan’s advocates pushing even stronger steps. Strategic and even outright military cooperation between Washington and Taipei now takes place on an ongoing basis
As U.S. backing for Taiwan became more evident and substantial during Donald Trump’s administration, so too did PRC warnings that Washington’s conduct was unacceptable. Beijing’s anger at the Bolton-Lee meeting was palpable, and the tone of the protests hardened as more Cabinet-level officials began to visit the island. Anger built as well over new U.S. arms sales to Taipei that seemed to go well beyond “defensive weapons” authorized in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act that Congress passed when Washington shifted official diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing. The PRC’s suspicions and irritations about U.S. intentions also mounted as the United States increased its naval presence and a mounting number of U.S. warships made provocative passages through the Taiwan Strait.
China’s protests have become increasingly shrill with nearly every U.S. escalation. In November 2021, the Defense Ministry warned flatly that attempts by Taiwanese leaders to make the island independent, and “outside interference” in support of such ambitions, would mean war. As usual, the response by U.S. officials was shockingly blasé. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby stated that the Pentagon saw “no reason why tensions over Taiwan need to lead to anything like confrontation.”
President Xi Jinping’s warning on the eve of Pelosi’s visit that the United States must not “play with fire,” regarding Taiwan and that those who persist in doing so “will perish by it,” should jar the U.S. foreign policy elite from its complacency. The PRC’s increasingly confrontational stance is reminiscent of Russia’s hardening attitude and demand for Western security assurances regarding Ukraine in late 2021 and early 2022. So, too, is Beijing’s growing deployment of air and naval forces near Taiwan. China probably does not want a war with the United States, but just as Russia was willing to fight to repel a threat to its vital interests in Ukraine, China likely will choose that course as a last resort concerning Taiwan.
Biden’s tone-deaf foreign policy team must realize that Beijing is not bluffing. The administration thoroughly mismanaged the last foreign policy crisis. It cannot afford to mismanage this one.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs.