WASHINGTON — As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan on Tuesday evening local time for a long-rumored official visit, her trip has exposed a rare schism between the Biden White House and probably the most powerful Democrat in Congress.
Officially, the Biden administration has been careful to avoid directly answering questions on whether it agrees with Pelosi’s decision to make the trip.
But unofficially, the White House and the Pentagon have made little secret of their opposition to such a visit, which comes at a time when U.S.-China relations are the poorest they have been in a long time.
In late July, Biden responded to an issue about Pelosi’s then-rumored stop in Taiwan by saying, “The military thinks it is not a great idea without delay. But I do not know what the status of it’s.”
For weeks, American officials from the president on down have tied themselves into knots attempting to speak about Pelosi’s selection to go to Taiwan, and stressing that it was her decision, and hers alone.
Missing the purpose
Now, experts say it’s becoming clear that this effort missed the purpose. That is because schisms in Washington are effectively meaningless to the remainder of the world, which has learned to view American presidents and their top allies in Congress as interchangeable stand-ins for each other on foreign policy matters.
The indisputable fact that U.S. policy toward Taiwan is deliberately ambiguous only serves to make it that far more difficult to attract any meaningful distinction between what Pelosi is doing and what the White Home is saying.
Pelosi, a longtime China hawk, has not officially announced that she’s going to visit the self-ruled island off the coast of mainland China, which Beijing considers a renegade province.
I feel what you actually see from China’s side, and it is not unreasonable, is that we’re sort of pushing the envelope of the One China policy.
China Global Research Center, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
But after weeks of Pelosi and her office refusing to verify the visit, citing security concerns, Taiwanese media reported Monday that Pelosi and a congressional delegation of 5 other House Democrats planned to spend Tuesday night within the capital, Taipei, and meet with Taiwanese leaders and members of the island’s legislature on Wednesday.
Beijing has been furious for months over the reported visit, which might mark the primary time in 25 years that an American House Speaker visited the island.
Any trip by Pelosi “will greatly threaten peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, severely undermine China-US relations and result in a really serious situation and grave consequences,” senior Chinese diplomat Liu Xiaoming tweeted late Monday night. Liu’s statement reflected the tone and tenor of weeks’ value of warnings and threats which have emanated from Beijing.
On Tuesday, China escalated this rhetoric with a series of actions, starting with the announcement of latest import bans on certain Taiwanese products. Shortly afterward, Reuters reported that several Chinese warplanes had flown near the median line of the Taiwan Strait.
Hours later, a significant Taiwanese media outlet reported that the island’s own military could be on heightened alert in response to Chinese live fire exercises being held in anticipation of Pelosi’s reported visit.
Provided that Pelosi is traveling aboard a U.S. military aircraft for the whole thing of her trip to Asia this week, the quickly escalating military tensions between China and Taiwan carry especially high risks.
In addition they underscore what a difficult position Pelosi’s trip has placed the Biden White House into.
‘Independent branch of presidency’
As reports of the trip solidified in recent days, Biden’s top spokespeople have been forced to say again and again that they can not confirm or deny the existence of any upcoming trip, and at the identical time downplay its significance.
“I need to reaffirm that the Speaker has not confirmed any travel plans,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday, “So we can’t be commenting or speculating in regards to the stops on her trip.”
Still, Kirby confirmed moments later that Biden had specifically raised the subject of Pelosi’s unconfirmed trip with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week, during a video call that lasted greater than two hours.
Biden “made clear that Congress is an independent branch of presidency and that Speaker Pelosi makes her own decisions, as other members of Congress do, about their overseas travel,” said Kirby. “That was made clear.”
Moments after saying Biden and Xi had personally discussed the trip, Kirby again sought to downplay its importance.
“I feel we have laid out very clearly that if she goes — if she goes — it is not without precedent. It isn’t latest. It doesn’t change anything,” he said. “We have not ramped up the rhetoric. We have not modified our behavior.”
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To foreign policy experts, the White House’s effort to persuade Beijing that it must distinguish between the behavior of the highest Democrat in Congress and the intent of the Democratic administration is a futile one.
“Saying that it is a whole lot of nothing or that the Chinese shouldn’t read into it … Well, anybody who has spent half a minute China knows that they attach some kind of intentionality to the whole lot we do,” said Andrew Mertha, the director of the China Global Research Center on the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Any suggestion that a visit by someone as essential as Pelosi could be seen by Beijing as anything but an in-person expression of American support for Taiwanese independence, he said, is unimaginable.
This is particularly true after Biden himself said, on three separate occasions, that the U.S. would come to the defense of Taiwan if China were to invade the island.
Those statements, said Mertha, undermined a long time of assurances from Washington that the U.S. would maintain a policy of strategic ambiguity on the query of who controls Taiwan.
“I feel what you actually see from China’s side, and it is not unreasonable, is that we’re sort of pushing the envelope of the One China policy,” said Mertha, referring to the longstanding U.S. position of recognizing Beijing as the only legal government of China, but not formally recognizing Taiwan as subject to the federal government in Beijing.
“They’re alarmed,” Mertha said of Beijing, “and I do not blame them.”