Yes, Speaker Pelosi Must Visit Taiwan — Yet as a Lame Duck 

A potential visit to Taiwan as part of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s multi-country Congressional delegation to Asia is ill-timed politically and ought to be postponed to the late fall.

The proposed stopover is stirring alarms in the Biden Administration which fears that including Taiwan in the junket may cross red lines. Beijing has issued a strong response and even hinted at military action in which the PLA Air Force may prevent Pelosi’s plane from landing.

Another rumored outcome of the visit would be China flying aircraft inside Taiwan’s territorial airspace (within 12 nautical miles of Taiwan) or flying over Taiwan itself. This would result in Taiwan scrambling its aircraft, raising the potential for an armed confrontation.

The White House national security team has shared that it has no say in whether or not Pelosi can visit Taiwan. According to statements by President Biden and Speaker Pelosi, the Pentagon has expressed that it would be a bad idea or even dangerous for Pelosi to go through with the August trip while some in Congress have said that such a visit may create an escalatory situation.

Adding to pressures, some Congressional Republicans are urging Pelosi to make the trip.

Put simply, now is a bad time for Speaker Pelosi to visit Taiwan. While the other legs of her Asia trip — Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia — should go forward as planned, including Taipei would amount to an unforced error.

August is a sensitive period for Chinese politics as it is when the Chinese Communist Party leadership retreats to the coastal resort of Beidaihe (Hebei Province) for its yearly conclave to discuss policy.

Also, Chinese President Xi Jinping is seeking an unprecedented third five-year term as leader of the CCP at the upcoming 20th National Congress that will take place in either October or November. During this highly scrutinized period leading up to the National Congress, Xi may view an August visit by Pelosi – – who is second in line to the US presidency — as a humiliation to his authority and would be criticized for being weak if he did not respond in a strong manner by possibly involving the military in some way.

This could throw US-China relations into a perilous tailspin and some are already referring to Ms. Pelosi’s proposed visit next month as a potential fourth Taiwan Strait crisis.

However, after committing to travel to Taiwan, Speaker Pelosi cannot back down from Chinese threats and cancel the visit. After all, she has been a supporter of human rights in China for years having fiercely criticized Beijing for the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, its genocidal practices against the Uighurs, the 2020-2021 crackdown in Hong Kong and threats against Taiwan’s people and democracy.

Despite the Biden administration’s fears that there is no offramp to this escalating situation, there is an exit path.

Speaker Pelosi should reschedule the Taiwan portion of her Asia trip to late November. By then, the Beidaihe summit and the 20th National Congress will have passed.

Also, given that House Democrats are forecasted to lose their majority in the November 8 Congressional midterm elections, Speaker Pelosi will have both diminished political power and status as a lame duck Speaker after Election Night. Come January, she will be forced to relinquish the gavel (i.e., her current leadership position) to House Republicans.

This electoral reality will provide a face-saving offramp for both Beijing and Washington, creating space for the Speaker’s Taiwan solidarity trip to go forward while softening the political blow to the CCP.

It should be noted that a visit by Speaker Pelosi to Taiwan would not constitute a change to the United States’ Taiwan or One China policies. Nor would Ms. Pelosi be the first US House Speaker to visit the east Asian island state. (Newt Gingrich visited Taipei in 1997 while serving as Speaker.)

Nonetheless, some in China’s authoritarian system likely have difficulty understanding how a prominent politician like Speaker Pelosi does not have President Biden’s support for visiting Taiwan. After all, in non-democratic governments there are no separations of political powers and it would be unthinkable for a senior official like Ms. Pelosi to make such a high stakes visit without approval from top leadership.

More broadly, during this time of fraught US-China ties and increasing threats to Taiwan’s security, it is important that Washington stand up for important principles while working with Beijing to strike a balance so the relationship does not get out of control. Both sides need to find ways to get back to a place where relations can be handled effectively.

At present, trust between both sides is low and there are little means to manage risk between the two powers.

As former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd argues in his new book, The Avoidable War, Washington and Beijing need to establish guardrails to the US-China relationship for purposes of averting war and managing the relationship more constructively.

Going forward, crises will continue to arise between the US and China. Speaker Pelosi’s plans to visit Taiwan in August is the latest iteration. How American and Chinese leaders handle this current challenge is a test in this chapter of difficult Sino-American relations.

A late November trip to Taipei by the then-lame duck Speaker will both save face for Xi and serve as a strong demonstration of American commitment to Taiwan’s democracy and people. If handled properly, it will also show both sides’ commitment to maintaining stability and developing shared understanding of doctrine. 

About the Author
Ted Gover, Ph.D. (Twitter: @TedGover) is Associate Clinical Professor and Director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University, a program focusing on Tribal law, management, economic development and intergovernmental relations. Over the years Ted has taught courses on politics for Central Texas College US Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, and has served as an advisor to the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its world-renowned Museum of Tolerance, helping to coordinate and support their initiatives in Asia. Additionally, Ted has worked on behalf of a number of Native American Tribes on issues ranging from Tribal sovereignty, economic diversification, healthcare and education, and he writes occasionally on American politics and foreign policy. Ted is a graduate of Claremont McKenna College, Claremont Graduate University and Soka University in Tokyo.
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