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Why Nancy Pelosi should visit Taiwan – just not now

David Spencer
July 29, 2022

The proposed visit of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan appears to be on the brink of causing a major diplomatic incident between the USA and China, writes David Spencer.

There has been much speculation over the past week that Pelosi is planning to visit during a broader East Asia tour and that she has invited both Democrats and Republicans to join her. Pelosi's position makes her second in line to the Presidency, and, as such, she would be the highest-ranking US official to visit Taiwan since 1997, 25 years ago, when Pelosi's predecessor, Newt Gingrich, visited to meet with then Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui.

But there have been numerous visits by elected US officials to Taiwan in recent times. In August 2020, US Health Secretary Alex Azar met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei to discuss Taiwan's successful handling of the COVID-19 outbreak from the neighbouring PRC.

Needless to say, officials from the People's Republic of China (PRC) objected to the visit. PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, accused Washington of "seriously violating its commitments" and Chinese fighter jets briefly crossed the median line in the Taiwan Straits. But nothing further happened, and the status quo was soon resumed.

Such responses to US-Taiwanese interactions are perfectly normal. In January 2021, President Tsai held a video-meeting with the then US Ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft. It was Lijian who voiced the PRC's outrage again saying, "Certain U.S. politicians will pay a heavy price for their wrong words and deeds." Despite this hard-line rhetoric, there was no further action.

Just yesterday, Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping reportedly told President Biden, "whoever plays with fire will get burnt" over US support for Taiwan. A thinly veiled threat if ever there was one.

The UK was subjected to something similar last year when HMS Richmond broke away from the Carrier Strike Group to transit the international waters of the Taiwan Strait between Taiwan and the PRC. This time the response came though the PRC's state-controlled People's Daily Newspaper which said, "With ill intentions, UK's move destroyed peace and stability in the area. China is on high alert and is ready to respond to all threats and provocations at any time". The People's Liberation Army's Eastern Theatre Command added that the "behaviour harbours evil intentions and damages peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait". Strong words, but again, nothing further happened.

So when Zhao Lijian (him again) threatens "firm and resolute measures" and "serious consequences" if Pelosi pays a visit to Taiwan, it's hard to see this as any more than the usual bluster without bite.

This type of response is straight from the PRC playbook when it comes to Taiwan. There is a clear three-step process. First, they express outrage, this is followed up by threats, and lastly, in some cases but by no means all, there is a response.

The response depends on which country has enraged them this time and their economic value to Beijing. For example, Lithuania found its exports to China blocked briefly after it had the temerity to allow the Taiwanese Government to open a Representative Office (de facto Embassy) using the name 'Taiwan'.

But Lithuania is a small economy. There is no precedent for similar steps being taken against large economies like the US and the UK on which the PRC's precarious economy is far more dependent. Even Lithuania's punishment was only temporary.

Usually, the PRC's outrage and threats pass relatively unnoticed. The mistake that Pelosi has made this time is allowing talk of her visit to hit the media well in advance. This has allowed speculation to percolate and the PRC's rhetoric to gain far more of a foothold than it usually would. She was originally planning to visit back in April. Those plans emerged just days before she was due in Taipei and, had that visit gone ahead, it would likely have passed swiftly and without incident. Sadly, she tested positive for COVID-19 and was unable to travel.

Despite all the current speculation about the Pentagon's contingency planning and stepping up the US Military presence in the region (all sensible precautions by the way), there is absolutely no way that Pelosi should cancel her visit to Taiwan as a result of the PRC's hollow threats. The US Government must not allow its representative's activities to be dictated by a hostile authoritarian regime on the basis of its flawed claims to sovereignty over one of the USA's democratic allies.

Having said that, there is merit in Pelosi allowing her trip to lapse for now, letting all the hue and cry die down, and then rescheduling it further down the line, when she can visit without all this unnecessary build-up and associated media furore.

The UK Government should also be more vocal in supporting the right of Pelosi to visit Taiwan if she so chooses. Indeed, it is high time that the UK dropped its own self-imposed restrictions on ministerial interaction with China and we saw senior British Government Ministers visiting one of our closest democratic allies in the region.

But if and when this happens, they should just get on a plane rather than flagging the trip in advance and letting Beijing work itself into a frenzy over something which, regardless of what they think, is absolutely none of their business.

David Spencer is the Chief Executive of the Taiwan Policy Centre, an independent not-for-profit organisation dedicated to boosting political, cultural, and trading relations between the UK and Taiwan.
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