Here’s why Nancy Pelosi’s visit is such a big deal in Beijing – and how Chinese officials might respond
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made an unannounced but heavily anticipated landing in Taiwan on Tuesday, plunging US-China relations to a new low. Despite warnings from other top Washington officials, Pelosi has now become the highest US official to visit the island in 25 years – but the situation is far different now than it was then.
First, it should be recognized how consequential this decision is. For the US, it’s not that big of a deal. Congressional delegations, not just from the US but many Western countries, go to Taiwan frequently. It’s also seen as separate from official US government policy because the legislative branch of government is separate from the executive, which is tasked with managing foreign policy.
In fact, Pelosi noted this in a tweet when she first arrived on the island. “Our visit is one of several Congressional delegations to Taiwan – and it in no way contradicts longstanding United States policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, US-China Joint Communiques and the Six Assurances,” she said.
But China doesn’t see it that way. And that’s because the situation now is far different than 25 years ago when then-house speaker Newt Gingrich visited Taipei. That’s primarily because the then-ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party still maintained the ‘One China’ line, reached under the 1992 Consensus established by the National Unification Council of the Republic of China (official title for what Westerners refer to as Taiwan).
It’s worth remembering briefly how Taiwan as we know it came to be. It was formed during the Chinese Civil War when the ruling KMT fled to China’s Taiwan after being overwhelmed by forces led by the Communist Party of China. The Republic of China is the remnants of the backward, pre-communist government.
That’s why the 1992 line by the ROC recognized itself – not the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – as the legitimate government of the whole of China. It saw itself as a government in exile. However, this line was still admissible by the mainland, e.g., the PRC, because it recognized that there is one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.
It wasn’t until 2019 that current Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), completely rejected the established 1992 Consensus. That was when things changed and when Beijing started to refer to the Taiwan government under the DPP as “Taiwan independence forces.” It was at this point that an independent “Taiwanese” identity started to emerge.
So, Gingrich’s visit was not seen as a recognition of separatist forces – because the ruling KMT saw itself as de jure rulers of China – and Pelosi’s is seen as an attack on China’s national sovereignty. China also sees the behavior of the administration as tacit approval of this attack on its sovereignty.
First of all, Pelosi took an official US government plane to Taipei which implies an official connection between officials in Taipei and Washington. Estimates put the cost of this trip for US taxpayers at about $90 million dollars. Part of the US’ ‘One China’ pledge is that it will only maintain unofficial ties with Taiwan.
At the same time, the US military – part of the administration – reportedly made plans to protect Pelosi’s plane in any emergency event and, to top it off, both Pelosi and US President Joe Biden are members of the same political party. This only underscores China’s insistence that the administration supports Pelosi’s actions.
Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan will undoubtedly plunge relations between Beijing and Washington to a new low. “The Taiwan question is the most important and most sensitive issue at the very heart of China-US relations. The Taiwan Strait is facing a new round of tensions and severe challenges, and the fundamental cause is the repeated moves by the Taiwan authorities and the United States to change the status quo,” an official statement by China’s Foreign Ministry says.
The question now is how things progress from here. Tensions are already near a boil. Over speculation of Pelosi’s visit, flights in China’s Fujian province near Taiwan were disrupted, Taiwan’s presidential office was targetted by an overseas DDoS attack and there was even a bomb threat sent to Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport. China has since announced a major military drill from August 4-7 that pretty much encircles the entire island of Taiwan and crosses Taiwan’s territorial waters.
It doesn’t appear that the US has planned for anything above military drills or diplomatic statements, and likewise, Beijing doesn’t seem likely to make any sudden, knee-jerk reactions to Pelosi’s visit. Chinese nationalist commentators like Hu Xijin of the Global Times have hinted at immediate military reactions – this appears unlikely.
The saying goes that revenge is a dish best served cold. And China certainly has a lot of time on its hands to let that dish languish, choosing a time and place of its own to react. One thing’s for sure, as Chinese commentators have said, this latest move could easily hasten the eventuality of reunification. There are internal political dynamics that suggest this, too, with public opinion on the mainland firmly in favor of pulling Taiwan back into Beijing’s orbit and President Xi Jinping looking to consolidate his legacy as one of China’s historic leaders.
In the second half of 2022, during the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, he is seeking a third term as the general secretary of the Communist Party of China – or possibly to be elected as the chairman of the Communist Party of China, a position abolished in 1982 and most notably held by Mao Zedong. Reunification, thus permanently ending the Chinese Civil War, would certainly put him among the most important Chinese leaders ever.
In terms of how China will hit back at the main perpetrator – Washington – this will likely be in the realms that it really hurts and where the US is already seeing the most destabilization – the economic and trade spheres. The US supply chain is infinitely intertwined with China and the ongoing trade war between the two sides has already been a major source of inflation.
With the flick of a pen, Chinese officials could seriously upset the US economy, exacerbate inflation and send Biden’s Democrats packing in this year’s midterm elections, which would also mean dethroning Nancy Pelosi as speaker. It’s anyone’s guess how things progress but this seems the most likely, in my view.