At the risk of torching my reputation as both a hawk and a Never Trumper, I’m obliged to say that … I agree with him.
Even though I recognize that this pissy statement from yesterday is 99 percent personal grudge and one percent geopolitical strategy.
This is the same guy who was so eager to tweak China over Taiwan after winning the presidency that he accepted a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president, an all but unheard-of instance of direct contact between the two countries’ leaders.
Anyway: To visit or not to visit? It’s a dilemma.
On the one hand, every patriot should bristle at the thought of a U.S. official having to cancel a goodwill trip to an ally to avoid offending the sensibilities of totalitarian degenerates. For all her faults, Pelosi has been admirably willing to defy the ChiComs in the past in order to show solidarity with their victims. How many American politicians can say they got kicked out of Tiananmen Square for insisting on reminding passersby of what happened there?
Some footage from the CNN archive of Pelosi unfurling a pro-democracy banner in Tiananmen Square in 1991 (alongside Reps. Ben Jones and John Miller) before Chinese officials interrupt pic.twitter.com/fmbSNry3bX
— Kevin Liptak (@Kevinliptakcnn) July 29, 2022
She was plain-spoken on the second anniversary of the massacre:
"This is an actual watch that was given by the Chinese communist party to each of the soldiers who participated in the crackdown in Tiananmen Square.
This watch was smuggled out of China…
This watch says time is running out for the…Butchers of Beijing"
– Nancy Pelosi 6/4/1991 pic.twitter.com/xaV7FubTXR
— Howard Mortman (@HowardMortman) July 30, 2022
It’s unclear if her trip to Taiwan this week will proceed as scheduled, but it might — and if it does, it’ll happen with Pelosi knowing there’s some small risk that her plane will be attacked. That’s brave. Morally, no one wants to see that bravery succumb to cowardice by canceling the trip, especially at the expense of a cause as just as Taiwan’s.
Strategically, no one should be eager to see it either. Backing down under threat from China would be a show of weakness by America. A few days ago Mitch McConnell warned that, having announced her intention to go, Pelosi now has little choice but to follow through: “[I]f she doesn’t go now, she’s handed China sort of a victory of sorts.”
But turn the strategic question around. What do we gain, exactly, if she proceeds with the visit and Beijing backs down? We’ll all get to high-five that America stared down the dragon this time, and … then what? Chinese propagandists will have another petty grievance against the U.S. to fuel their campaign of hypernationalist brainwashing. A war that neither side can afford will become that much more likely eventually, even if the threat of immediate conflict passes. They’ll want revenge, whether now or later.
And that’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is — well, take five minutes to read Niall Ferguson on Pelosi’s trip. The U.S. and China had a superficially similar standoff over Taiwan in 1996 that ended when Beijing relented but that incident isn’t as similar as you may think, he argues. There are four key differences that make conflict more likely now than it was then:
1. Xi Jinping is a de facto dictator, not just any ol’ apparatchik sitting atop the politburo for a spell. He has something to prove.
2. China’s economic growth is slowing thanks to its insane “zero COVID” policy. So is its population growth thanks to its insane “one child” policy. Xi needs a distraction to paper over those failures. And if China is destined to decline, it may be now or never to take Taiwan. “How ignorant of history do you have to be not to see Xi’s urgent need for a new source of legitimacy for the CCP, now that economic growth can no longer provide it?” Ferguson wonders. “It is not strong, confident powers that start wars; it is weakening powers that know time is not on their side.”
3. China’s military is *much* more formidable than it was 25 years ago. They can sink U.S. aircraft carriers. Their ballistic missiles can reach Guam. One worried expert noted recently that “A 2018 congressionally mandated assessment warned that America could face a ‘decisive military defeat’ in a war over Taiwan, citing China’s increasingly advanced capabilities and myriad U.S. logistical difficulties. Several top former U.S. defense officials have reached similar conclusions.” War with China over Taiwan would be difficult even in the best of circumstances. But with the Pentagon distracted by Ukraine and the U.S. economy sliding into recession and bedeviled by inflation, a war now could be devastating domestically.
4. China is learning from Russia’s mistakes and knows that Taiwan isn’t nearly as well defended as Ukraine is. Ferguson quotes Chris Coons: “One school of thought is that the lesson is ‘go early and go strong’ before there is time to strengthen Taiwan’s defenses. And we may be heading to an earlier confrontation — more a squeeze than an invasion — than we thought.”
Add all of that up and you have a ready answer to those demanding that we call China’s bluff: What if they’re not bluffing? Is the risk of conflict between nuclear superpowers at a precarious moment worth absorbing to win a staring contest over a CODEL?
Frida Ghitis notes that Pelosi was supposed to travel to Taiwan earlier this year but ended up having to postpone her trip when she caught COVID. Beijing was annoyed at the time but not furious like they are now, which probably has to do with the fact that Xi’s “reelection” as leader by the congress of the Chinese Communist Party is coming up in November. For Pelosi to flout him by visiting Taiwan with that event just a few months away risks humiliating him. He may feel he has no choice but to do something rash to project strength.
Ghitis proposes a compromise in which Pelosi follows through on the Taiwan visit — but later, after Xi’s “reelection.” If she postponed her visit once, she can do it again. Another possibility would be to meet Taiwan’s leader on this trip but not in Taiwan itself, rather in some allied country like Japan. The juice from visiting Taiwan itself right now seems like it’s not worth the squeeze, especially when we’re already squeezed in numerous ways here at home.