AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Next month, in what will likely be among the final acts of her career on the international stage, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is scheduled to visit Taiwan. With her life in politics coming to an end, it is possible to see her desire to include Taiwan on the itinerary for her final Asian tour as an act of personal principle, rather than diplomatic calculation. That fact – that Pelosi, in a break from the norm from the last 18 months, has decided to act on principle – perhaps explains the reaction of the Biden administration to the news, as everyone from the President on down has made clear they don’t like the idea one bit.
For all the charges which can be levied against her domestic record, Pelosi has been more or less consistent when it comes to maintaining pressure on the Chinese Communist Party, even going so far as to visit Tiananmen Square in 1989 to show support for the pro-democracy protestors. But when asked about Pelosi’s planned visit to Taiwan last Wednesday, President Joe Biden told reporters that it is “not a good idea right now,” no doubt alluding to the fiery Chinese response threatening “strong measures” should Pelosi follow through with her visit. At least six sources who could only be close to the administration have leaked that Beijing has expressed even stronger opposition in private, while some even suggested that the CCP had threatened “a possible military response” to a potential Pelosi visit to Taiwan.
We have long since learned that leaks are the favored method of communicating bad news from this administration. This was evident in the case of Ukraine, where officials denied in public that they had any doubts about Ukrainian prospects or wished Ukraine to make concessions while privately briefing the New York Times and Washington Post that they felt Ukraine was misleading the U.S. about its military prospects and needed to be prepared to withdraw from the Donbass. The past week witnessed the same sort of passive aggression when it came to Pelosi’s trip.
John Kirby, the Director of Communications for the National Security Council, denied that the administration was pressuring Pelosi to cancel her trip, insisting that the NSC team provided “context, facts and geopolitical relevant information” and that the Speaker “made her own decisions.” Yet, “two sources familiar with the debate” informed the Financial Times that “US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and other senior National Security Council officials oppose the trip because of the risk of escalating tension across the Taiwan Strait.” Even the President joined in, noting that it was not he, but the military which did not think it was a good idea for the trip to proceed.
Pelosi, to her credit, was dismissive of this effort to coerce her by leak to back down. She suggested that perhaps the military was concerned that her plane might be shot down, but fired a shot across the bow of the administration, noting “I’ve heard it anecdotally, but I haven’t heard it from the president.” In effect, Pelosi was telling Biden that if he wanted her trip cancelled, he should do it himself.
Without a doubt, there are reasons to be concerned. The Biden administration seems to lack a coherent strategy for Taiwan, as it did for dealing with Ukraine and Russia. Superficially, the position of the Biden administration is to adopt a hardline position rejecting “appeasement” of Sino-Russian demands, combined with belligerent rhetoric about human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang Province and the domestic behavior of both governments. Unlike the Trump administration, which tried to mix a hardline approach on trade or arming Ukraine with a willingness to discuss issues if Moscow/Beijing made concessions, the Biden administration has maintained there is nothing to discuss. Yet at the same time, the administration made few efforts to actually prepare for war and seemed surprised when it occurred.
In the case of Taiwan, Pelosi is serving a useful function. She is not only demonstrating American solidarity with Taiwan, but calling out the dangerous double-game the Biden administration is playing. It is not the House Speaker who is risking conflict in the Taiwan Strait with a single act, but rather the Biden administration by failing to prepare for one while pursuing rhetoric making it more likely. If Nancy Pelosi cannot safely visit Taiwan because the United States cannot protect either her or Taiwan from the anger of Xi Jinping, then China has already all but won, as it is an admission that the United States cannot protect Taiwan from anything which makes the CCP mad. And with China’s “Zero-COVID” policy leading to the country’s worst economic performance in fifty years and Chinese soldiers opening fire at Chinese citizens seeking to recover their savings from failing banks, Xi Jinping has a whole lot to be angry about.
There is a fundamental dishonesty at the heart of our approach to Taiwan. In much the same way that relations with Putin’s Russia became a proxy for grandstanding in U.S. domestic politics rather than a serious effort to formulate a policy to deal with one of the world’s largest nations and leading energy producers, denouncing the CCP and expressing support for Taiwan has become a way for American politicians to toot their own horns rather than engage with the challenges of defending the island or managing the CCP. Taiwan has become a justification for spending billions in subsidies for chip manufacturers just as almost any foreign aid can be justified as “countering the Belt and Road initiative.” Yet for all the money and rhetoric, when Beijing says they will be bad, the Biden administration too often panic and falls back on appeasement.
No greater demonstration of this exists than that in the same week the Biden administration was fretting over whether the Speaker should be allowed to visit Taiwan – an ally Biden has pledged to defend militarily – the Pentagon produced five different targets for the number of ships in the U.S. Navy, three of which are below the 2016 number of 355, and all of which are at least 30% below the final Trump administration target of 500 ships. Beyond the raw numbers, the chaos betrays not just a lack of vision, but the lack of any urgency to settle upon one defined course of action to counter China.
There are many marks one can lay against Nancy Pelosi’s career in politics, but this month she is performing a valuable service to her country, even if she is doing so unintentionally. She has highlighted exactly how bankrupt U.S. military planning is when it comes to China. For all the blustering rhetoric and hundreds of billions spent, the White House still feels that it cannot effectively deter Beijing. Nor is it even willing to admit this weakness. Pelosi, by indicating that unless and until she hears from the President himself that her trip is off, is forcing Biden and his team to do something they have consistently resisted during their entire tenure in office: publicly confront tradeoffs and take responsibility for the choices they make – or refuse to make.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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