WASHINGTON — As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reportedly prepares to land in Taiwan on Tuesday night for an official visit, her trip has uncovered a rare schism between the Biden White House and the most powerful Democrat in Congress.
Officially, the Biden administration has been careful not to answer direct questions about whether it agrees with Pelosi’s decision to make the trip.
But unofficially, the White House and Pentagon have made little secret of their opposition to such a visit, which comes at a time when US-China relations are the worst they’ve been in decades.
In late July, Biden responded to a question about Pelosi’s then-notorious stop in Taiwan by saying, “The military doesn’t think it’s a good idea right now. But I don’t know what its status is.”
For weeks, US officials, from the president to date, have been mired in an attempt to talk about Pelosi’s choice to visit Taiwan, stressing that it was her decision, and hers alone.
Missing the point
Now experts say it’s becoming clear that this effort missed the point. That’s because schisms in Washington are basically meaningless to the rest of the world, which has learned to view US presidents and their key allies in Congress as interchangeable stand-ins for each other on foreign policy.
The fact that US policy toward Taiwan is intentionally ambiguous only makes it that much harder to make a meaningful distinction between what Pelosi does and what the White House says.
Pelosi, an ancient Chinese hawk, has not officially announced that she will visit the self-ruled island off the coast of mainland China, which Beijing considers a renegade province.
But after Pelosi and her office refused to confirm the visit for weeks over security concerns, Taiwanese media reported Monday that Pelosi and a congressional delegation of five other House Democrats planned to spend Tuesday evening in the capital Taipei and meet Taiwanese leaders and leaders. members of the island’s legislature on Wednesday.
Beijing has been furious for months over the reported visit, which would be the first time in 25 years that a US House Speaker would visit the island.
Any trip through Pelosi “will seriously threaten peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, seriously undermine relations between China and the US and lead to a very serious situation and serious consequences,” senior Chinese diplomat Liu Xiaoming tweeted late Monday night. Liu’s statement reflected the tone and tenor of the weeks-long warnings and threats that have emanated from Beijing.
On Tuesday, China escalated this rhetoric with a series of actions, starting with the announcement of new import bans on certain Taiwanese products. Shortly afterwards, Reuters reported that several Chinese warplanes had flown close to the centerline of the Taiwan Strait.
Hours later, a major Taiwanese media outlet reported that the island’s own military would be on extra vigilance in response to Chinese live fire drills being held in anticipation of Pelosi’s reported visit.
As Pelosi travels the entire trip to Asia this week aboard a US military plane, the rapidly escalating military tensions between China and Taiwan pose particularly high risks.
They also underline the difficult position Pelosi’s journey has placed the Biden White House in.
‘Independent branch of government’
As reports of the trip solidified in recent days, Biden’s top spokesmen have had to say time and again that they cannot confirm or deny the existence of an upcoming trip, while downplaying its significance.
“I would like to reaffirm that the chairman has not confirmed any travel plans,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday, “So we will not comment or speculate on the stops during her journey.”
Still, Kirby later confirmed that Biden specifically raised the topic of Pelosi’s unconfirmed trip with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week, during a video call that lasted more than two hours.
Biden “made it clear that Congress is an independent branch of government and that Chairman Pelosi makes her own decisions, as other members of Congress do, about their travels abroad,” Kirby said. “That has been made clear.”
Moments after saying Biden and Xi had spoken personally about the trip, Kirby again tried to downplay its importance.
“I think we’ve explained very clearly that if she goes — if she goes — it’s not unprecedented. It’s not new. It doesn’t change anything,” he said. “We haven’t stepped up the rhetoric. We haven’t changed our behavior.”
For foreign policy experts, the White House’s attempt to convince Beijing to distinguish between the behavior of the top Democrat in Congress and the intent of the Democratic government has been futile.
“Saying that this is a whole lot of nothing or that the Chinese shouldn’t read into it… Well, anyone who has looked at China for half a minute knows that they put some kind of intent on everything we do,” Andrew said. Mertha, director of the China Global Research Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Any suggestion that a visit from someone as important as Pelosi would be seen by Beijing as anything but a personal expression of US support for Taiwan’s independence, he said, is unthinkable.
This is especially true after Biden himself said on three separate occasions that the US would come to defend Taiwan if China invaded the island.
Those statements, Mertha said, undermined decades of assurances from Washington that the US would maintain a policy of strategic ambiguity over who controls Taiwan.
“I think what you’re really seeing on the part of China, and it’s not unreasonable, is that we’re pushing the boundaries of the One China policy a little bit,” Mertha said, referring to the US’s long-standing stance to Recognize Beijing as the only legal government. of China, but not formally recognize Taiwan as subject to the Beijing government.
“They’re alarmed,” Mertha said of Beijing, “and I don’t blame them.”