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Was Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Visit to Taiwan “Utterly Reckless”?

Updated: Nov 12, 2022

By Ryan Park

On August 2, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan, making her the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the country in 25 years. The decision to add Taiwan to her itinerary on her high-profile Asia trip was met by both criticism and praise from both sides of the aisle. Should she have made this symbolically significant trip given the ever-increasing global tension? According to author and political commentator Thomas Friedman, who wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times titled, “Why Pelosi’s Visit to Taiwan Is Utterly Reckless,” Pelosi’s visit was disastrous because it was ostensibly poorly timed.

One of the main criticisms of Pelosi’s visit is that it escalates tensions with a superpower during a time when the focus of the United States and its allies should be on supporting Ukraine in a war against another superpower. Friedman comments that the war in Ukraine is anything but a predictable situation. Just last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky fired his top security chief and prosecutor, his two top law enforcement officials, following treason investigations. This indicates that there is some instability in the management of the country, which does not bode well for America and its involvement in the war. Friedman also claims that “there is deep mistrust between the White House and [Zelensky].” Though this seems vague, if this is true, it could make America’s role in the war much less clear and difficult to figure out. Mistrust between the two governments could certainly open the door to even more uncertainty and potential disaster. On top of that, Friedman writes that according to senior U.S. officials, there is a possibility that Putin will deploy small nuclear weapons in the war. The fact that this is even a possibility proves that we are in a serious situation that has the potential to escalate into another Cold War, in which the threat of nuclear annihilation will be very real once again. All of this is to say that Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan might embroil the United States into a conflict where it will be unsupported by its allies because of the war in Ukraine and that it does not have the resources or support to involve itself in.

Friedman also contends that not only is Pelosi’s visit poorly timed because of the Ukraine conflict, but it also takes place at an especially volatile point in Chinese politics. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who will likely start his third term later this year, has made his position clear on Taiwan for a decade: he believes that Taiwan is firmly a part of China and that any show of support for the independence of Taiwan is an affront to Chinese sovereignty (Macklin 2022). The Chinese ambassador to the United States even goes as far as to make this bold comparison: “Just think: If an American state were to secede from the United States and declare independence, and then some other nation provided weapons and political support for that state, would the U.S. government — or the American people — allow this to happen?” (Gang 2022). Though the comparison may seem extreme to Americans, it conveys the sense of complete unity and control China feels that it has over Taiwan. This attitude has also been manifested physically in the numerous military exercises China has conducted near Taiwan (Friedman 2022). In recent years, China has become even bolder in its aggression—for instance, the Taiwan Strait had served as a steadfast boundary between China and Taiwan until 2020 when China began indiscriminately crossing the line (Kuo 2022). Additionally, Friedman speculates that Pelosi’s visit provides Xi with a convenient way to divert attention away from China’s current problems—“a whack-a-mole strategy of trying to shut down the spread of Covid-19 by using lockdowns of China’s major cities, a huge real estate bubble that is now deflating and threatening a banking crisis and an immense mountain of government debt”—and diverting it to Chinese nationalistic pride over the topic of Taiwan. Given the seemingly rising tensions, it also seems plausible to assume that Pelosi’s visit was poorly timed not only because of the unstable status of the war in Ukraine but also because of China’s turbulent politics. In fact, Friedman cites Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s “consistent efforts to defend Taiwan’s independence while not giving China an easy excuse for military action against Taiwan” as evidence that deep inside, Taiwan did not want Pelosi to make this trip, implying that Pelosi’s visit could be an excuse for China to finally invade Taiwan.

Still, the argument for Pelosi’s visit is just as strong. First of all, the threat of war with China is still slim: even with the hardline stances taken by all the nations involved, “many agree that Beijing recognises that such a move would be too costly and disastrous - not only for China, but also for the world” (Wong 2022). This means that the risk of the United States involving itself in a full-on conflict with China over Taiwan while it is indirectly involved with the war in Ukraine is small, making Friedman’s concerns over the matter unlikely to be realized. Additionally, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said that the exercises a “serious provocation,” and when he was asked if Taiwan was worried about a possible Chinese invasion, he replied that they were “very concerned” (Kuo 2022). These strong statements are proof that the Taiwanese are not shying away from addressing the Chinese threat, and that any assumption that they are so reluctant to avoid a confrontation that they would dislike Pelosi’s visit is false. It is clear that the Taiwanese government is not only willing to defend its independence, but it is not afraid to make unequivocal comments about China’s aggression. This suggests that Pelosi’s visit was likely welcomed by the Taiwanese because its symbolic significance is important to reaffirm that the United States is supporting Taiwan against China in a situation that is very clear-cut. Whatever the long-term effects of the visit are, the short-term effects—increased military exercises and “ending cooperation with the US on key issues including the climate crisis, anti-drug efforts and military talks”—are certainly worrisome (Smith 2022). Still, the visit has garnered some support from American politicians, even those who frequently disagree with Pelosi. As Republican Senator Roy Blunt puts it, “To send that message that we believe in democracy, and we believe that the Taiwanese people have a right to that democracy, that’s exactly the message that Speaker Pelosi is taking with her today.”

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