Washington’s official position on US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is that nothing has changed: The US government says it is maintaining its “one China” policy, that Pelosi is free to arrange international trips with congressional delegations independent of the government and that she is not the first US official to visit Taiwan even this year.
Yet there is no denying that the fact and the optics of the second-in-line to the US presidency speaking with lawmakers at the Legislative Yuan about inter-parliamentary discussions and learning from each other as equals are hugely significant, as were the reality and the sight of Pelosi standing next to President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) at the Presidential Office. The trip would have been significant even if Beijing had not raised such strong objections or increased an already fraught situation by announcing live-fire military drills off Taiwan proper, economic pain for Taiwanese exporters and “a price” to pay by the US for allowing the visit to go ahead.
However, it is undeniable that Beijing’s response has focused international attention on the trip in a way that might not have happened had it kept quiet. Beijing has made several unforced errors, which could be summarized as focus, optics, defiance, evidence, moral high ground and reinforcement.
The US Congress has been increasingly supportive of Taiwan since the administration of former US president Donald Trump abandoned the idea of trying to bring China into the international fold through engagement. Taiwanese media have reported on bills supportive of the nation passed into US law, developments that would have gone largely unnoticed elsewhere.
Pelosi’s meeting at the Legislative Yuan yesterday allowed Deputy Legislative Speaker Tsai Chi-chang (蔡其昌), under the laser-focused gaze of the world’s media, to list the supportive bills, outline Taiwan’s journey to democracy and thank Pelosi for her rock solid support of Taiwan. She accepted the gratitude, but said it belonged to the US Congress as a whole.
The optics of that meeting and of Tsai awarding Pelosi the Order of Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon are invaluable to Taiwan and its message that it is an independent, sovereign state.
Pelosi’s presence in Taiwan, despite Beijing’s protestations, was a show of defiance. She was careful not to allow the conversation or questions stray too much to the subject of China, preferring to concentrate on Taiwan and its strengths, even though she did say it was clear that China has stood in the way of Taiwan engaging in international forums, but “they should know that they cannot stand in the way of people coming to Taiwan.”
The facts that Beijing was unable to prevent the trip from happening, that the US congressional delegation met lawmakers and that the president awarded Pelosi with the order are all proof that Beijing has no authority in Taiwan.
The world knew it before, and the international focus on the optics that Beijing has manufactured meant that the world has seen irrefutable evidence of it. Pelosi’s focus on global security, economics, good governance, democracy and peace, in stark contrast to Beijing’s focus on threats and intimidation, places Taiwan and the US on the moral high ground, with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) languishing very far below.
Finally, there is the reinforcement of the situation’s urgency, and that the CCP would not compromise, that it would always resort to threats of violence and that it would just keep on pushing for the annexation of a nation it has no claim to.
It could be argued that Pelosi’s trip heightened tensions across the Taiwan Strait, but it should be clear that the danger would not go away until the CCP renounces the use of force and backs away from its ahistorical claim to Taiwan.
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