Was Pelosi’s Taiwan Trip Another Missed Opportunity In US-China Relations?

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The Washington Post reports that Xi Jinping personally asked President Biden to find a way to put off House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan. According to the Post’s account, Biden explained to Xi that the independent role of Congress made it impossible for him to stop her, even though US intelligence officials were (correctly) convinced that China would follow through on its warnings and make a forceful response.

China’s ambassador to the US said: “We had warned that if Pelosi made the visit, there would be very serious consequences. China would firmly and forcefully respond. To our regret, the United States chose not to listen.” Pelosi’s trip was not written in stone: She said she would not go if Biden explicitly asked her not to.

So Biden had an out, but:

“In the end, Biden never spoke to Pelosi about her trip despite Xi’s request. . . In an offhand comment, Biden told reporters shortly before Pelosi’s expected visit that military officials believed the trip was not a good idea.”

Now just imagine a different scenario: Biden, concerned about China’s reaction to the visit, says to Xi: “I will do my best to persuade her, out of respect for China’s sensitivity regarding Taiwan. But in return for her postponing her trip, I want your assurance that China’s military will stop air naval maneuvers that threaten Taiwan. And let’s plan on holding high-level military-to-military and diplomatic discussions to promote mutual security in the Taiwan Strait area.” It was an engagement moment, prompted by the US national interest in competitive coexistence with China.

Would Biden “look weak” if he succeeded in stopping the trip? That’s the usual retort, but Biden could have responded to such a charge by pointing out that Taiwan’s security would not be undermined by the postponement, whereas Pelosi’s trip would force China to make a show of strength.