OPINION – Defusing a crisis over Pelosi’s tentative and “undecided” visit to Taiwan

If the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has warned that the Biden administration should focus on the common strategic interests of US and China rather than allowing US policy toward China being heavily driven by American domestic politics, then the potential crisis over Nancy Pelosi’s tentative visit to Taiwan must be defused from Kissinger’s realpolitik perspective.

The US House of Representative Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, planned to visit Taiwan in April 2022, but the trip has been postponed since she caught Covid-19. On July 29, Pelosi began her planned visits to Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan.

Officials of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), ranging from those in the Foreign Ministry to the Defense Ministry, have voiced their strong message against Pelosi’s tentative visit to Taiwan by saying that the Chinese sovereignty cannot be infringed. 

Most importantly, during a two-hour phone discussion between US President Biden and the PRC President Xi Jinping, Xi emphasized that that the US side should not “play with fire” over the Taiwan issue and that China does not allow “any space for any form of ‘Taiwan independence’ force.” 

The keyword “space” refers to not only political but also diplomatic aspects, meaning that any attempt by the US to confer formal or semi-formal recognition of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the existing regime in Taiwan, would be tantamount to a serious infringement of the one-China principle.

Arguably, as a House speaker, Pelosi’s attempted visit to Taiwan under the DPP regime is an unwise, inappropriate and a dangerous move. Unlike the former House of Representative Speaker Newt Gingrich of the Republican Party who visited Taiwan in April 1997 at a time when Sino-US relations were more harmonious than the current period, and when Taiwan was governed by the Kuomintang (KMT) under Lee Teng-hui, Pelosi’s tentative visit to Taiwan is timed badly and has naturally been seen by the PRC side as an open provocation. 

In April 1997, China under Jiang Zemin was rising gradually but it waited for July 1997 to resume its sovereignty over Hong Kong and then November 1999 to reassert its administrative right over Macau. Now, in 2022, after the return of both Hong Kong and Macau back to the Chinese political orbit, Beijing is targeting Taiwan in the next step of reunification under the scheme of developing the Chinese renaissance further. 

Pelosi had a record of being a critic of the PRC over human rights and democracy issues. Her proposed visit to Taiwan appeared to stem from her own ideological consideration; nevertheless, the Democratic Party can rein her in if a sudden US-China standoff is to be avoided. While the US military and security officials had already advised her against such a trip, the American military has also planned on how to protect her if Pelosi insists on such a visit.

The challenge is a hypothetical one. If Pelosi makes a visit to Taiwan, would her plane be allowed to land on the Taiwan soil in the first place? The hawks from the PRC side suggested that her plane might not be able to do so, and that the Chinese warplanes might even fly across the Taiwan airspace to demonstrate the Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan – a scenario that would trigger the danger of accidents, if not sudden military conflicts. Recent reports have said that Pelosi would “fly on a military aircraft to Taipei” if the trip goes ahead as planned (Taiwan News, July 30, 2022).

Domestic politics in the US has exerted pressure on Pelosi to consider her Taiwan visit. Some members of the US Congress, including Democrats and Republicans, have backed up Pelosi. The problem is that as the US perception of the so-called “China threat” has been increasing, there is a bipartisan pressure on Pelosi’s tentative but undecided visit to Taiwan. Pelosi invited other senior lawmakers to join her in the Asian trip, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks and Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Mark Takano, who led a delegation of legislators to visit Taiwan in 2021.

Shortly before Pelosi began her Asian trip, she faced the media questions and replied: “I don’t ever talk about my travel because, as some of you know, it’s a security issue.” 

During the phone meeting with President Xi, President Biden said that the US “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” 

Understanding the PRC position as espoused by President Xi and the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the Biden administration might have advised Pelosi against any visit to Taiwan. But if Pelosi suddenly calls off her tentative visit to Taiwan, it could be interpreted as a move to cave into the Chinese pressure. The question is that if Pelosi decides not to visit Taiwan, what would be her justification back in Washington so that the US politicians and audience would not see her as a move yielding to the Chinese pressure.

From the realpolitik perspective of the veteran US diplomat Henry Kissinger, the Biden administration remains hamstrung by the domestic American politics and adopts a confrontational policy toward China. Kissinger has said that the US cannot and should not adopt a permanently confrontational policy toward China, which is now strong unlike his historically secret trip to China in July 1971 to achieve a breakthrough in US-China relations. 

From the Trump administration to the Biden government, US-China relations remain tense partly due to the perception on the part of the US policy makers that China is militarily “aggressive,” and partly due to the domestic American pressure that the US leadership should confront and compete with China. In other words, the hawks are dominating the US policy toward mainland China and Taiwan, especially as they try to augment Taiwan’s “diplomatic space” and avoid the island from being like “another Hong Kong.” 

Kissinger advised the US to drive a wedge between the PRC and Russia, rather than doing things that have made China and Russia closer than ever before. Sadly, the US policy makers have so far failed to ponder Kissinger’s advice. Megaphone diplomacy on both sides, including US and China, have made their relations strained – a scenario that is not conducive to a warm relationship. Without emissaries and intermediaries who can mediate in the dangerous waters, US-China relations are now characterized by open shouting matches, public posturing and political accusations.

Pelosi’s proposed visit to Taiwan is badly timed, ill advised and coming at a time when US-China relations really need more cooling measures, intermediaries, and calm analyses of their common strategic interests as Kissinger advised. 

Compounding the difficulties in US-China relations is the rapid rise of assertive nationalism in the PRC, where the leadership, Foreign Ministry, military and even the social media have been adopting a prominently nationalistic stance on the US. The rise of assertive nationalism in China and the continuous domination of hardliners on the US policy making on the PRC and Taiwan have made a breakthrough in US-China relations quite difficult.

A much better US policy toward mainland China and Taiwan is that the Biden administration should consider facilitating both Beijing and Taipei to engage in dialogue. Doing so means that the US government must rein in the radical forces in Taiwan, including the DPP leadership and hardliners. The Taiwan lobby in Washington is powerful, but it has to be handled by US policy makers skillfully to avoid a confrontational US-China relations.

So long as the DPP radicals are governing Taiwan, Beijing-Taipei relations remain a potentially time-bomb in Sino-US relations. Kissinger has said that the Taiwan issue should not be allowed to affect the US-China relations adversely. Sadly, the proposed Pelosi visit added fuel to the fire in the tense US-China relations.

In conclusion, it is time for cool heads on all sides, including the US hawks and PRC hardliners, to ponder a way out of the current impasse in US-China relations. Foreign policy makers are supposed to be rational diplomats, whose judgements and decisions are far calmer and more rational than the politicians who are ideologically oriented. Rationality, calmness and the search for constructive solutions are desperately needed in the ongoing rocky US-China relations.