The timing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s proposed trip to Taiwan puts President Joe Biden in a bind. Having drawn threats and condemnation from Beijing, the visit risks undermining any fruits of a planned call between Biden and China’s Xi Jinping. For Pelosi to postpone or cancel, though, would leave the impression of a US administration backing down in the face of Chinese belligerence.
Questioned on Pelosi’s reported plans to lead a delegation to the self-governing island next month, Biden said Wednesday that “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now.” That looks convenient, placing any decision to abort in the hands of an apolitical third party. The president said he expects to speak to Xi within the next 10 days, and doesn’t know the status of Pelosi’s trip.
China’s reaction to the possible visit by such a senior figure in Biden’s Democratic Party has been unusually fierce. The state-owned Global Times said in an editorial that it would be one of the most “egregious provocations” since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and China in 1979. The newspaper said traveling to the island, which Beijing claims as its own territory, was a “red line” that Pelosi must never cross, accused her of playing with fire and said that China had the right to take “forceful measures” against the trip and against the speaker herself.
While the Global Times is frequently a channel for nationalist bombast, its comments reflect the line being taken by the country’s diplomats. The foreign ministry said the visit would have a “grave impact” on US-China ties, and vowed a “resolute and strong” response. China’s ambassador to the US, Qin Gang, said Washington was “blurring out” the “One China” policy that has governed the two countries’ relations.
This all amounts to a distraction that the White House could do without. With US-China relations already at their lowest point in decades, the spat threatens to overshadow any progress the Biden-Xi call might make. There has been speculation that the exchange could presage a winding back of Washington’s tariffs on Chinese imports, helping to alleviate US consumer inflation that is running at its fastest pace in more than 40 years. That would be a welcome boost for Biden, whose approval rating is stuck at a record low.
Notably, the Taiwan controversy also constrains Xi’s ability to maneuver. China’s president will seek a precedent-breaking third leadership term at a Communist Party congress later this year, and has his own domestic political pressures, with the economy struggling under the weight of Covid restrictions, and a spreading mortgage crisis. With his government having denounced Pelosi’s Taiwan visit in such unequivocal terms, Xi cannot afford to appear accommodating to US demands.
China objects to US officials visiting Taiwan because such contacts imply recognition of the island as a separate state. Still, Pelosi’s visit isn’t unprecedented: Then-Speaker Newt Gingrich traveled to the island in 1997. The US has maintained substantial unofficial contacts since switching diplomatic recognition to Beijing more than 40 years ago, and is committed to helping Taiwan defend itself against any attack.
In part, higher-level US contacts reflect a determination to show support for democratic Taiwan in the face of China’s military buildup, increasing aggression and harassment of the island. From this perspective, it is Beijing rather than Washington that has been trying to change the status quo. China’s rhetoric, in any case, is at least partly disingenuous. The One-China policy was deliberately blurred from the start: The US acknowledges Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic, but takes no stance on how the issue should be resolved. Washington does, though, advocate a peaceful resolution that meets with the consent of Taiwan’s people.
Behind the semantic arguments, this is the crucial point. Taiwan is a free and democratic society whose 23 million people should not be forced to become part of an authoritarian China at gunpoint. In seeking to finesse a way through an unfortunately timed diplomatic flare-up, the Biden administration should be careful not to give the impression that its commitment to the island is wavering. That would be a far worse outcome than failing to take a few points off inflation.