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The ‘Taiwan issue’: What Pelosi’s historic visit would mean for U.S.-China relations

Amid escalating tensions, Pelosi’s proposed trip to Taiwan comes at ‘a very dangerous moment’

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks at the Capitol in Washington, July 21, 2022. U.S. officials say they have little fear that China would attack Pelosi’s plane if she flies to Taiwan. But Pelosi would be entering one of the world’s hottest spots where a mishap, misstep or misunderstanding could endanger her safety.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is planning an official trip to Taiwan next month. The trip is a rescheduling of a visit planned for April, as Pelosi was forced to cancel after contracting COVID-19. Though not yet confirmed, this would be the first visit by a House speaker in 25 years, according to Politico.

Wednesday, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, told NBC that Pelosi invited the top members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, including himself and Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., to visit the island, where the contentious issue of self-governance has simmered for decades.

On July 20, President Joe Biden said “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now,” according to Time. Because of escalating tensions with China in the area, officials told The Associated Press “the military would increase its movement of forces and assets in the Indo-Pacific region,” if the speaker was to take the trip.

Though support for Taiwan is bipartisan and widespread, a historic visit such as this one may escalate an already tense situation, per The Associated Press.

What is China’s view on Taiwan?

The “One China” principle has guided China’s thinking on what it calls the “Taiwan issue.” In a statement from the Chinese embassy, the firm stance of the government is that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.” As such “China is under no obligation to commit itself to rule out the use of force.” This statement is especially pointed toward foreign forces perceived as “interfering in the reunification of China.”

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Bejing cut off official contacts with Taiwan after the inauguration of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, whose party platform favors independence.

After Tsai’s election, China began using intimidation tactics to wear Taiwan down, per the the council. Thousands of cyberattacks on government agencies every day, restricting tourism, increasing patrols of aircraft and navy in the Taiwan Strait, as well as pressuring global corporations to list Taiwan as a Chinese province.

In 2020, the Taiwanese political system ranked as the world’s eighth-most-democratic country, ahead of Japan (17th) and the United States (26th), according to the Economist. Tsai was reelected with a high voter turnout despite Beijing's disinformation campaigns against her party, per NPR.

In a rally the night before the election she said “Young people in Hong Kong have used their lives and shed their blood and tears to show us that ‘one country, two systems’ is not feasible.” The “one country, two systems” is the same policy Beijing extends toward Taiwan, reports NPR.

What is the U.S. policy on Taiwan?

The U.S. Department of State works under the same “One China” principle. The official stance is: “we do not support Taiwan independence; we oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side.” The U.S. government, therefore, does not have direct diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Instead, consular activities are carried out through a “non-governmental” organization (funded by the federal government, with Congressional oversight), the American Institute in Taiwan.

The longstanding tightrope walk has therefore been a policy of “strategic ambiguity” through the Taiwan Relations Act, among other agreements. The U.S. has remained strategically unclear about its response if force was used against the island.

Richard Bush, from The Brookings Institution, writes that “reliance on the United States has been the constant element of Taiwan’s security strategy,” despite the fact that “Washington does not explicitly commit itself to Taiwan’s defense.”

Taiwan’s dominance in semiconductor chip manufacturing, as well as other vital industries, is an important consideration in the United State’s interest there. The New York Times reports that “the United States is already more dependent on Taiwan’s high-end microchips than it was on Middle Eastern oil in decades past.”

Instability in the future

Some officials have warned that China will invade Taiwan in the next decade. Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, testified before the Senate, “I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.”

In the last year, tightly controlled rhetoric has shifted as the White House gives off mixed signals. The BBC reports that Biden has said the U.S. would defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion three times, “only to have his staff roll back his remarks — insisting there is no change in US policy.”

What to watch

Tuesday, the Senate voted to provide $52 billion in subsidies to domestic semiconductor manufacturing. The funding will be used to increase the self-reliance on a “keystone industry for economic and national security,” reports The Washington Post.

Biden will speak to China’s President Xi Jinping this week to “manage rising tensions over Taiwan, trade and a deadlocked bilateral diplomatic agenda,” according to Politico.

China has warned that a visit by Pelosi would have “serious consequences.” Bonnie S. Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund think tank, told the Guardian, “It’s a very dangerous moment. I think few people actually realize how dangerous this is.”