Michael Mazza is a senior non-resident fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute, visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and its aftermath is a clarifying moment. It clarifies China’s utter hostility to Taiwan’s democracy, and it clarifies the Biden administration’s thus far incoherent approach to the Taiwan Strait. This is undoubtedly a dangerous moment, but it may presage far more dangerous moments to come.
Start with China. Even if one were to concede that Speaker Pelosi’s visit was unwise and that it dangerously eroded Washington’s “One-China Policy” (both points are debatable), it is difficult to see Beijing’s response as anything other than needlessly aggressive—and potentially reckless. It is fortunate that missiles fired over Taiwan did not fail or veer off course midflight. It is fortunate that civilian ships and aircraft steered clear of China’s declared exclusion zones around Taiwan. And it is fortunate that Taiwan has acted with restraint, keeping its powder dry for another day, rather than forcefully defending its sovereignty now.
While China was angrily pounding the seas with missiles and rocket artillery and sending ships and aircraft across the Taiwan Strait median line, it was also banning the export of key industrial imports to Taiwan, banning imports of numerous food items from dozens of Taiwanese companies, launching cyberattacks on government websites, and engaging in intensified political warfare operations. Troublingly, this new phase of China’s years-long coercive campaign—which began in 2016—may just be getting underway.
To date, of course, Beijing has directed all meaningful punishment at Taiwan, rather than at the presumably guilty party, the United States of America. Beijing’s cancellation of various US-China dialogues, and sanctions on Pelosi and her immediate family, are notable—but not nearly as consequential as the costs it is imposing on Taiwan. Time and again, China picks on the small and relatively weak. Yang Jiechi’s (楊潔篪) apparent diplomatic slip of the tongue back in 2010 at an ASEAN meeting in Hanoi—when he told the Singaporean foreign minister that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact”—has proven to be a reliable guide for understanding China’s worldview in the 12 years since.
Taiwan is no closer to “declaring independence”—lazy shorthand for all manner of ways Taiwan might formalize its separateness from China—after Pelosi’s visit than it was before. Nor is Washington any closer to altering the position on Taiwan’s sovereignty that it has maintained since the aftermath of World War II: that Taiwan’s status is undetermined. (Note: that position informed the American position in the “Three Communiqués,” rather than vice versa). When the second-in-line to the American presidency lands in Taipei for official meetings, that is undoubtedly a big deal. But it is a big deal that is consistent with America’s “One-China Policy” and with past precedent. Yet, Beijing has erupted in a fit of pique designed to coerce and intimidate Taiwan and its partners.
This should be clarifying. This edition of China’s festival of furor comes following an American act. Next time, it might come because Taiwan’s people elect a leader of which Beijing does not approve. If it was not clear before, it is clear now: Taiwan faces an existential threat. Free countries should not draw back, but instead redouble efforts to ensure that threat never manifests in violent aggression. Otherwise, Beijing will continue to treat regional peace and stability as a plaything it can toy with at will.
In December 2021, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner described a number of “strategic reasons” that “Taiwan’s security is so important to the United States,” including its location “at a critical node…that is critical to the region’s security and critical to the defense of vital US interests in the Indo-Pacific.” This language raised hackles in Beijing, but it was consistent with decades of American thinking on Taiwan’s geostrategic value. General Douglas MacArthur, of course, famously described the island as “an unsinkable aircraft carrier and submarine tender”—one which, should it ever fall into communist hands, was “ideally located to accomplish Soviet offensive strategy and at the same time checkmate counteroffensive operations by United States Forces based on Okinawa and the Philippines.” That the United States has an interest in Taiwan’s continuing de facto independence is nothing new.
That interest may be at greater risk now than it has ever been, with threats to the “critical node” growing by leaps and bounds. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2021, now-retired Admiral Phil Davidson, who then led Indo-Pacific Command, assessed that the threat to Taiwan “is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years.” More recently, unnamed officials have told reporters that the Biden administration has some concerns China may attack Taiwan in the next 18 months. Whether 18 months or seven years, either window should create pressure for the Biden administration to act with urgency at a time when the cross-Strait and trans-Pacific balances of military power are rapidly tilting in China’s favor.
