Pelosi’s Taiwan trip was more controversial in Washington than Taipei

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For many in Washington, it was a dangerous and pointless trip. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic lawmakers spent only 18 hours in Taiwan, but in doing so they managed to upend a long-standing US diplomatic taboo and prompt large-scale military exercises from China that broached the self- governing island’s territorial waters.

“Nothing good will come of it,” the New York Times’ Tom Friedman wrote in an opinion column that ran Tuesday, hours before Pelosi’s arrival. Friedman linked Pelosi’s trip to the war in Ukraine, added to the reporting that the Biden administration opposed the trip and argued that the Democrat’s itinerary put Taiwan’s leaders in an awkward position too.

“I seriously doubt that Taiwan’s current leadership, in its heart of hearts, wants this Pelosi visit now,” Friedman wrote.

But do we know what those actually in Taiwan thought of Pelosi’s trip? If the risk of conflict created by the trip was so high, with so little potential gain to show for it, the Taiwanese government’s extremely welcoming public reaction has been curious. The exuberant reaction of the Taiwanese public to the speaker’s visit, dubbed by the BBC a “Pelosi lovefest,” is stranger still, given the supposed risk of World War III on their doorstep.

On Wednesday, representatives of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States, Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Washington, sent an email to journalists with records of the island’s warm welcome to Pelosi. Despite their foundational political differences, major parties in Taiwan publicly welcomed Pelosi’s arrival — including both President Tsai Ing-wen’s pro-status quo Democratic Progressive Party and its main rival, the more Beijing-friendly Kuomintang.

There was little sense of danger in the official remarks. Over Twitter, Tsai later shared a photograph of the welcome Pelosi received in Taiwan, which notably included her beloved chocolate ice cream.

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That sweet message seems a million miles away from the threat of war. Moments after Pelosi arrived in Taiwan on Tuesday night, China’s military announced that it would begin “a series of joint military operations around the island,” including an exercise using long-range live ammunition in the Taiwan Strait.

At least some of the exercise areas announced Tuesday appeared to overlap with Taiwan’s territorial water — a break with the live-fire zones during Chinese military drills in 1995 and 1996, during what was known as the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. Taiwan’s Defense Ministry described them as an attempt to “threaten our important ports and urban areas, and unilaterally undermine regional and stability.”

There were some protests against Pelosi’s visit this week. An island of 23 million citizens can hardly be a monolith. But most accounts suggested that more common reactions were celebration or, at worst, bemusement.

When The Washington Post’s Lily Kuo ventured out in Taipei to speak to local residents, positive reactions were not hard to find. “The more unhappy the [Chinese Communist Party] is, the happier I am,” one 35-year-old resident named Ingrid Ho, 35, told The Post. “Pelosi coming may mean all kinds of consequences but in the moment, the excitement outweighs reason.”

For many, the visit itself was barely a blip. “The biggest drama in my Taiwanese family’s group chat currently is how I missed my car’s annual smog check appointment and how a cockroach infestation has sprung up in my Taipei bedroom while I’ve been away on vacation,” American-Taiwanese journalist Clarissa Wei wrote for CNN.

Among analysts in Taiwan, there was clearly some level of mixed feelings about the cyclical interest in Taiwan’s geopolitical situation. “While much of the world seemed to be thinking that Taiwanese must be freaking out and running into bunkers and the like, I think many were entirely unaware of the visit or its significance until very shortly beforehand,” Taiwan-based writer Brian Hioe wrote for population.

“Even in the coverage of this Pelosi situation, which has brought so much attention to Taiwan, there’s just very little about what the actors in Taiwan are actually thinking. The narrative is, still, you need the US to come in and save Taiwan,” Albert Wu, a Taiwanese-American historian based in Taipei, told the Guardian.

In subtle dig at China, Pelosi visits Taiwan’s human rights museum

The shadow of the war in Ukraine hung over Pelosi’s time in Taiwan. Ukraine, like Taiwan, has spent decades stuck under the microscope of great power politics. Even the constant threat of global conflict can become boring when you spend every day in the middle of it. As Washington declared that a military offensive was imminent in late February, life in Kyiv continued as normal.

Ukrainian officials were even kind of annoyed by the warnings. President Volodymyr Zelensky said in January that the “destabilization of the situation inside the country” was the biggest threat to Ukraine. “There are signals even from respected leaders of states, they just say that tomorrow there will be war. This is panic — how much does it cost for our state?” he told a news conference in Kyiv.

Tsai has no doubt watched the situation in Ukraine and learned lessons from it. Likely one lesson is key: Stay close to the United States. Though Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan may have created problems for her government, the problems might have been worse if Pelosi had canceled her visit — especially after she canceled an earlier trip to Taiwan after testing positive for the coronavirus in April.

Taiwanese officials have grown frustrated with their informal and purposefully ambiguous relationship with the United States over recent years. “We need some degree of clarity,” de facto Ambassador Hsiao Bi-khim told Today’s WorldView in October 2020. Taiwan had by then seen almost four years of unpredictable relations during the Trump administration.

Polls conducted by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation found that last October, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, almost two-thirds of Taiwanese thought that the United States would send troops to protect the island if China invaded. That percentage dropped sharply in March 2022 to 34.5 percent, even as the belief that China could launch an invasion of Ukraine increased.

Pelosi’s visit has brought Taiwan to the top level of attention in the United States and shown the high levels of bipartisan support for Taiwan. And while it has provoked some saber-rattling from China, that is only likely to further drive away the Taiwanese people (some polls already show a shift away from support for the status quo toward a move for full independence) and put pressure on the Kuomintang ahead of local elections later this year.

Perhaps for Tsai’s government, that isn’t so pointless.

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