WASHINGTON — As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan on Tuesday evening local time for a long-rumored official visit, her trip has exposed a rare schism between the Biden White House and the most powerful Democrat in Congress.
Officially, the Biden administration has been careful to avoid directly answering questions about whether it agrees with Pelosi’s decision to make the trip.
But unofficially, the White House and the Pentagon have made little secret of their opposition to such a visit, which comes at a time when US-China relations are the poorest they’ve been in decades.
In late July, Biden responded to a question about Pelosi’s then-rumored stop in Taiwan by saying: “The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now. But I don’t know what the status of it is.”
For weeks, American officials from the president on down have tied themselves into knots trying to talk about Pelosi’s choice to visit Taiwan, and stressing that it was her decision, and hers alone.
Now, experts say it’s becoming clear that this effort missed the point. That’s because schisms in Washington are effectively meaningless to the rest of the world, which has learned to view American presidents and their top allies in Congress as interchangeable stand-ins for one another on foreign policy matters.
The fact that US policy toward Taiwan is deliberately ambiguous only serves to make it that much more difficult to draw any meaningful distinction between what Pelosi is doing and what the White House is saying.
Pelosi, a longtime China hawk, had not officially announced that she would visit the self-ruled island off the coast of mainland China, which Beijing considers a renegade province.
But after weeks of Pelosi and her office refusing to confirm the visit, citing security concerns, Taiwanese media reported Monday that Pelosi and a congressional delegation of five other House Democrats planned to spend Tuesday night in the capital, Taipei, and meet with Taiwanese leaders and members of the island’s legislature on Wednesday.
Beijing has been furious for months over the reported visit, which would mark the first time in 25 years that an American House speaker visited the island.
Any trip by Pelosi “will greatly threaten peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, severely undermine China-US relations and lead to a very serious situation and grave consequences,” senior Chinese diplomat Liu Xiaoming tweeted late Monday night. Liu’s statement reflected the tone and tenor of weeks’ worth of warnings and threats that have emanated from Beijing.
On Tuesday, China escalated this rhetoric with a series of actions, starting with the announcement of new import bans on certain Taiwanese products. Shortly afterwards, Reuters reported that several Chinese warplanes had flown close to the median line of the Taiwan Strait.
Hours later, a major Taiwanese media outlet reported that the island’s own military would be on heightened alert in response to Chinese live-fire exercises being held in anticipation of Pelosi’s reported visit.
Given that Pelosi is traveling aboard a US military aircraft for the entirety of her trip to Asia this week, the quickly escalating military tensions between China and Taiwan carry especially high risks.
They also underscore what a difficult position Pelosi’s trip has placed the Biden White House in.
As reports of the trip solidified in recent days, Biden’s top spokespeople had been forced to say over and over that they cannot confirm or deny the existence of any upcoming trip, and at the same time downplay its significance.
“I want to reaffirm that the Speaker has not confirmed any travel plans,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday, “So we won’t be commenting or speculating about the stops on her trip.”
Still, Kirby confirmed moments later that Biden had specifically raised the topic of Pelosi’s unconfirmed trip with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week, during a video call that lasted more than two hours.
Biden “made clear that Congress is an independent branch of government and that Speaker Pelosi makes her own decisions, as other members of Congress do, about their overseas travel,” said Kirby. “That was made clear.”
Moments after saying Biden and Xi had personally discussed the trip, Kirby again sought to downplay its importance.
“I think we’ve laid out very clearly that if she goes — if she goes — it’s not without precedent. It’s not new. It doesn’t change anything,” he said. “We’ve not ramped up the rhetoric. We’ve not changed our behavior.”
To foreign policy experts, the White House’s effort to convince Beijing that it must distinguish between the behavior of the top Democrat in Congress and the intent of the Democratic administration is a futile one.
“Saying that this is a whole lot of nothing or that the Chinese shouldn’t read into it. … Well, anybody who has spent half a minute looking at China knows that they attach some sort of intentionality to everything we do,” said Andrew Mertha, director of the China Global Research Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Any suggestion that a visit by someone as important as Pelosi would be seen by Beijing as anything but an in-person expression of American support for Taiwanese independence, he said, is unimaginable.
This is especially true after Biden himself said, on three separate occasions, that the US would come to the defense of Taiwan if China were to invade the island.
Those statements, said Mertha, undermined decades of assurances from Washington that the US would maintain a policy of strategic ambiguity on the question of who controls Taiwan.
“I think what you really see from China’s side, and it’s not unreasonable, is that we’re kind of pushing the envelope of the One China policy,” said Mertha, referring to the longstanding US position of recognizing Beijing as the sole legal government of China, but not formally recognizing Taiwan as subject to the government in Beijing.
“They’re alarmed,” Mertha said of Beijing, “and I don’t blame them.”