On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan, becoming the first person of her rank to do so in almost thirty years. Her trip was not officially sanctioned by the Biden Administration, but the President did not publicly dissuade her from going. The Chinese government, which views the island as part of the People’s Republic of China, announced a series of military drills in response. The United States has a long-standing relationship with Taiwan, and is its main provider of military equipment, but it maintains an official distance from the island to avoid angering China and provoking armed conflict. These fears have grown over the past decade as Chinese leaders have espoused increasing nationalist ideology, and harshly cracked down on protests against their rule in Hong Kong. (The US approach to Taiwan is often described as “strategic ambiguity”; it agrees that the PRC is the only governing authority of China, but maintains an informal relationship with Taiwan.)
I recently spoke by phone with Shelley Rigger, a professor of political science at Davidson College and the author of the books “Why Taiwan Matters” and “The Tiger Leading the Dragon: How Taiwan Propelled China’s Economic Rise.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the problems that Pelosi’s visit could cause for Taiwan, the divisions among the Taiwanese on how to deal with an increasing assertive China, and the lessons the different sides of the China- Taiwan conflict has drawn from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
What did you make of Pelosi’s decision to visit?
The core thing that I take away from Pelosi’s visit is that it was ultimately about US domestic politics and PRC domestic politics, and Taiwan was the pawn caught in the middle. Initially, Pelosi’s goal was almost certainly to do a little cheerleading for Taiwan, show that the US cares about it, that we’re paying attention, and that it’s an important friend and partner—that kind of thing. But, once it became this test of wills between Pelosi and her team and Xi Jinping and his team, whether or not it was good for Taiwan fell away, and it strictly became something that people in the US and China were talking about, saying we had to do this because we cannot back down. And I think that’s very unfortunate. It does not benefit Taiwan, probably does harm to Taiwan’s security, and it has insured that US-China relations, which were already pretty bad, are worse than they were before. We may have a much more difficult time recovering than we thought three weeks ago.
Based on what you just said, it seems that Pelosi shouldn’t have scheduled the visit at all, or that American politicians should not try to show support for Taiwan in this way. After China gets upset, there are reasons American politicians do not want to just say, “OK, you’re upset about it. We’re not going to do it.” The logical upshot is, well, don’t do it at all.
This is totally predictable. We know what is going to happen if we get into a shoving match with the PRC Unless American politicians actually want to drive the most important diplomatic relationship in the contemporary world into the ground, they have to be strategic and thoughtful about the cost and benefit of a particular action.
I don’t oppose American officials’ or policymakers’ doing things that have actual benefits for Taiwan’s security. I don’t oppose arms sales. I would love it if, instead of going to Taiwan, Pelosi had spent some time trying to persuade her party that it’s a good idea to actually set aside its determination to oppose all trade agreements and make some kind of trade agreement with Taiwan, or even try to get the US back into a regional trade agreement, like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. What Taiwan needs from the US is concrete action that enhances its security and helps it maintain a strong economy that can continue to hold up the cost of Taiwan’s security and also sustain the standard of living in Taiwan so that people there are enthusiastic about defending their democracy .
The Pelosi visit to Taiwan was never a substantive thing. It was always a symbolic gesture; it was a show of support. From the first moment that they announced that it might happen, my question has been: What concrete benefit does Taiwan derive from this show of support that outweighs the predictable response from the PRC? I have never heard anyone even try to articulate that. They used the slogan “We’re supporting Taiwan,” and then when the PRC pushed back, it became “Well, now we have to go, because Beijing is pushing back.” To me, that is not strategic, it’s not rational, it’s not smart, and it’s not being driven by national-security expertise or thinking.
My understanding is that the Taiwanese government, and even the aspects of the opposition that are seen as pro-China, have welcomed Pelosi broadly and have not criticized the visit, but maybe that’s because they’re in a pretty tough place and they don’ t want to piss off the Americans. What’s your reading of the response?
I don’t know whether the Taiwanese encouraged the visit. Maybe they did. I haven’t seen any evidence that they did. The evidence that I’ve seen suggests that the Pelosi team came up with this on their own. I had an e-mail exchange last night with a colleague who said that, when she was in the State Department, if a congressional delegation wanted to come to the country where you were posted, they were coming. That wasn’t an invitation, it wasn’t a request; it was, “We are coming.” Many countries feel that it is impossible to say no to a US delegation.
And certainly, Taiwan would be the last country in the world that would want to offend the US Speaker of the House. The House of Representatives approves arms sales to Taiwan. There’s Taiwan-related legislation pending in Congress right now. You can’t say no. So, whether they initiated or encouraged the visit or not, they talked about it as little as possible. And the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) representative in the US gave quotes to the South China Morning Post that seem to me to show some reservations about this visit.
When it really blew up, Taiwan had no ability to influence the outcome, and it became a show of strength by a particular American politician. We also know that the State Department, the Pentagon, and the White House had reservations about the trip. This was the legislative branch taking action outside the policy and preferences of the executive branch and with no concrete evidence, that I have seen, of encouragement from the host government.
And what about the response from the Kuomintang (KMT), which is the largest opposition party and favors closer ties to China than the DPP does?
They’re stuck in exactly the same position. The big push for the KMT in the last few months has been to rebuild ties with the US, because, during the Ma Ying-jeou administration, from 2008 to 2016, the KMT drifted away from the US There was a growing sense in Washington that the KMT just didn’t seem to care about this relationship. Earlier this summer, the KMT sent a representative, their likely Presidential candidate who’s also the party chair, to Washington. They are also trying not to get crosswise with the US government. Many members of the KMT would be more likely to voice some criticism of [Pelosi’s] visit in normal times, but it’s difficult right now because nobody in Taiwan wants to worsen the situation by adding a Taiwan angle to the US-China angle.
Has China’s current era of aggressive nationalism changed Taiwanese politics?
I think what has changed Taiwanese domestic politics or attitudes toward cross-Strait relations is to some extent the trends that you’re describing, but even more, the domestic development within the PRC In the early two-thousands, I did focus groups with young people in Taiwan about various political topics, including mainland China. One of the things that came out of those really strongly was that they thought of the PRC as kind of scary, but also a place with a lot of opportunity, where you could go and develop your career. I did that same research again, in 2015, with focus groups of young people in Taiwan, and the picture was much darker. What had really darkened the picture was not “Well, they’re in the South China Sea,” or any of that. It was, “Now when you go to China there’s all this surveillance. You have to do everything on your phone, from ordering food to buying a train ticket, and somebody has all that information.” The state knows everything about you, and there’s a general sense that you’re not free in the PRC, even compared with fifteen years ago. Admittedly, the PRC was not a free country fifteen years ago, but, from the perspective of young Taiwanese people, it’s got much worse. There are a lot of Taiwanese who have been detained, arrested, and subjected to these forms of detention in which you’re not quite in the legal system, so you may wait many years for any kind of legal action. It’s just scary.