Yet a sense of urgency has been lacking. Under the Biden Administration, there has been only one announced sale of arms that will appreciably upgrade Taiwan’s defense capabilities (most sales provide spare parts and other support for Taiwan’s existing inventory). What’s more, deliveries of that one system—M109A6 Paladin self-propelled howitzers—have been delayed due to the justifiable needs of the Ukraine war, with little apparent American effort to address Taiwanese gaps in the meantime. And while the Biden administration last fall surprisingly admitted to the presence in Taiwan of a small contingent of US special forces and Marines on a training mission, that mission began during the Trump Administration. Although Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) revealed in May that the US Department of Defense is “proactively planning cooperation between the US National Guard and Taiwan’s defense forces,” there has been no known move to significantly enhance active duty joint training during Biden’s time in office.
Beyond the defense realm, the Biden Administration has also failed to act in other ways that could, over time, contribute to Taiwan’s security. The White House continues to refuse to launch free trade agreement negotiations with Taiwan. The White House has excluded Taiwan from the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (perhaps to ensure the participation of other partners). The White House is entirely ignoring the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages, but does not mandate, “officials at all levels of the United States Government[…]to travel to Taiwan to meet their Taiwanese counterparts.” And the White House has made no serious effort to secure Taiwan’s participation in a variety of international organizations.
The incoherence of the administration’s approach to Taiwan starts at the top. On three occasions, President Biden has made public statements suggesting a shift in America’s Taiwan policy. Most recently, when asked in May if he is “willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan,” the president answered, “yes.” He went on to explain, “that’s the commitment we made.” Yet in all three of these instances, the administration walked back the president’s comments, insisting that there had been no change to US policy. How this president and his administration think about Taiwan is anybody’s guess.
The pre-Pelosi visit imbroglio demonstrates this administration’s inability to responsibly manage things in the Taiwan Strait. In fairness, the Biden administration is grappling with a serious crisis in Europe and understandably has little appetite for a second on the opposite side of the world. This is, perhaps, why President Biden began pitching Xi Jinping (習近平) on establishing “commonsense guardrails” for the US-China competition last November as warning signs of an impending calamity in Europe grew starker. Unfortunately, that desire to avoid a contretemps may have led to actions that, ironically, brought one about.
On July 9, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly told Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi (王毅) that Nancy Pelosi might visit Taipei, that it was up to her, and that she had every right to do so. Wang, who in April had described a potential visit as a “malicious provocation,” may not have reacted well. Ten days later, the Financial Times ran with a scoop that a visit was in the works.
The sources in the report are anonymous, but this certainly looked like an attempt to create public pressure on Pelosi to cancel her planned trip. If so, it was a miscalculation. It forced China to go public with its opposition, and suddenly the United States was in the sort of contest of wills that the White House presumably hoped to avoid. But the White House would not recognize that reality—indeed, it would not take any public position at all. President Biden hid behind the uniform—claiming that “the military thinks it’s not a good idea [for her to go] right now”—while unnamed officials made unconvincing arguments against the visit in the press, and the White House relied on the Washington, DC, commentariat to do the rest.
This effort failed. Pelosi went despite the White House’s apparent objections. What that means for the Biden Administration’s Taiwan approach is unclear. Did President Biden make a principled assessment of what would actually be in the national interest, or was he simply deferring to “the military”? Should Taipei be reassured by the congressional commitment to Taiwan embodied in Pelosi’s visit, or worried by the president’s lack of commitment to anything at all? Where does Taiwan policy fit within the “guardrails” the White House has been so eager to establish for the US-China relationship? The answer to all of these questions is, troublingly, “we don’t know.” That is no way to go about managing America’s approach to one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints, and to a vibrant democracy home to 23 million people that want little more than to live free.
The main point: Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and its aftermath is a clarifying moment. It clarifies China’s utter hostility to Taiwan’s democracy, and it clarifies the Biden Administration’s incoherent approach to the Taiwan Strait.