The Gamble of Nancy Pelosi’s Visit to Taiwan

Taipei is celebrating; Beijing is seething. This may prove a consequential moment in a looming confrontation between China and the U.S. over not just the island’s future but the world’s.

Nancy Pelosi, wearing a white pantsuit with a turquoise sash, standing with Taiwan’s president in front of a painting of Sun Yat-sen
Taiwan Presidential Office / AP

On the surface, Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan looks like an American triumph. The House speaker flew into the island’s capital yesterday, undeterred by China’s threats and the announcement of military exercises in the surrounding seas. As she met with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, and spoke to its legislature, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping had to watch helplessly, able to do no more than order his forces to splash about in nearby waters in a display of rage and futility.

This narrative has elements of truth, but things aren’t that simple. Pelosi’s trip is likely to be the beginning, not the end, of a crisis in U.S.-China relations. Beijing could stretch out its response for weeks, even months, with unforeseeable consequences. Only hours before Pelosi’s arrival, China’s foreign ministry warned that the U.S. would “pay the price” for the affront. The real impact of Pelosi’s visit may not be clear for years.

Pelosi’s Taiwan gamble has reinforced trends in the U.S.-China relationship that are edging both countries toward conflict in East Asia. Ever more ambitious, Beijing believes that China has a right to be the paramount power in the region and that the U.S. is standing in its way. In Washington, D.C., policy makers see America’s future as depending on Asia and are resolved to maintain, or even expand, its system of alliances in the region to entrench U.S. influence and contain China’s.

Taiwan sits directly on the fault line between these two competing powers and their agendas. To the U.S., Taiwan is not merely a longtime friend, but also a crucial economic partner and a link in the network of democracies that upholds American power in the Pacific. To China, Taiwan is an indispensable component of the country’s ascent to superpower stature. Claiming Taiwan has been a top priority for the Chinese Communist Party ever since it chased its Nationalist foes off the mainland to the island at the end of the civil war in 1949. To this day, Beijing considers Taiwan an errant province that remains an integral part of China.

Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan intensified the insecurity among China’s leaders about achieving that goal. They already fear that the government in Taipei is drifting ever further into the American orbit, making “peaceful reunification,” as they call it, less and less likely. The Pelosi visit exposed the limits of Beijing’s power over the island—especially with the U.S backing up Taiwan—and the risks that that poses to the Communist regime. In Beijing’s perception, Pelosi’s visit offers legitimacy to Taiwan’s democratic government. And if all of Beijing’s bluster and threats couldn’t scare away even an octogenarian from California, what’s to stop a parade of foreign dignitaries from visiting Taiwan in defiance of China? The outcome, China’s leaders fear, could be Taiwan declaring formal independence—a step they could never tolerate.

Beijing has, of course, been complaining about American “interference” in Taiwan for decades. And Pelosi’s trip is not without precedent. Members of the U.S. Congress travel to Taiwan regularly, and another speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, visited 25 years ago. But the Taiwan issue is taking on even greater importance in China because of significant changes in Chinese domestic politics. Xi has justified his one-man dictatorship by promising the Chinese public that he will attain what he calls the “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation—which is impossible without unification with Taiwan.

Such nationalistic goals are also becoming more central to the Communist regime as a source of legitimacy. For decades, the Communist Party counted on its successful program of economic development to validate its right to rule, but with the economy slowing, that argument no longer packs the same punch. So the message has morphed from “the party will make China rich” to “the party will make China great.” That entails not only achieving unification with Taiwan, but also seeking revenge against those enemies that try to prevent it and “keep China down.”

This represents a major shift in China’s national policy. For much of the past four decades, its leaders tended to put economic growth before other policy goals. That, in turn, rendered their approach to foreign affairs—focused on matters of development—generally predictable. Now the party is turning its attention to getting foreign-policy wins over those it deems adversaries as proof of its competence and as a means of rallying domestic support.

Hence Beijing’s hysterical reaction to Pelosi’s visit. To China’s leaders, her Taiwan jaunt is another humiliation perpetrated by the U.S., and one not so easily forgiven or forgotten. But Xi brought this embarrassment on himself. Beijing’s extreme reaction to the proposed trip elevated it to an eyeball-to-eyeball superpower standoff, and Pelosi didn’t blink. Xi, the supposed champion of the Chinese nation, was made to look weak in the eyes of the world and, worse still, in the eyes of his own people, who followed Pelosi’s trip on social media.

The speaker’s tenacity also amplifies fears in Beijing that Washington is actively working to thwart unification. Officially, the U.S. still upholds a “one-China policy,” but Beijing isn’t buying that. Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused Washington of following a “fake” one-China policy in a conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in October. During the leaders’ discussion last week, Xi warned President Joe Biden on the Taiwan issue, telling him that “those who play with fire will perish by it,” according to the official summary from China’s foreign ministry.

The fact that Pelosi defied such warnings affirms Beijing’s growing conviction that China may never attain national greatness as long as the U.S. is entrenched in East Asia. That could prompt Beijing to intensify its efforts to undermine the U.S.-backed global order and consolidate Xi’s anti-American partnership with Vladimir Putin. Pelosi’s Taiwan trip could then have repercussions far beyond the Taiwan Strait and even East Asia.

But what may be most worrying, from Beijing’s perspective, is the response to Pelosi’s visit from Taiwan itself. Like Pelosi, President Tsai brushed aside Chinese threats over the visit. And rather than cowering before an enraged Communist Party, the people of Taiwan announced their defiance in lights on Taipei’s tallest skyscraper, with the message: Speaker Pelosi … Welcome to TW. Simply put, Taiwan rubbed Xi’s nose in it. Beijing will read that as an indication that Pelosi’s visit has emboldened the island to resist China and its dream of unification.

Unfortunately, all of this adds up to greater disorder in East Asia. In response to Pelosi’s arrival, the Chinese military announced four days of intensive military exercises around the island (beginning Thursday, after her departure), which may encroach on its territorial waters. That heightens the danger of unintended consequences that could lead to outright conflict. Short of that, the exercises may have a blockade effect, which could further disrupt already strained supply chains. Beijing has also turned to what has become its usual hostile tactic of turning trade into a tool of state by banning the import of some food items from Taiwan.

No one knows where this will end. As Taiwan stands firm, and Beijing grows more desperate, the level of Chinese coercion could increase—at some point perhaps convincing the Communist leadership that only war can capture Taiwan. As these events unfold, the possibility of the U.S. and its allies getting dragged into a regional conflict is not hard to imagine. Pelosi’s visit, then, was a step in a process transforming a war over Taiwan from a remote possibility to a real risk that should worry the world.

That is why Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan will remain controversial, and a sharp debate will continue in the U.S. over whether its hazards were worth the reward. (The people of Taiwan are not of one mind on the point, either.) Because of the visit’s purely symbolic nature, and with so much on the line, cold logic alone suggests it won’t prove worth it.

But that assessment misses what the excited crowds that met Pelosi in Taipei surely understood. The people of Taiwan were willing to advertise her arrival from the top of their tallest building, come what may from Beijing in sanctions and pressure. Pelosi’s presence was a signal that the Taiwanese are not facing down an angry, authoritarian China on their own. An editorial writer in the Taipei Times welcomed Pelosi as “a comrade-in-arms in the fight against tyranny and the pursuit of liberty.” As the U.S. and China drift toward confrontation, Pelosi’s display of resolve may be necessary—to show the Chinese and the world that the U.S. isn’t afraid, either.