Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan had all the makings of a political drama. As speaker of the House of Representatives and as second-in-line to succeed the president, she is the highest-ranking American official to set foot on the island in 25 years. She forged ahead despite warnings from national security officials that the visit could provoke China, which desires to bring Taiwan under the Chinese Communist Party’s control. And as if to add some Hollywood flair, China conducted air and naval drills with live ammunition in the Taiwan Strait.
Was Pelosi’s trip really that significant?
First, some perspective. As speaker, Pelosi is the leader of the Democratic majority and the chief parliamentarian in the House. She controls the flow of legislation in the chamber and selects members for various committees, which can influence policy agendas. Plus, she has accumulated political clout outside of Congress during her 35-year-tenure.
But her influence is limited. Speakers are still bound to the rules of the House, which they are tasked to uphold. And the reach of their power is determined by the majority party. “The approval of the House is the very breath in the nostrils of the Speaker,” said Thomas Brackett Reed, a representative of Maine who occupied the post in the late 19th century.
She may be the most senior member of Congress to visit Taiwan in decades, but she certainly is not alone. In the past, delegations from the House and the Senate have come to the island to discuss issues of national security and trade with its leaders. As recently as May, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat, showed up — reportedly unannounced — to pitch Illinois as a business partner for Taiwan.
Why then all the fuss?
China regularly protests trips by U.S. lawmakers to Taiwan. It raised a ruckus when a bipartisan group led by senators visited in April. China’s air force announced a drill with bomber and fighter jets in response. Pelosi was scheduled to visit around the same time, but her trip was delayed because she got COVID-19. Had it occurred then, it still would have been historic and China undoubtedly would have vehemently opposed it, but tensions may not have run as high.
Biden’s administration has tried to engage China on trade, climate change, health care and other issues. At the same time, the president has asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to respect Taiwanese democracy and to refrain from providing aid to Russia in the war in Ukraine. Over time, Pelosi’s trip gained prominence, raising concerns it could provoke armed conflict. “The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now,” Biden told reporters a fortnight ago. Thomas Friedman, of The New York Times, described the trip as “utterly reckless, dangerous and irresponsible” and warned it could have repercussions beyond China.
Most importantly, the trip has revealed that Biden and Pelosi are not on the same page on how the U.S. should engage China on Taiwan. In a recent call with Xi, Biden gave the Chinese leader a lesson in American civics, reminding him that Congress is a separate branch of government and the president cannot order representatives around, according to John Kirby, spokesperson for the National Security Council. This misalignment could complicate foreign policy goals the U.S. has for China.
To her credit, Pelosi has been unequivocal in her support for Taiwan and her criticism of the Chinese Communist Party’s disregard for democratic values. As a freshly-minted Congress member, she was chased by Chinese police at a protest in Tiananmen Square. “It is essential America and our allies make clear that we never give in to autocrats,” she wrote in an opinion column about her trip for The Washington Post.