Nancy Pelosi’s reported Taiwan trip is a selfish legacy play

On Tuesday evening, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan for a perilous photo op.

A politician of Pelosi’s stature hasn’t visited Taiwan since Newt Gingrich in 1997. That was then, and this is now. In 2022, China is, alongside America, one the two most powerful countries on Earth, meaning provocations from politicians like Pelosi carry far more weight.

China, well-aware of its bolstered position on the world stage, has released a furious stream of warnings about Pelosi’s visit. China views her Taiwan trip as an affront, an insult and a purposeful nose-thumbing of the “One China” policy America agreed to in 1979. As part of that agreement, the United States recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China, and acknowledged China’s position that Taiwan is part of China. The Chinese government doesn’t take kindly to any insinuation that America is treating Taiwan as “separate” from the mainland, or that America is encouraging an independence movement in Taiwan.

After Pelosi landed in Taiwan, China’s Foreign Ministry released an unmistakably hostile statement to the People’s Daily, which reads, in part:

“[Pelosi’s trip] has a severe impact on the political foundation of China-US relations, and seriously infringes upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It gravely undermines peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and sends a seriously wrong signal to the separatist forces for ‘Taiwan independence,’ the ministry wrote. “Since Speaker Pelosi is the incumbent leader of the US Congress, her visit to and activities in Taiwan, in whatever form and for whatever reason, is a major political provocation to upgrade US official exchanges with Taiwan.”

In a Washington Post op-ed released Tuesday, Pelosi said that she’s in Taiwan to reaffirm an American commitment to democracy and human rights in light of Beijing’s “dramatically intensified tensions with Taiwan.”

“In the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) accelerating aggression, our congressional delegation’s visit should be seen as an unequivocal statement that America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, as it defends itself and its freedom,” Pelosi wrote.

And in a recent interview with Politico, Pelosi floated that she’s going to Taiwan as a human rights advocate. “If you cannot stand up for human rights in China because of commercial interests, you lose all moral authority to speak out for it in any place,” Pelosi said.

Of course, China is commit human rights violations. The country’s treatment of the Uyghur people, for instance, is broadly considered to be a genocide. There’s also evidence that the Chinese government is indeed slim up military pressure on Taiwan. But there’s an enormous difference between having a plan to advocate for human rights, and using that term as a stripped-of-its-meaning cudgel for your own personal gain, the consequences be damned.

China clearly believes Pelosi is an extension of the Biden administration, which already upset a delicate balancing act when the president said the US military would intervene if Chinese troops showed up in Taiwan. Even though the president’s aids walked back his spontaneous policy shift, the Chinese government has been on high alert ever since, making Pelosi’s visit even more ill-timed. She’s not helping matters by calling her trip an “unequivocal statement that America stands with Taiwan,” which absolutely reads as a military posture.

There’s a reason even right-wing conservative war hawks — who otherwise dismiss Pelosi as a looney, out-of-touch liberal — are attaching real meaning to Pelosi’s Taiwan trip. They, too, know that this photo op matters. Pelosi’s presence is impossible to ignore; it’s an obvious middle finger to the Chinese government. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that the US “will not take the bait or engage in saber-rattling” with China over Pelosi’s trip, downplaying its importance. But Nancy Pelosi is saber-rattling aplenty, and there’s apparently nothing anyone — including the White House — can do to stop her.

And for what? What’s the end goal here? How does this trip benefit literally anyone?

Pelosi is a laughable messenger on the topics of “commercial interests” and “human rights.” She’s amassed a nine-figure net worth in public office. She and other extremely powerful American politicians routinely prioritize their own self-interests and policy proposals over humanitarian efforts. Former CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who sees eye-to-eye with Pelosi on this Taiwan tripliterally had his 2018 Secretary of State nomination opposed by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, “a coalition of more than 200 national organizations committed to promote and protect the civil and human rights of all persons in the United States.”

President Joe Biden, the leader of Pelosi’s Democratic Party, just wrapped up a trip to the Middle East, where he fist-bumped Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, a repressive human rights violator who our own government believes ordered the assassination of a US -based journalist. On her current trip, Pelosi is also set to visit South Korea, which is still in the infancy of an attempted democracy because, for decades, America propped up the country’s murderous slate of dictators.

There’s no scenario where Pelosi’s trip advances the rights of the Uyghurs, or people living in Taiwan. In fact, Pelosi’s trip serves no diplomatic purpose. It does not advance any humanitarian causes. It does reinforce Biden’s supposed gaffe that America is willing to start World War III over Taiwan, though. Ironically enough, Pelosi’s trip may even put the lives of people in Taiwan at greater risk.

It seems more likely that Pelosi’s motive is personal — that, swept up by a dangerous combination of hubris and self-interest, she wants to pad out her reputation at the end of her career. From Politico: “Allies say … a trip [to Taiwan] would be a legacy play for the 82-year-old” Pelosi. Adds Amanda Hsiao, who wrote a detailed analysis of the potential trip for the International Crisis Group: “For Pelosi, this trip could be seen as capping off a long record as a China hawk and human rights advocate while she is still speaker.”

Pelosi, who, early in her tenure as a congresswoman, unfurled a pro-democracy banner at Tiananmen Square in 1991, is seeking a full-circle moment. Now, she gets to use her unchecked power to write her own history, even if it means pissing off a superpower to do it.

This trip is doing damage to an already fractured relationship, that much is certain. Pelosi will soon depart Taiwan, leaving others to clean up her mess. All we can hope is that her selfish act doesn’t lead to something worse.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 1:45 pm, Aug. 2, to correct information on the US’s “One China” policy.

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