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The drama over Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan travel plans, briefly explained

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holds her weekly press conference at the US Capitol on July 21, when she said “it’s important for us to show support for Taiwan.” | Nathan Howard/Getty Images

US policy toward Taiwan is all about “strategic ambiguity.” That means every trip and remark has to be just right.

How reckless can a trip to Taiwan be?

For House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, potential travel plans have already caused a domestic political debate and a minor foreign policy fracas.

On Monday, Taiwan held routine air raid drills amid fears that China, antagonized by a senior American representative planning to travel there, may pursue military escalation against Taiwan, the neighboring democratic island that Beijing claims as its own.

Everyone from President Joe Biden to Trump alumni to a former speaker of the House has been weighing in on Pelosi’s itinerary.

The visit, potentially planned for next month, brings new attention to the balancing act of how the US handles the status of Taiwan. It’s a complex policy filled with diplomatic nuance, in an attempt to smooth relations with China while also supporting Taiwan against Chinese aggression. All of this has been accentuated by China’s rapid rise economically and militarily, which has focused US energy on countering its influence worldwide.

That’s created an atmosphere of dangerous competition between the two nuclear-armed countries, where even a trip abroad has strategic implications.

The travel plans — and everyone’s responses to them

Pelosi had canceled a Taiwan journey for April when she tested positive for Covid-19, and she rescheduled it for August, a move first reported by the Financial Times.

President Joe Biden said last week of Pelosi going, “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now.” (Some Biden officials have said that China may go as far as to ground her travel by implementing a no-fly zone over Taiwan, possibly bringing the US and China into direct conflict.)

In a press conference a day later, Pelosi retorted “it’s important for us to show support for Taiwan.” She said she never discusses international travel plans “because it is a security issue,” but added she hadn’t heard anything directly from the administration about the plane issue. But several senior American officials, according to the FT, think it’s a particularly dangerous moment in US-China relations for her to travel.

Congress occasionally clashes with and contradicts the White House on foreign policy, at least rhetorically. And Congress members frequently travel abroad to hot spots; House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-WA) led a group of lawmakers to Ukraine just in the last week, for example. Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan when he was speaker in 1997, the last time someone second in line to the US presidency visited the island. But in addition to Pelosi being a leading member of the same party as Biden, the relationship with China has deteriorated since the ’90s. In response to Pelosi’s travel, China has boldly threatened “strong measures” against Taiwan and conveyed severe concerns to the White House about the trip.

Much of the disquiet in Washington and Beijing over the trip may have to do with timing. Next month, the Chinese Communist Party will hold its 20th congress, a major gathering that occurs every five years and in which Xi Jinping is expected to take on an unprecedented third term as president. At the confab, he will also likely discuss Taiwan at a time when experts see parallels between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the power that China wants to assert over Taiwan. (Many are wondering what lessons China is taking from Vladimir Putin’s brutal adventurism and the West’s response to it.) And Biden and Xi are due to hold a phone call to ease US-China relations.

“There is bad timing and worse timing, and this is certainly worse timing,” Lev Nachman, a researcher at the Harvard Fairbank Center for China Studies, told me. “The worry is that Pelosi going could be a straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

China regularly aggravates Taiwan with military drills, but this time it could be something altogether more provocative. “Pretty much anytime there’s a congressional delegation, anytime there’s a weapons sale that goes through to Taiwan, China does a whole song and dance,” Nachman said. “When China says they’re going to do something to retaliate, the worry is: Is that going to be like the same, you know, shtick they always give us? Or is there going to be something more?”

Even as Pelosi expresses support of Taiwan, her office hasn’t officially confirmed the trip. (A spokesperson reiterated to Vox that they do not confirm or deny international travel because of “security protocols.”) The trip’s status, right now, is as ambiguous as the US’s exact commitments to Taiwan.

A nuanced China policy, and an unscripted Biden

The ambiguity around US-Taiwan relations is head-spinning for those not fully proficient in the “One China” policy, which has been in effect since the 1970s. Officially, the US recognizes China’s claim over Taiwan but does not endorse that claim. The US officially says it doesn’t support Taiwan’s independence, but ensuring Taiwan’s autonomy is central to US actions in Asia. And Pelosi’s prospective visit to Taiwan may upset the delicate equilibrium.

