US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan on August 2 2022 – a highly controversial trip that has been strongly opposed by China.
Such is the sensitivity over the island’s status that even before Pelosi’s plane touched down in the capital of Taipei, mere reports of the proposed trip prompted a warning by China of “serious consequences.” In the hours before she set foot on the island, Chinese fighter jets flew close to the median line separating Taiwan and China, while Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi commented that U.S. politicians who “play with fire” on Taiwan would “come to no good end.”
For its part, the US has distanced itself from the visit. Before the trip President Joe Biden said it was “not a good idea.”
As someone who has long studied the U.S.‘s delicate diplomatic dance over Taiwan, I understand why this trip has sparked reaction in both Washington and Beijing, given the current tensions in the region. It also marks the continuation of a process that has seen growing US political engagement with Taiwan – much to China’s annoyance.
Cutting diplomatic ties
The controversy over Pelosi’s visit stems from the “one China” policy – the diplomatic stance under which the U.S. recognizes China and acknowledges Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China. The policy has governed US relations with Taiwan for the past 40-plus years.
In 1979, the US abandoned its previous policy of recognizing the government of Taiwan as that of all of China, instead shifting recognition to the government on the mainland.
As part of this change, the U.S. cut off formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, with the U.S. embassy in Taiwan replaced by a nongovernmental entity called the American Institute in Taiwan.
The institute was a de facto embassy – though until 2002, Americans assigned to the institute would have to resign from US. State Department to go there, only to be rehired once their term was over. And contact between the two governments was technically unofficial.
As the government in Taiwan pursued democracy – starting from the lifting of martial law in 1987 through the first fully democratic elections in 1996 – it shifted away from the assumption once held by governments in both China and Taiwan of eventual reunification with the mainland. The government in China, however, has never abandoned the idea of “one China” and rejects the legitimacy of Taiwanese self-government. That has made direct contact between Taiwan and US representatives contentious to Chinese officials.
Indeed, in 1995, when Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s first democratically elected president, touched down in Hawaii en route to Central America, he didn’t even set foot on the tarmac. The US State Department had already warned that the president would be refused an entry visa to the US, but had allowed for a brief, low-level reception in the airport lounge during refueling. Apparently feeling snubbed, Lee refused to leave the airplane.
Previous political visits
Two years after this incident came a visit to Taiwan by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Similarly to the Pelosi visit, the one by Gingrich annoyed Beijing. But it was easier for the White House to distance itself from Gingrich – he was a Republican politician visiting Taiwan in his own capacity, and clearly not on behalf of then-President Bill Clinton.
Pelosi’s visit my be viewed differently by Beijing, because she is a member of the same party as President Joe Biden. China may assume she has Biden’s blessing, despite his comments to the contrary.
Asked on July 20 about his views on the potential Pelosi trip, Biden responded that the “military thinks it’s not a good idea right now.”
The comment echoes the White House’s earlier handling of a comment by Biden in which he suggested in May 2022 that the U.S. would intervene “militarily” should China invade Taiwan. Officials in the Biden administration rolled back the comment, which would have broken a long-standing policy of ambiguity over what the U.S. would do if China tried to take Taiwan by force.
Similarly with Pelosi, the White House is distancing itself from a position that suggests a shift in US-Taiwanese relations following a period in which the US had already been trying to rethink how it interacts with Taiwan.
In 2018, Congress passed the bipartisan Taiwan Travel Act. This departed from previous policy in that it allowed bilateral official visits between the US and Taiwan, although they are still considered to be subdiplomatic.
In the wake of that act, Donald Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary, Alex Azar, became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Taiwan since 1979. Then in 2020, Keith Krach, undersecretary for economic growth, energy and the environment, visited Taiwan.
Each of these visits has provoked angry statements from Beijing.
A high-profile visit – even one without the public backing of the White House – would signal support to the island at a time when the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has raised questions over the international community’s commitment to protect smaller states from more powerful neighbors.
Meanwhile, the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong has undermined China’s commitment to the idea of “one nation, two systems.” The principle, which allowed Hong Kong to maintain its economic, political and social systems while returning to the mainland after the end of British rule, had been cited as a model for reunification with Taiwan. The Chinese Communist Party also plans to hold its 20th congress in the coming months, making the timing sensitive for a Taiwan visit from a high-profile U.S. political figure such as Pelosi.
Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an article originally published on July 26, 2022.