As Pelosi arrives, silent rebellion in Taiwan


Follow our live coverage of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

TAIPEI, Taiwan — There has been a fearful debate in Washington over whether President Nancy Pelosi should risk the visit. In Beijing there was anger and threats. In Taiwan, where Ms. Pelosi landed late Tuesday, the new flare-up of tensions was met with subdued resistance.

Politicians from Taiwan’s two main political parties have offered support for the trip, a sentiment echoed by many in the self-governed democracy of more than 23 million people, which China claims as its own. As China released videos of planes and missiles flying to menacing music, a popular meme in Taiwan made Ms. Pelosi again into a powerful Taoist goddess. A Taiwanese politician bet a giveaway for chicken cutlets during her visit.

Accustomed to living in one of the world’s most dangerous geopolitical flashpoints, Taiwanese have largely taken the prospect of the visit to heart. That steely nonchalance belies a political reality that has become increasingly harsh over the past decade: Many in Taiwan have grown tired of China’s threats and yearn for support from the United States.

Ms. Pelosi’s trip is the highest visit by a US official in 25 years, and a diplomatic coup, albeit a mostly symbolic one, for Taiwan. Such prominent demonstrations of international support are rare for Taiwan, which has systematically sought to isolate Beijing from global institutions and diplomatic recognition.

The talk of a visit was not without concerns for Taiwan. On Tuesday morning, the military said it would bolster combat readiness in anticipation of a possible response from China, as the island’s stock market fell nearly 2 percent on geopolitical concerns over the journey that largely dragged global stocks down.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has cautiously entered the fraught political moment. She has made no public comment about the trip, presumably to avoid making the already tense situation worse. Ms. Tsai is known as a cautious and pragmatic operator and has allowed others to speak instead.

Some support comes from unexpected quarters. Two stalwarts of the generally China-friendly Kuomintang party, former president Ma Ying-jeou and party chairman Eric Chu, cautiously welcomed the possibility of Ms. Pelosi’s visit over the weekend.

With local elections approaching, politicians in Ms Tsai’s party spoke more freely. Kolas Yotaka, a former Democratic Progressive Party lawmaker and magistrate candidate in Hualien County, said the decision to make the trip belonged to Ms. Pelosi and most Taiwanese would support the visit.

“It makes us feel less isolated and gives us hope to see that even in difficult circumstances there are still people who hold on to their beliefs and ideals,” she wrote.

While some Taiwanese criticized the visit as unnecessarily provocative, many others echoed Ms Kolas Yotaka’s sentiments. Chen Mei-ying, a sales manager in the central city of Taichung, called it “a boost to Taiwan’s democracy”, adding that “we must face the threat from China directly and welcome it boldly.”

For much of its modern political existence, Taiwan has been caught between two giant rivals: the United States and China.

For decades it was subject to oppressive martial law by the US-backed regime of Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to the island after it was overthrown by Mao Zedong’s revolution. In the 1950s, Beijing and Washington came close to war twice when China attacked areas controlled by Taiwan.

The dynamism of the Cold War finally gave way to more pragmatic ties in the 1980s and 1990s, as Taiwan democratized and China opened up its economy after the self-inflicted destruction of the Cultural Revolution.

The boundaries of the new shelter were put to the test in 1995 and 1996, when China objected to a visit by then-Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui to Cornell University, his alma mater. China fired missiles near Taiwan’s main island as a warning to Mr Lee, and again as Taiwan prepared for its first open presidential election. That crisis ended when President Bill Clinton sent two aircraft carriers from the 7th Fleet to opposite ends of the Taiwan Strait.

Today, Taiwan is once again caught in the web of hostilities from the great powers. China is both its biggest trading partner and its biggest existential threat. Under China’s leader, Xi Jinping, there has been an increasing military stance, with Chinese military planes and ships often cruising near the island.

The United States, Taiwan’s primary guarantor of security, has often seemed distracted by domestic problems and conflict elsewhere – most recently the war in Ukraine – even though Taiwan enjoys rare bipartisan support from Congress. An economic powerhouse, Taiwan is also a cornerstone of the electronics supply chain and arguably the world’s most important source of advanced microchips.

While stasis exists between the two powers, it’s not clear how long it will last, as both sides’ claims over China’s claims to the island and the seas around it have stretched a tense relationship. For Taiwanese, who are often overlooked by the superpower Sturm und Drang about their own future, Ms. Pelosi’s visit offers an unusual bit of recognition for a democratic and economic success story that many Taiwanese are proud of.

“Most Taiwanese will be excited and see it as an important sign of strong US-Taiwan relations, as well as a positive recognition of Taiwan’s progress toward democracy by the world’s leading democratic superpower,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a Taiwan expert at the Australian Center on China in the World at Australia National University.

Mr. Sung noted that some commentators viewed the drama during the visit as political theater but, he argued, “sometimes symbolism is substance,” citing President John F. Kennedy’s speech in West Berlin at the height of the the Cold War.

“For Taiwan, such a symbolic gesture would be particularly meaningful for US-Taiwan ties in the absence of official relations, and especially after the outbreak of war in Ukraine,” he said.

Within Taiwan, the partial bipartisan support for Ms Pelosi’s visit underlined how far Taiwanese politics has shifted over the past decade.

Where mainstream public opinion in Taiwan once looked to China as a critical trading partner and shied away from anything that could disrupt the relationship, there is now a greater willingness to push back. After years of Chinese threats, military expansion and the systematic dismantling of Hong Kong’s democratic institutions, Taiwan’s support for China’s views has become untenable for most politicians.

When Ms. Pelosi meets with the Taiwanese president, it will not be Ms. Tsai’s first bold move to bring the United States closer. Ms. Tsai’s phone call to congratulate President-elect Donald Trump in 2016 broke precedent and sent Beijing to despair, with only negligible consequences for her or for Taiwan.

When asked about Ms Pelosi’s trip on Tuesday morning, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment. One of the few major officials to address it was Prime Minister Su Tseng-chang, who on Tuesday expressed her deep gratitude for Ms. Pelosi’s “support and kindness towards Taiwan”, adding that “any kind foreign guest would be extremely welcome”.

Not everyone in Taiwan, a boisterous democracy, supported, and some pointed to the way Ms. Pelosi’s journey made Taiwan look like a pawn in a larger geopolitical battle.

“Taiwan is in a passive position. It can only be between two superpowers,” said Liu Shao-chang, a 65-year-old retired marketer in the southern port city of Kaohsiung.

He said he wasn’t worried about the visit, but only because Taiwan couldn’t do much about it.

“Taiwan cannot articulate its position: we cannot refuse, nor can we welcome it. If we welcome her, China will protest,” he said.

John Liu contributed to reporting.

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