United States Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, landed in Taiwan today, August 2, in a controversial visit that some worry may kickstart a conflict between the US and China.
“Our discussions with Taiwan leadership will focus on reaffirming our support for our partner and promoting our shared interests, including advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” wrote Pelosi in a statement. “America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.”
In response to Pelosi’s visit, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said on August 2, “If the US goes its own way, it will be responsible for all the serious consequences,” adding that the US should abide by decades-old agreements with China such as the Shanghai Communiqué and recognize that Taiwan is a part of China.
The official position of the United States, both internationally and bilaterally, remains that there is only one China, and that Taiwan is a part of China.
However, the US has recently been intensifying its encirclement of China, and this visit could be seen as a deliberate act of provocation intended to bait China into a response. The spread of US military presence across the South China Sea, and the demonization of China in the US press have both long been matters of record. If China can be provoked into an aggressive response by either Pelosi’s visit, or even the uncertainty surrounding it, this could kickstart open conflict between China and the US.
The United States has what it calls a “robust unofficial relationship” with Taiwan, even as it opposes “any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side,” including Taiwanese independence.
The mainstream media continues to report that both Taiwan and China’s military rhetoric have escalated as a response to the possibility of Pelosi’s visit, without allowing for any examination of US actions. For example, even as Bloomberg Politics writes that “neither Xi nor Biden have an interest in triggering a conflict,” it suggests that China could go so far as “seizing an island” or conducting “missile tests near Taiwan” in response to these developments.
The NATO Strategic Concept 2022, produced after the Madrid Summit in June, names China along with Russia as global “threats to peace and stability.” It suggests that, because “[the PRC] strives to subvert the rules-based international order, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains,” it is incumbent on members to “to address the systemic challenges posed by the PRC to Euro-Atlantic security and ensure NATO’s enduring ability to guarantee the defense and security of Allies.” While not quite a statement of military intent, this does signal a change of posture in Washington—and, more broadly, western Europe—towards China.
The US military has on occasion sent forces to the region, but reporting by the Wall Street Journal in 2021 showed that it had secretly been training Taiwanese forces since at least 2020 for a potential confrontation with China. Confirmation of this military deployment by the administration, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency’s director William Burns having named China “the most important geopolitical threat [the US faces] in the 21st century,” signal a change in the official US stance towards the possibility of overt military engagement. A proposal currently before the US Senate would, should it be made law, greatly expand security assistance to Taiwan over the next few years as well, ostensibly to guard against the possibility of Chinese “military coercion” towards Taiwan.
Several media organizations have reported Joe Biden saying that the US military believes Pelosi’s visit to the island is “not a good idea” right now. As MK Bhadrakumar points out, though, such a high-profile difference in opinion is extremely unlikely, as is the suggestion that Pelosi and Biden have not communicated privately about it. Other US spokespeople, however, including that of the National Security Council, have said that as a Member of Congress Pelosi is free to make “her own decisions,” and that previous Speakers of the House have also visited Taiwan, downplaying the idea that this trip represents an escalation.
Brian Becker, the director of the ANSWER Coalition, has highlighted the point made by Chinese media and China’s Foreign Ministry that the last visit from a US Speaker was in 1997 when Republican Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan during Bill Clinton’s Democratic Presidency. It is an important distinction, he suggests, that Gingrinch was a political opponent of Clinton’s within the US political system, whereas Pelosi can only be seen as a representative of the Democratic Party in power, even if Biden seeks to distance himself from these actions.
Biden himself has also been escalating violent rhetoric towards China, stating multiple times that the US would defend Taiwan militarily if the People’s Republic of China were to “invade” what China considers to be its own territory.
The importance of the “Century of Humiliation”
For China, reaffirming that Taiwan is not a separate country is extremely important given the historic balkanization of the nation by imperialist powers.
China was fragmented by Western imperialist powers during the “Century of Humiliation”, from 1839 to 1949, separating places like Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan from the rest of the nation. The Communist Party of China has waged a decades-long struggle to reunify parts of China. Since the 1949 socialist revolution, the Chinese government has successfully and peacefully reunified the regions of Macau and Hong Kong.
The PRC seeks to do the same with Taiwan, colonized by Japan, then passed over to the United States after WWII. The Chinese constitution states, “Taiwan is part of the sacred territory of the People’s Republic of China. It is the lofty duty of the entire Chinese people, including our compatriots in Taiwan, to accomplish the great task of reunifying the motherland.”
The anti-war movement responds
Anti-war activists and organizations in the US have responded to Pelosi’s visit. “What does the US have to gain from Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan?” tweeted the Qiao Collective, a US-based Chinese diaspora media collective. “Any response China takes will be construed as an unprovoked escalation, justifying increased weapons sales to Taiwan, US naval exercises through the Taiwan strait, and increased US military presence in the region.”
Before Pelosi landed, the anti-war organization CODEPINK circulated a petition demanding that she cancel her visit to Taiwan. “Representative Pelosi,” read the petition. “The trip will have few potential benefits, while posing enormous risks…the longer the controversy over it goes on, the harder it will be for China to back down from a military response. In short, you were willing to risk a military confrontation of the worst possible kind —and for what benefit?”
On August 1, anti-war group Pivot to Peace held a demonstration in Pelosi’s home city of San Francisco, urging her to cancel her trip. Co-founder Sheila Xiao spoke at the rally, “Our enemy is inflation, this economic crisis. In the richest country in the world, people are living on the streets! That’s our problem, not China!”
Ajamu Baraka, leader of the Black Alliance for Peace, tweeted on August 2, “US white supremacy doesn’t even hide its positions,” he said in response to a CNN article claiming that “[Pelosi’s visit] is about a broader context of China’s building challenge to America’s determination to preserve democracy, Western values and military and economic primacy in the Pacific and across the world.”
“No equality or respect here.” Baraka wrote.
Meanwhile, in Taiwan itself, protesters have gathered to oppose Pelosi’s visit. Signs at protests used insults such as “ugly American” to describe Pelosi, and protesters declared, “We don’t need America to treat us as a pawn!” This is despite mainstream US press such as the New York Times claiming that “Many [in Taiwan] are tired of China’s threats and crave American support.”