Nancy Pelosi is only the most recent in a long line of US congressmen and women to visit Taipei. A predecessor, Newt Gingrich, famously went in the 1990s. It’s a regular port of call for congressmen and women visiting the Asia-Pacific and Australia. US senators visited in June 2021 and again in May this year.
Pelosi is part of a very large, probably majority, Congressional group that supports Taiwan, wants to see it defended at all costs, and views China’s claims over the democratic state as fundamentally illegitimate — at odds with the view of successive US administrations that support a one-China policy and the retention of the status quo in regard to Taiwan.
It’s a long-standing tension, and not confined to Taiwan or China. Congress is often more hawkish than presidential administrations are — even when of the same party. Even Ronald Reagan was seen as too soft by Republicans on the Soviet Union when he was negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev on nuclear missile reductions.
Pelosi’s visit to Taipei is thus not quite the inflammatory provocation or unprecedented insult that China or its Western supporters suggest.
But once her visit was mooted, and China reacted ferociously with threats of retaliation, both sides were locked in to a course of escalation. Pelosi couldn’t withdraw from the visit for either domestic political reasons (being seen to back down to China) or for sound foreign policy reasons (giving Beijing evidence that the US will back down might encourage further aggression). Beijing was locked into treating the visit as a major event, far in excess of its offended reaction when US senators make their periodic visits to Taipei.
While Beijing’s ostentatious wrath is manifesting itself in missile launches and naval exercises around Taiwan, it’s unlikely to lead to open conflict. But it’s exactly how conflict might start: both sides being unable to credibly back down in the face of provocations by the other, with a lack of off-ramps for the US or China to de-escalate without suffering humiliation.
The stakes would be significantly lower if Chinese President Xi Jinping hadn’t repeatedly indicated he is anxious to return Taiwan to tyranny as soon as possible — certainly ahead of the centennial of Nationalist forces fleeing to the island in 1949. And if Russia wasn’t engaged in a similar imperialist exercise of trying to occupy Ukraine, which the Putin regime regards as historically Russian as well.
The Biden administration line remains the same as that of previous administrations — it has not indicated whether it would commit military forces if China sought to invade Taiwan, merely that it would intervene militarily, which might extend only to logistics, arms and intelligence assistance.
The pro-Taiwan section of Congress has never liked strategic ambiguity. But it remains the formal US position. Like the overall tension with China, that tension won’t be going away. It’s an artefact of a democratic system — and thus possibly hard for Xi to comprehend.