Nancy Pelosi in Taiwan: What lies ahead for China and the US?

Chatham House experts examine the implications for Taiwan, China and the United States of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island.

Expert comment Published 3 August 2022 5 minute READ

China’s fading ties with Washington?

Dr Yu Jie

US House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi’s, visit to Taiwan has plunged China-US relations into a new low as the reservoir of trust forged between the two sides over the last 40 years appears to be almost exhausted.

However, her move will likely not result in the full-scale crisis across the Taiwan strait that some hawkish voices in both Beijing and Washington believe. Instead, Beijing will most likely offer a combination of military posturing toward the US navy and economic sanctions on Taiwanese agricultural and manufacturing products in order to send a clear bellwether to any future potential visits by high-level Western political figures.

China will be careful not to stumble into an accidental conflict. 

Neither Beijing nor Washington has declared a willingness to change the current status quo as the present impasse benefits both governments – but for different reasons. For China, the best approach is to reach a military and economic capability that prevents US engagement with Taiwan without the use of force. For the US, the strategic ambiguity under the Taiwan Relations Act remains an effective card to counter China’s growing military influence in the Indo-Pacific and keep itself relevant within the region as a security guarantor. Yet, both sides have decided to kick the issue of Taiwan’s status down the road, believing that time is ultimately on their side.

Despite a chorus of nationalistic rhetoric, China will be careful not to stumble into an accidental conflict which risks colossal damage on all fronts. Chinese President, Xi Jinping, must weigh all of the options before him as Beijing cannot afford to be perceived as unilaterally seeking to change what it agreed with the US back in 1979 when ties were re-established. If that happens, it will provoke the US political establishment to reach a unanimous agreement to change its ‘One China Policy’ and, ahead of the 20th Communist Party Congress where Xi is expected to be crowned for a historic third term, the last thing he wants is an unnecessary conflict with Taiwan.

The road to escalation?

Dr Bill Hayton

Beijing has chosen to take issue over Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in a way that it did not do for other recent US Congressional visits to the island. Several high-ranking US senators visited in April and May this year yet none of these visits triggered the prospect of a cross-strait crisis. So why has Beijing chosen to turn Pelosi’s visit into a stand-off?

Pelosi’s visit is part of a performance in which both actors – the US and China – are playing primarily for their domestic audiences. This comes at a time when ruling circles in Beijing are preparing for the five-yearly Communist Party Congress. Amid a slowing economy and successive COVID-19 variants, Xi Jinping cannot afford to look weak as he prepares the ground for his third term of office. Meanwhile, the US, represented either by President Joe Biden or House Speaker Pelosi, cannot back down at this point without looking weak itself.

The impact on a world economy already suffering major disruption because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the lingering effects of COVID-19 would be stark.

Both sides have moved military assets into strategic positions near Taiwan to demonstrate their resolve. Neither side wants confrontation yet neither wishes to be humiliated. Currently, Pelosi’s visit, amid posturing by China, will make the US appear strong, but the consequences are likely to play out over a longer period. Xi Jinping will need to appear to have recaptured the initiative between now and the congress in the autumn when the risk of an incident will be at its greatest.

Taiwan controls several isolated islands that could be pressured by Chinese forces in the event of a future crisis. The Kinmen and Matsu archipelagos lie just a few miles off the coast of the mainland and have been at the centre of previous confrontations. There are also two other points of concern. Pratas Island – known as Dongsha – sits halfway between Taiwan and Hong Kong. Itu Aba – known as Taiping – is the largest of the Spratly Islands in the centre of the South China Sea. All would be vulnerable to an attack by the People’s Liberation Army, the principal military force of China, and the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party.

A military confrontation between China and the US over Taiwan, or further south in the South China Sea, would have major impacts on regional and global trade. An estimated $300 billion worth of trade passes through the area every month. Japan and South Korea depend heavily on flows of oil and gas through the sea. Exports from Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines would also be heavily affected by disruptions to shipping, increased insurance costs and interruptions in inflows of raw materials. The impact on a world economy already suffering major disruption because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the lingering effects of COVID-19 would indeed be stark.

Is a shift in US policy on the cards?

Dr Leslie Vinjamuri

Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan will undoubtedly be seen as a provocation by Beijing – even if it should not be. Pelosi’s trip to the Indo-Pacific, which also includes visits to Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan, comes at a time of growing tension between the US and China in the region.

