House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants to go to Taiwan next month, presumably to show the flag and offer support for the threatened island nation.
The problem is that the U.S. military thinks it’s a terrible idea. Tensions are very high in the South China Sea at the moment, and flying a U.S. military plane carrying the Speaker of the House to a place that Beijing sees as its territory would almost certainly be seen as a provocation.
Late in the week, the disagreement burst into the open when Joe Biden told reporters “The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now, but I don’t know what the status of it is.”
Presidents usually don’t comment on the travel plans of any member of Congress, much less the speaker. The Pentagon had been warning Pelosi that the unsettled security situation in the area would make any trip inadvisable.
After initially declining to comment on Biden’s remarks during her press conference on Thursday, Pelosi suggested that the president’s comments stem from the military being “afraid our plane would get shot down, or something like that, by the Chinese.” While not confirming the trip, she added that she has not heard that directly from Biden.
Pelosi also pushed back on the notion that her trip would be interpreted by the Chinese as a provocation.
“It’s important for us to show support for Taiwan,” she said. “None of us have ever said we’re for independence when it comes to Taiwan. That’s up to Taiwan to decide.”
Some Republicans were very supportive of a potential Pelosi trip. “I don’t always agree with her, but on this one I applaud it,” Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview. “It’s important that we show up in Taiwan and demonstrate to China that we are supportive. That’s a very strong statement for a speaker to go to Taiwan.”
Indeed, and China doesn’t like it one bit.
“If the U.S. insists on going its own way, China will take forceful measures to resolutely respond and counter it, and we will do what we say,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin.
Experts say the U.S. should take Chinese officials at their word. Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said that given all the factors in play, “the Chinese may do more than just complain” if Pelosi goes ahead with the trip.
“This could be really consequential,” she said.
President Xi will need to show strength given that there’s a major Communist Party Conference next month at which Xi is expected to win re-election. And with increased tensions between the U.S. and Chinese militaries, the Chinese response to a Pelosi trip to Taiwan would be unpredictable.
At this point, Pelosi not going might be even worse. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) calls it “pathetic self-deterrence” and believes it to be “a mistake” to cancel the trip now.
But the administration says Taiwan really isn’t the issue.
But the administration official said it’s not a question of caving to China. “This is not an issue of standing with Taiwan,” the official said. “The issue really is that there is substantial concern across the region that this will be seen by many as provocative, and will cause China to respond in potentially unpredictable ways.”
The official also stressed that the administration cannot tell Pelosi what to do. “There’s no question but that people understand clearly [that] now, of all times, we have to respect separation of powers,” the official said.
The South China Sea is a flashpoint for war. Chinese and American naval vessels are in close proximity to each other, China’s military buildup in the region is continuing, and neither side shows signs of pulling back.
One can understand the military’s reluctance to have to deal with the complicating factor of Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan. But with Chinese threats escalating, Pelosi is right to go and show American support for Taiwan — because it’s perhaps the only thing deterring the Chinese from attacking.