Reviews | Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan puts Biden in a bind

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plans to become the top lawmaker to ever visit Taiwan have long been hatched. Now, as she finalizes those plans, the Chinese government is threatening massive retaliation and the Biden administration wants her to delay. Taiwan is caught in the middle. All parties are preparing for a possible crisis that no one really wants.

This delicate situation raises important questions. Is China bluffing or could Pelosi’s visit really spark a confrontation? Are the benefits of visiting Pelosi right now worth the risk? And above all: in our democracy, which branch of government has the last word in the event of a disagreement on a matter of foreign policy?

On Wednesday, when President Biden casually confirmed that Pelosi was planning to visit Taiwan in August (she canceled a planned trip in April after testing positive for covid-19), he inadvertently revealed the government’s internal conflict American about the yet unannounced trip. “The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now,” Biden said, adding that he was unsure “of his status.” His comments complicated already uncomfortable discussions about the potential visit between Biden’s top national security officials and Pelosi’s office, several administration officials told me.

Of course, Pelosi – as the elected leader of a democratic body – has every right to visit Taiwan, and Beijing has no right to interfere. A visit from him would be a strong sign of support for Taiwanese democracy, threatened by China. But the Biden team cannot afford to ignore the associated risks. The Chinese Communist Party plans to grant President Xi Jinping a third term in November and Biden officials believe the period until then is particularly risky.

Administration fears Pelosi trip to Taiwan could spark cross-strait crisis

There are also risks to report. If Pelosi delays the trip now (even though it has yet to be announced), Beijing may conclude that its heavy-handed tactic has worked. China cannot be allowed to think that it has veto power every time a congressional delegation wants to visit Taiwan.

“I think it’s important for us to show our support for Taiwan,” Pelosi said at her Thursday press conference, though she declined to confirm she was planning the trip, citing security concerns. . “None of us ever said we were for independence when it comes to Taiwan. It’s up to Taiwan to decide.

While it’s true that some military leaders are worried about the trip, they’re not the only ones. In recent weeks, officials including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley, Indo-Pacific Command Chief Adm. John C. Aquilino, Czar Kurt Campbell of NSC Asia, and others briefed Pelosi or her staff on intelligence risk assessments and military planning that would be required if she left.

Chinese authorities always complain when congressional delegations visit Taiwan. But administration officials tell me they have particular reason to worry right now. China, they say, is planning a potentially destabilizing response. They don’t know exactly what Beijing will do, but at least one Chinese state media commentator suggested that the Chinese Air Force could send planes to intercept Pelosi, which could trigger a confrontation.

The US military is working out options to protect Pelosi’s delegation, which – as is standard procedure for congressional delegations to Taiwan – would fly on military aircraft. The measures envisaged include moving aircraft carriers or sending fighter planes in close air support. This, in turn, could be misinterpreted by the Chinese side as an aggressive rather than a defensive move.

Henry Olsen: Ignore the naysayers, Nancy Pelosi. Go to Taiwan.

Key U.S. allies in Asia have expressed concerns about a visit they say will be seen as provocative, officials said. That could undermine efforts to increase cooperation with some countries on Taiwan in the region, administration officials said.

U.S. officials are also concerned that the Chinese government believes (incorrectly) that Biden supports Pelosi’s trip, contradicting the administration’s current drive to reduce tensions in the bilateral relationship. As the White House is well aware, the President can and will make her own travel decisions. But Beijing may (wrongly) see this as an intentional escalation.

“Who knows, maybe the Chinese will back down and there won’t be anything there,” said Zack Cooper, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “But clearly Beijing sees this Pelosi trip differently and as a much more severe break with past politics than some Americans appreciate.”

The White House can’t publicly say it wants Pelosi to delay because Biden would be attacked for appearing soft on Taiwan. The Biden team showed overall strong support for Taiwan, including arms sales, military training, diplomatic engagement and consistent U.S. naval missions patrolling the Taiwan Straits as recently as this week.

Taiwan also faces risks, as it could end up bearing the brunt of China’s discontent. But Pelosi may resist delaying her plans, wanting to assert independence from the legislature and avoid accusations that she bowed to intimidation from China.

The best-case scenario would be for Pelosi and the Biden team to find a compromise so America can speak with one voice. For example, if Pelosi delays, she could send other lawmakers in her place and promise to visit in a few months, to save face and ensure no bad precedent is set.

But if Pelosi goes ahead and visits Taiwan next month, the governments in Washington, Beijing and Taipei will just have to go along with it. In democracies, the people and their representatives can go to other democracies whenever they want, without being punished by neighboring dictatorships. It is a strength, not a weakness, of free societies.

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