As Jazz noted this morning, China is rattling its saber pretty loudly this week over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plans to visit Taiwan. CNN has a new story up this afternoon indicating the White House is still working hard to talk her out of it. We all know that Joe Biden considers himself a foreign police genius but, reading between the lines here, I think the White House is making a terrible mistake.
The possible trip is highlighting the concerns within President Joe Biden’s administration over China’s designs on Taiwan as Beijing has stepped up its rhetoric and aggressive actions toward the island in recent months, including sending warplanes into Taiwan’s self-declared air defense identification zone several times. US officials have expressed concern that those moves could be precursors to even more aggressive steps by China in the coming months meant to assert its authority over the island…
Administration officials are concerned Pelosi’s trip comes at a particularly tense moment, as Xi is expected to seek an unprecedented third term at the upcoming Chinese Communist Party congress. Chinese party officials are expected to begin laying the groundwork for that conference in the coming weeks, putting pressure on the leadership in Beijing to show strength.
Officials also believe the Chinese leadership don’t completely grasp the political dynamics in the United States, leading to a misunderstanding over the significance of Pelosi’s potential visit. The officials say China may be confusing Pelosi’s visit with an official administration visit, since she and Biden are both Democrats. Administration officials are concerned that China doesn’t separate Pelosi from Biden much, if at all…
He last spoke to Xi in March, when he worked to convince the Chinese leader not to support Russia amid its invasion of Ukraine. Officials have been watching closely how Beijing responds to the invasion, hoping the mostly united Western response — including a withering set of economic sanctions and billions of dollars in arms shipments — proves illuminating as China considers its actions toward Taiwan.
So, if you haven’t been following this, President Xi Jinping is preparing to install himself for a 3rd 5-year term this fall and the only way that effort could fail is if he’s deemed to have failed as a leader in some obvious and undeniable way. That’s why you have the country tripling down on zero Covid even though it’s doing damage to the Chinese economy. Zero Covid is Xi Jinping’s baby and that means there’s zero room to admit error ahead of his next coronation.
So it’s true that Xi is looking to appear strong and Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is a challenge to that image. But here’s what the White House doesn’t seem to grasp. Canceling the trip now (it was already canceled once earlier this year) would hand Xi Jinping exactly the win he’s looking for, a win over the US and over freedom in Taiwan. It’s practically an endorsement of Xi’s leadership, i.e. even the US is afraid to piss off the mighty Xi Jinping. You can bet that if the trip is canceled that’s how some of the state media will be reporting it.
While I understand the desire to avoid upping the confrontation with China, it seems to me that handing Xi a big win as he moves to become even more of a Maoist autocrat doesn’t take us farther away from a major conflict, it actually brings us closer. Because it’s Xi Jinping’s stated goal to achieve “reunification” with Taiwan. And under Xi, China has become a belligerent bully both towards its own people and toward other nations. His government is proud of that fact. They call this belligerence “wolf warrior diplomacy,” based on a dopey action film that is sort of the Chinese equivalent of Rambo. Under those circumstances, every time we back off from a confrontation China learns that all they have to do is act belligerent and they’ll get their way.
The official policy of the US toward Taiwan is “strategic ambiguity” which means China doesn’t know how we’ll react if they, for instance, launch an invasion or declare a no fly zone. That ambiguity is the only thing keeping China at bay. What we don’t want to do is remove the ambiguity by making it clear we’re willing to back down anytime they express displeasure with something we want to do.
There’s been a lot of talk about China watching what is happening in Ukraine and learning from it, including some in the article above. What they’ve learned so far is that the west won’t automatically hand over an independent country to a belligerent autocracy. There can in fact be a huge price to pay for belligerence. But it’s the act of standing up against Putin’s designs on Ukraine, even to the point of shipping tanks and missiles, that is the lesson China also needs to learn to prevent future conflict in Taiwan.
The US and other nations are showing strength in response to Russia. Canceling Pelosi’s harmless visit to Taiwan sends the opposite message. If we can’t even stand up to China over a relatively minor diplomatic visit, are we really going to stand up to China with military force? The future of Taiwan depends on the messages we send. If we get it wrong, a few years from now what has already happened to Hong Kong will happen to Taiwan as well. Pelosi should make the trip and China should be expected to deal with the actual ambiguity that continues to exist over Taiwan’s status.