There are no formal diplomatic ties between the US and Taiwan but plenty of unofficial ties; relations are dictated by a series of diplomatic protocols and laws — the Taiwan Relations Act (passed by Congress in 1979), the three joint communiques (between the US and China in the ’70s and ’80s), and the six assurances (between the US and Taiwan). That is how the US can, among other things, sell weapons to Taiwan for its self-defense against China while preserving relations with China.

The policy of strategic ambiguity — whether or not the US would back Taiwan in a Chinese attack — endures, as National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan emphasized last week. But Biden has suggested otherwise.

As president, Biden has sparked controversy by describing “the commitment we made” to defend Taiwan if China were to attack it, although US policy holds out no such commitment. Biden’s persistent unscripted comments on this have led many to speculate that he’s changing policy. Even a tiny wording change is a big deal. When the US State Department changes a sentence on its website, China issues a formal condemnation. So the president contradicting his own government several times is either undermining himself or poking China. After each episode, the White House has downplayed the comments as, in essence, Biden being Biden.

Biden’s remarks suggest, as reporter David Sanger of the New York Times has posited, that hawkish personnel in the Biden administration are “winning the day” and “the second thing that it tells you about this administration is that they may be rethinking the utility of strategic ambiguity.”

Jessica Drun, a Taiwan expert at the Atlantic Council, says that China is able to get ahead of the narrative because its approach to Taiwan is explicit and declaratory — that Taiwan is theirs and the US is being militaristic by arming it. “Ours is wrapped in nuances, and some words hold different meanings from a diplomatic perspective,” she told me. “There are things that need to be caveated every time, and so it’s harder for us to articulate clearly, at least to a public audience, what our stances are. That’s why there’s so much misunderstanding on what US policy toward Taiwan is, sometimes even from elements within our own government.”

When Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has spoken of China policy, like at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June, he basically read the Taiwan Relations Act aloud. He was careful to stay on script. Secretary of State Tony Blinken added some more details on the US approach to Taiwan in a major speech about Asia in May. He pointed out that policy has been “consistent across decades and administrations” and said, “While our policy has not changed, what has changed is Beijing’s growing coercion.”

The caution from Biden’s team contrasts with the more bombastic approach that the Donald Trump administration took, with trade wars, bitter words, and approving more than $18 billion of arms sales to Taiwan. (Biden’s approved just over $1 billion so far.)

Trump, as president-elect, broke US policy by holding a phone call with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. As secretary of state, Mike Pompeo delivered a speech that was interpreted as threatening regime change in China. And since leaving government, Pompeo and former Defense Secretary Mark Esper have both visited Taiwan. With Biden’s approval ratings low and another presidential election in just two years, many in the Chinese government view a much more anti-China Republican administration as imminent — all while members of both parties in the US hollow out the “One China” policy.

Rhetoric aside, Trump’s and Biden’s approach to China and Taiwan have some similarities. Biden, it might be said, is implementing a hawkish China strategy that former Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger pushed for in the Trump White House. Biden’s Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo even hosted Pottinger to discuss and coordinate industrial policy in March.

In Washington, there is a bipartisan consensus on Taiwan. “Republicans are louder on Taiwan than Democrats,” said Nachman, but he explains, “Every single Taiwan bill that has ever gone through Congress, both at the House and Senate levels, has been bipartisan and unanimously supported by both Democrats and Republicans.”

For now, Pelosi finds herself in a predicament. Canceling the visit to Taiwan would make the US look weak and China triumphant, while going could be reckless. The face-saving deescalation for Pelosi may be to postpone the visit till after the Party Congress.

Bonnie Glaser, who directs the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund think tank in Washington, argues that the US and the world needs clarity from the Biden administration about how it sees the US-Taiwan relationship, so that the president’s unscripted remarks don’t inadvertently come to define policy. Without doing so, and as Pelosi is poised to travel, it risks adding new dangers to what she describes as toxic US-China relations.

“Try to convince the Chinese that it isn’t part of a grand plan to change our policy, and it’s very difficult to do so,” she told me. “They ascribe more coherence to our policy than they should.”

Correction, 12:30 pm: A previous version of this story misstated the reason for Taiwan’s air raid drills. Drills have occurred for several decades; Pelosi’s potential travel plans to the island add tension to the routine drills.

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