The Observer view on Nancy Pelosi’s reckless and provocative visit to Taiwan

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Chiang Ying-ying/AP</span>
Photograph: Chiang Ying-ying/AP

It would be interesting to know what Nancy Pelosi thinks she achieved by visiting Taiwan last week. She may say her hosts were buoyed by this very visible show of support from a high-ranking American politician – and this is true, up to a point. She may also claim that she stood up for Taiwanese and global democracy against the oppressive authoritarianism typified by China’s unelected Communist party rulers.

Yet pleased as she undoubtedly was to receive the personal backing of the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, has good reason to worry that her flying visit has set back the cause to which both are committed – bolstering and fortifying Taiwan’s de facto independence. There are many ways to stand up for democracy. Gratuitously provoking a far stronger adversary for little or no substantive gain is not necessarily the best.

China missed a diplomatic open goal. It could have stuck to verbally criticising the visit as destabilising

In making the trip, Pelosi ignored President Joe Biden’s wishes and Pentagon advice. Her actions also appear to have alarmed and embarrassed South Korea and Japan (and predictably goaded North Korea). Pelosi has an important role at home. She evidently feels passionately about China. But she does not run US foreign policy. She admits she was not seeking to change the status quo. So, again, what does she think she achieved?

For its part, China missed a diplomatic open goal. It could have stuck to verbally criticising the visit as destabilising and unhelpful to cross-strait relations. But as usual under would-be president-for-life Xi Jinping, it went over the top. The unprecedented military bullying of Taiwan in recent days is deplorable and dangerous. It also makes China look foolish. Like a big baby, Xi threw a giant tantrum. He, too, should explain what he thinks such behaviour achieves. The Pentagon’s point about bad timing was well made. Xi’s position may be weaker than it appears. He has mismanaged the economy, which is awash with debt and close to zero growth. Unemployment is high. Too-swingeing Covid lockdowns have been hugely damaging. It would be extraordinary if Xi did not secure a third term at this autumn’s party congress. All the same, China increasingly looks in need of a fundamental course correction.

Pelosi aside, Beijing did much to bring this crisis on itself. Its sovereign claim to Taiwan is disputed in international law. Polls show most islanders identify as Taiwanese and reject mainland rule. Yet in recent years, Xi has schemed to isolate Taipei and cranked up military pressure. His evisceration of Hong Kong’s democracy and aggressive South China Sea expansionism destroyed trust.

Biden, meanwhile, has created uncertainty about US intentions. It has never guaranteed Taiwan’s security yet repeated presidential mis-statements have given the opposite impression, raising questions over whether the US still adheres to its “one China policy”. Influential voices in Washington who see China as a threat and a rival say the time for “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan is over, since US-China conflict is probably inevitable.

This prediction is unduly pessimistic. But Pelosi should have recognised that an insecure Xi could not afford to ignore what nationalist opinion deemed an egregious affront. The sea blockade, air incursions and live-fire missile launches became a rehearsal for invasion. Sanctions imposed by Beijing may permanently damage US ties. The mood tangibly shifted last week. Military conflict moved a significant step closer.

Taiwan has shown sensible restraint, while China has not mounted direct attacks. Until tensions subside, British MPs and other well-meaning foreign visitors who are tempted to follow Pelosi should think again.

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