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Pelosi’s Taiwan Visit Rekindles U.S.-China Tensions

By Ella Gonzalez

New York City, New York

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. (Wang Yu Ching / Taiwan Presidentia / Keystone Press Agency)

In early August, longstanding tensions between the U.S. and China were reignited by Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, which was criticized by some for its potential to exacerbate conflict and lauded by others as a show of much-needed support for the nation.

News of Pelosi’s trip was broken by the Financial Times in July, which also reported that several officials in the White House had expressed reservations. The idea was shot down by President Biden, who said, “I think that the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now.” A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry remarked that a visit by Pelosi would “seriously undermine China's sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and that Beijing would respond to such an action with “forceful measures.”

In the weeks leading up to the visit, national security officials worked “behind the scenes” to dissuade Pelosi from following through with the visit. As a member of Congress, however, Pelosi is not beholden to the White House in this regard, and during an August tour of Asia, the Speaker became the highest-ranking official to travel to Taiwan in twenty-five years.

Pelosi’s visit follows others by U.S. officials that occurred during the Trump and Biden administrations, including a delegation of former officials sent in March, and a surprise trip by members of Congress in May. Beijing had responded to those actions with similar rhetoric, and following the May visit, China sent thirty planes into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone.

The main fear leading up to the trip was of escalation by China, and indeed, it seems to have played out. In the days prior, Taiwanese government websites experienced DDoS, or Distributed Denial of Service, attacks, in which a website is rendered unusable by a barrage of automated traffic. China also listed 35 additional Taiwanese food exporters as under ‘import suspension’, and in total banned 2,000 products from being traded into the country.

After Pelosi’s arrival on August 2, Beijing issued a statement condemning the visit and announced that it would engage in military exercises around Taiwan. On August 3, Pelosi met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, stating that “More than ever, America’s solidarity with Taiwan is crucial. We will not abandon our commitment to Taiwan and we are proud of our enduring friendship.”

Regardless of the strategic merits and downsides of the visit, Pelosi is not incorrect. Relations between the United States, China, and Taiwan are deeply interconnected. The U.S. follows a ‘One China’ policy, which acknowledges China’s claim over Taiwan. Since 1979, the U.S. has been committed to selling weapons to Taiwan for defense, but the White House generally maintains a position of ‘strategic ambiguity.’ Statements by President Biden have at times conflicted with this official position. In May, Biden answered a question as to whether the US would become militarily involved in the case of a Chinese attack on Taiwan in the affirmative, saying, “Yes. That’s the commitment we made.” This comment only served to heighten tensions, which have been high ever since both the Trump and Biden administrations began to make efforts to deepen their commitments to Taiwan in opposition to China.

China’s military drills began on August 4, and were scheduled to end on August 8, but were extended for another two days. Though there were no incursions into Taiwanese territory or airspace, Chinese ships crossed the median line of the Taiwanese Strait, which in the past has been recognized by both nations as the maritime boundary between them. China also fired ballistic missiles in the waters surrounding Taiwan which were later revealed to have passed over its territory. At points, Taiwan was essentially surrounded by Chinese ships and warships, which led ships carrying imports and exports to avoid the region. This raises worrying questions about the ease with which China might be able to execute a successful blockade of the island should military escalation occur. The visit also revealed the ways in which Taiwan’s military falls short and is, indeed, entirely unprepared to confront China should it become necessary.

U.S. officials condemned China’s response to the visit as a drastic overreaction and escalation. After the military exercises came to a close, a congressional delegation paid a visit to the island in a show of support. A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy stated that Washington had “spared no effort to stir up confrontation,” and that “China will take resolute countermeasures in response to the U.S.’s provocations.” They were set to meet with President Tsai Ing-wen to “reaffirm the United States’ support for Taiwan” and “encourage stability and peace across the Taiwan Strait.”

On August 18, the U.S. and Taiwan announced their intention to undertake formal trade talks this fall. Some who criticized Pelosi’s actions as largely symbolic and overly risky are hopeful that strengthening ties with Taiwan will allow the U.S. to provide concrete assistance to the country. There are concerns, however, as to how China will view this measure, and as to whether Taiwan’s military is prepared to defend the nation. Clearly, the issue of Taiwan will have far-reaching global implications.

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