What to expect from House Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan

Speaker Pelosi’s trip is likely to engender ire from China, much of which will be directed at Taiwan anticipates Ash Center Fellow Wenchi Yu.

As Nancy Pelosi concludes her visit to Taipei—the first visit by a U.S. House Speaker to Taiwan in a quarter of a century, tensions are spiking across the Taiwan Strait. The visit has been met with fiery rhetoric from Beijing along with stepped up military patrols in the area – all intended to send a strong message about China’s claims over the self-governing island. To discuss Speaker Pelosi’s visit, China’s response, and what this portends for the future of Taiwan, we sat down with Wenchi Yu, a commentator, business advisor and former U.S. State Department official who also serves as a non-resident senior fellow at the Ash Center’s Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia.

Rajawali Institute: Why do you think Speaker Pelosi chose this moment to travel to Taiwan? What message is her visit intended to convey?

Wenchi Yu: Speaker Pelosi has a track record of supporting human rights and democracy – and Taiwan is a great example of that in East Asia. While Taiwan’s democracy continues to flourish, China’s military threat against Taiwan is increasing. China’s increasingly sharp rhetoric aimed at Taiwan is certainly on her mind as she made clear in a Washington Post op-ed yesterday: “this vibrant, robust democracy — named one of the freest in the world by Freedom House and proudly led by a woman, President Tsai Ing-wen — is under threat.”

Speaker Pelosi reiterated her support for, and the importance of the Taiwan Relations Act, which underpins the U.S.-Taiwan relationship and serves as a critical deterrent against potential military threats on the island. This trip will be an important part of Speaker Pelosi’s foreign policy legacy. Known for her outspoken criticism of China, she would be the second Speaker of the House, the first in twenty-five years, to visit Taiwan. And of course, her visit comes just months before the midterm congressional elections in November where the Democratic Party could very well lose its majority in the House, and with it see Speaker Pelosi step down from political life.

Speaker Pelosi, wearing a red suit, stands behind a podium, behind her is a row of tall American flags
Speaker Pelosi is known for her outspoken criticism of China notes Ash Fellow Wenchi Yu.

How would you characterize China’s reaction to her visit?

China’s reaction has been predictable and not out of character. Since the initial reporting that Speaker Pelosi was considering visiting Taiwan, China has escalated its public rhetoric and privately pushed back hard in conversations with the Biden administration. It’s not surprising that China would protest the visit using increasingly harsh rhetoric to pressure Speaker Pelosi and the Biden administration into canceling her visit.

Also as expected, China is planning a series of provocative military drills as a display of force that may violate Taiwan’s territorial waters or airspace. While these drills represent an escalation in tensions with the U.S., China is unlikely to want to become embroiled in a direct conflict with the U.S. The Biden administration is on a heightened state of alert over Beijing’s reaction to Speaker Pelosi’s trip, and China understands the margin of error in the Taiwan Strait is very small.

Beijing has also published a list of 100 Taiwanese businesses with extensive operations in China, which they have vowed to punish in response to what they see as Taipei’s encouragement of Speaker Pelosi’s visit. I anticipate that further economic and diplomatic action aimed at Taiwan and the U.S. will come after Speaker Pelosi’s trip concludes. With the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress this fall, China’s leadership is incentivized to take an increasingly hard line on what the CCP perceives as moves towards independence in Taiwan or efforts by its allies such as the U.S. that undermine Beijing’s claims there.

What has been the reaction in Taiwan amongst both the public and government leaders?

I did an informal survey of my Taiwanese friends on Facebook asking if they’re nervous or excited? Most of them said they’re excited about her visit.

Many observers have questioned why Taiwan seems to show little concern about China’s military threats over Speaker Pelosi’s visit. The answer is because Taiwan has been living under China’s threats for over seven decades. Since former President Lee Tung-Hui’s visit to the U.S. in 1995, China’s threats to Taiwan have been a near constant. For example, in the run up to Taiwan’s 1996 presidential election, China launched a series of highly provocative missile tests widely intended to send a warning to Taiwanese voters. Since then, during nearly every Taiwanese presidential election, China has sent strong warnings about supporting politicians whom they deem barriers to unification, but these actions have only pushed voters in Taiwan further from Beijing’s goal of eventual unification.

If China truly wants Taiwan to be closer, it needs to know that these threats don’t work. It’s not that the Taiwanese are reckless. It’s that they have been hearing and living through these threats their entire lives and have become numb to Beijing’s provocative rhetoric. This is not to say that anyone should underestimate the risks across the Taiwan Strait. But China’s ham-fisted attempts to tamp down any move from Taiwan that signals its status as a sovereign state are having the opposite effect as they are intended.

What steps may Beijing take in the future, aimed either at the U.S. or Taiwan in retaliation for Speaker Pelosi’s visit?

The biggest question is what China will do following her visit? Certainly, there won’t be any positive progress in the U.S.-China relationship in the short term. Rather, we’re likely to see a continued deterioration in the relationship. Beijing’s leadership doesn’t want to appear as though they are acquiescing to Speaker Pelosi’s trip. They will feel compelled to take a stronger stance against the U.S. The intriguing question is that since there is already little high-level engagement between the two countries, what would Beijing’s idea of “punishment” look like? With a sluggish economy and global economic uncertainty, some of Beijing’s more coercive diplomatic and economic strategies may be off the table for the time being.

On the other hand, Taiwan will likely be the one to suffer the most fallout from Speaker Pelosi’s trip. China and its allies will likely do more to squeeze Taiwan in the international arena, particularly taking aim at its economy and international commercial ties. The U.S., in return, will need to stand by Taiwan as Beijing turns the screws. I expect to see renewed congressional support for Taiwan, particularly as Congress nears the midterm elections. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a chorus of elected officials urge greater arms sales to Taiwan and other economic security measures – particularly as being seen as tough on China may help candidates in November.