Guatemala City, Guatemala, 08-08-19. Nancy Pelosi speaks at the Air Force base during her visit to Guatemala in regard to migration policy between Guatemala and the USA. (Shutterstock)
By Ross Barkan, NY Mag
Speaker Nancy Pelosi is headed to Taiwan, undertaking a foreign-policy spectacle few asked for and even fewer need. Pelosi, both a liberal and a China hawk, launched her tour of Asia Sunday and has intimated she’ll end up in Taiwan, despite warnings from Chinese leaders that her arrival could provoke a military response. She will reportedly meet with Taiwan’s president on Wednesday. It would be the highest-level visit by an American official in 25 years; the Biden administration, wary of Pelosi’s potential trip to the self-governing island, still expects her to go there, though she could theoretically change her mind.
There is nothing immediately tangible that Pelosi can accomplish by going to Taiwan, which China has threatened with invasion for some time. It’s unclear how Pelosi’s unsanctioned visit will make a Chinese invasion any less likely. The speaker may inadvertently inflame tensions between China and Taiwan if she visits, putting Taiwanese citizens in danger. Though Pelosi belongs to a branch independent of the president, she will be viewed by the Chinese as an American official driving a confrontation. Military retribution — aimed at the United States, Taiwan, or both — could come next.
Hawks on both the left and right have grown far too cavalier about increasing the odds of violent conflict. Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine, Democrats and Republicans alike have waved away the idea of attempting to readily deescalate military conflicts. World War II is invoked with increasing frequency. Russia must be stopped here so they don’t go there. And the subtext is China: If Americans keep flooding Ukraine with tens of billions in arms to stop Russia, China might be, in theory, deterred from a future invasion of Taiwan after seeing how another hostile world power has been isolated on the global stage.
Some may argue Pelosi is doing what doves want: diplomacy. She’s not showing up with warplanes. But she’s going as a semi-rogue actor, not as a representative of the Biden administration. Her practical powers, in this case, are severely limited. She’s also not seeking any sort of accord or agreement. She is simply going to go, to perhaps express her displeasure with China’s horrendous human-rights record. There is an inherent physical risk in her arrival — Chinese warplanes could surround her own, with the possibility of a collision, accidental or not, triggering a violent confrontation between the world’s superpowers — and in what China might do when she leaves. Biden officials expect military maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait, cyberattacks, or communications cutoffs that would show China’s ability to strangle the island, which is the world’s largest supplier of the most advanced semiconductors in the world.
The question becomes whether such a visit will heighten tensions between the U.S. and China and accelerate China’s timeline for a takeover of Taiwan. The answer seems to be, on all counts, yes. Both Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, China’s authoritarian leader, are eager to demonstrate their alleged toughness to their respective citizens. Xi wants to control China indefinitely and is straining to show he is unafraid of the United States. Biden, meanwhile, hesitates to be outflanked by Republicans who believe he is “soft” on China. The trouble is that there isn’t much of a coherent view on what “hardness” looks like, absent military confrontation. China and the United States have enough weapons to annihilate themselves and the rest of the world several times over. If this scenario is taken lightly, we’ll get closer to military escalation soon enough. Biden has already answered “yes” to the question of whether America would marshal its military to defend Taiwan if China invaded.
There are ways, in the interim, to defuse the Pelosi-manufactured crisis. The United States could quietly ask Taiwan’s leadership to tell Pelosi to stay away. Taiwan cannot realistically benefit if Pelosi follows through and shows up there. She offers nothing, at this point, but provocation.
If Pelosi makes her visit, an emboldened, enraged China may reject diplomacy altogether and speed up plans for an invasion or further encroachment. The United States, in turn, could be dragged into a war. In such a confrontation, many Taiwanese would inevitably die. An incapacitated Taiwan would also destabilize the global economy in a way that would make the crisis in Ukraine look quaint. A mass semiconductor shortage could imperil much of modern technology. Her visit might also nudge China toward open military support of Russia in the Ukraine war — that was the takeaway from a report in the Times, revealing that Biden had talked Xi out of that sort of involvement earlier this year.
Toughness toward China should mean American self-reliance, not deadly military confrontation. The United States should do far more to manufacture its own semiconductor chips. Already, progress has been made on this front, as Biden prepares to sign a bill that would pump tens of billions in federal money into semiconductor manufacturing and scientific research. Chips have already been in short supply, as factory shutdowns during COVID-19 slowed production in Asia. In recent decades, the American share of global chip production has fallen off precipitously. Beyond chip manufacturing, the American government should subsidize, as much as it can, the manufacturers that are here and seek to implement the sort of far-reaching green industrial policy that will simultaneously combat climate change and put the nation on stronger economic footing. In the interim, while decreasing reliance on Chinese and Taiwanese exports, the United States must attempt diplomacy that is not stunt-driven. If Pelosi cares about a peaceful future for Taiwan, she’ll go elsewhere.