It also comes at a time when the divide among Washington’s foreign policy elite is growing, with some arguing that it is time to abandon the country’s policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’, where it refrains from stating how it would react were China to openly and deliberately attack Taiwan. Indeed, recent statements by President Joe Biden have raised questions about whether the US is set to make a policy change. But, since both its ‘One China Policy’ and policy of strategic ambiguity have been largely successful, it would be wise for the US to maintain them.

It would be a mistake for the US to signal a major policy change away from strategic ambiguity and towards strategic clarity on Taiwan’s status.

During her visit, Pelosi is likely to reaffirm the US’ high regard for Taiwan’s democracy and embrace the language of shared values. She has embraced Biden’s framing of international relations as a contest between democracies and autocracies. This alone will continue to exacerbate tensions. It would be a mistake, though, to signal a major policy change away from strategic ambiguity and towards strategic clarity on Taiwan’s status. Even if the US decides later to embrace a policy shift of this size, such a message should be carefully considered and communicated clearly, and not by chance.

Congress has an important role to play but President Joe Biden and his national security team should make the final decision on US policy towards Taiwan. Getting the signals right in international politics is a key part of deterrence and, especially in East Asia, deterring both China and Taiwan’s ambitions is essential. 

Increasing insecurity in the region?

Dr John Nilsson-Wright and Ben Bland

Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has provoked mixed responses from US allies across Asia.

For Japanese policymakers, the Taiwan issue is connected to the wider issue of regional security. Fears that a military conflict over the island will inevitably draw Japanese self-defense forces into a shooting war with China – a development that is neither formally mandated under the terms of the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty nor necessarily constitutionally sanctioned – explains the concerns in Tokyo.

While the Japanese government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is increasingly worried about China’s growing military presence in the East and South China Seas, Japan’s heavy trade dependence on China and the country’s economic and security vulnerabilities make it imperative to avoid any further escalation of tensions.

Given Tokyo’s non-recognition policy towards Taiwan, Japanese ties with Taipei are handled informally by politicians of the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), rather than at cabinet or foreign ministry level, and in recent weeks and months there has been an increase in visits by cross party delegations from Japan.

Though most Asian governments are keen to see the US constructively engaged in the region they also want to see stable China-US relations.

The death of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as removed from public life a vocal advocate in support of enhanced ties between Tokyo and Taipei, but with public opinion in Japan increasingly tilting in an anti-Chinese direction, and with younger politicians favouring a more combative approach towards Beijing, there is a risk that the government will face pressure at home to toughen its language on Taiwan. Bolstering deterrence through increased military cooperation among allies, along with a graduated increase in defence spending, is the best way of limiting risk over Taiwan.

Nevertheless, privately, many officials in Tokyo are likely to have viewed the Pelosi visit as an unhelpful intervention and will be puzzled and perhaps frustrated by the apparent inability of the Biden administration to persuade the US Speaker of the House of Representatives to cancel her visit.

In South Korea, the government of President Yoon Suk-yeol, faces similar pressures to Japan, given the heavy dependence of the South Korean economy on China for trade and investment opportunities.

Pelosi’s visit to the region will strikingly not include meetings with either the president or Foreign Minister Park Jin. With Yoon on vacation and Park attending the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Cambodia, the absence of high profile engagements for Pelosi might seem to be a purely practical matter, but Seoul may also be seeking to avoid antagonizing Beijing at a time when the Chinese government is seeking to pressure South Korea not to enhance alliance coordination with the United States and Japan or to expand its commitment to the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence system.

As in Japan, public opinion in South Korea is increasingly anti-Chinese, but the logic of regional economic and security uncertainty, requires the Yoon government to avoid getting trapped in a worsening stand-off with Beijing.

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Notwithstanding the growing importance of values-based inter-alliance cooperation, most notably over guaranteeing sovereignty, protecting democracy and combatting authoritarianism, decision-makers in both Tokyo and Seoul remain focused on pragmatic security concerns and will be inclined to see the Pelosi visit as an unhelpful irritant that increases regional insecurity rather than a source of reassurance.

Though most Asian governments are keen to see the US constructively engaged in the region, as Singapore’s prime minister has highlighted during Pelosi’s visit, they also want to see stable China-US relations. Finding that balance will be a difficult and choppy process as the US and China continue to probe the other side for weaknesses.