Since the US cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan and established full diplomatic relations with China in 1979, the highest-ranking US political figure who has visited Taiwan has been the speaker of the US House of Representatives. A quarter-century ago, Newt Gingrich, the then-speaker of the House, had a “whirlwind” visit to Taiwan.
However, Gingrich’s congressional visit to Taiwan in April 1997 happened after his three-day trip to China.
This time, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s itinerary covered Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan — the four growing and increasingly important allies and partners of the US in the Indo-Pacific region. With Pelosi’s historic visit to Taiwan, the nation has been in the spotlight, perhaps brought to the highest point since the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis.
Pelosi’s much-anticipated stop in Taiwan, though unscheduled, conveys the message that Taiwan’s security has become much more crucial.
During her stay, Pelosi posted on Twitter that her trip “reiterates that America stands with Taiwan: a robust, vibrant democracy and our important partner in the Indo-Pacific.” Pelosi’s visit and her message deserve attention as China’s assertiveness has been on the rise, and the regional balance of power is tilting toward Beijing’s side.
In the absence of formal ties between the US and Taiwan, Pelosi’s visit helps strengthen Taiwan’s confidence in Washington’s commitment to support the de facto nation. This is of strategic importance when bipartisan support for Taiwan in the US Congress has been more solid, and Sino-US relations have become tense. Though the visit has been more of a symbolic gesture, it demonstrates that Taiwan has received crucial moral support from the US.
In an op-ed in the Washington Post, the second-in-line to the US president wrote: “In the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s accelerating aggression, our congressional delegation’s visit should be seen as an unequivocal statement that America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, as it defends itself and its freedom.”
Pelosi’s visit helps consolidate the US’ support for Taiwan, which has received widespread attention given its efforts in upholding and practicing democratic values.
After the outbreak of the Ukraine war, many pundits have voiced concerns over the possibility of China launching an invasion to conquer Taiwan. A large portion of Taiwanese see the lack of Washington’s direct military engagement in Ukraine as an ominous sign that potential US (military) support would be unlikely when it comes to Taiwan’s security. Hence, this timely visit somewhat helps weather controversies about whether the US would bolster its support for Taiwan in case of geopolitical uncertainty.
In her remarks on Wednesday, Pelosi praised Taiwan’s resilience in the face of adversity and said that the US “will not abandon commitment to Taiwan, and we are proud to endorse friendship.”
While hailing the “flourishing democracy” of Taiwan, Pelosi said that “hope, courage and determination” will help Taiwan build a “peaceful and prosperous future” and that toward this end, “America’s determination to preserve democracy here in Taiwan and around the world remains ironclad.”
In response, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) said Taiwan is Washington’s trusted and reliable partner, and would continue to “strengthen cooperation in areas such as Indo-Pacific security, economic development, talent cultivation and supply chains so as to further elevate Taiwan-US relations,” and “work in unity” with other democracies to “jointly safeguard democratic values” in the region.
True to form, Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has triggered a diplomatic storm between China and the US. Although Taiwan has obtained invaluable support from Pelosi’s trip, Washington’s move has triggered a “retaliatory response” from Beijing.
During the visit, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement warning that “China will definitely take all necessary measures to resolutely safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity in response to the US speaker’s visit. All the consequences arising therefrom must be borne by the US side and the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces.”
The Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, lambasted the visit and considered it to be “a new escalation of collusion between the US and the Taiwan island, a serious and destructive change to the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, and it is also betrayal of US’ serious political commitment to China.”
As Beijing’s tensions with Taiwan soar, China continued to conduct aircraft incursions in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and banned hundreds of Taiwanese food products. China’s Taiwan Affairs Office also sanctioned four companies that have close ties to pro-democracy foundations in Taiwan. Chinese organizations, enterprises and individuals have also been prohibited from conducting any transactions and cooperation with certain Taiwanese firms, including Xuande Energy, Lingwang Technology, Tianliang Medical, Tianyan Satellite Technology and others that have donated to the foundations.
China even launched psychological warfare operations, characterized by an abundance of fake news and rumors alongside cyberattacks.
This, in addition to a boom in warship and aircraft operations in the Taiwan Strait to intimidate Taiwan, could eventually risk escalation in the bilateral relationship.
However, as Pelosi has not crossed the red line — that is, endorsing Taiwanese independence, China would likely continue to increase its military presence in the Taiwan Strait and harbor its economic pressure over Taiwan, but refrain from approaching the threshold of military escalation.
Pelosi’s visit and China’s regressive response afterward have made the line between democracy and autocracy sharp and clear. Indo-Pacific powers, such as South Korea and Australia, have voiced concerns over increased tensions in the region, and called for preserving regional security through dialogue and communication channels.
The EU spokesperson said the bloc encouraged “a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues. Tensions should be resolved through dialogue.”
As a major power, China’s provocative and coercive activities regarding Pelosi’s visit, while they might not spark a military tsunami in the Taiwan Strait, could spiral into serious tensions if they are not managed properly or if they continue for a long time. Additionally, regional powers should not overlook the possibility of miscalculation and mismanagement with respect to forthcoming moves by the US and China.
For leaders and policymakers in the region, this incident should remind them of the vulnerability of the Strait’s security and the need to support democracy amid authoritarian coercion. While Taiwanese leaders and people continue with determination to uphold their democracy and liberal values, other regional powers such as those in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — the US, Japan, Australia and India — should prepare for any chance of conflict in the region.
The necessity of a well-crafted plan and coordinated actions have proved more urgent due to China’s unequivocal stance on threatening Taiwan and curbing international space. For democratic partners, concrete support in times of military threats would exemplify the value of partnership in line with the proverb “a friend in need is a friend indeed.”
Huynh Tam Sang, an international relations lecturer at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, is a research fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation and nonresident WSD-Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum.
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