Brinksmanship: Yes, Pelosi is going to Taiwan, reports CNN

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

This is a legacy play, of course. The probability that Pelosi is in her final months as Speaker approaches 100 percent. The probability that she’s in her final months as a congresswoman isn’t much lower. She’s 82; there’s no reason for her to stick around and lead a rump Democratic minority next year.

So she’s going out with a bang — metaphorically, not literally. Hopefully.

Jazz wrote earlier about the likelihood that she’ll add a stop in Taiwan to her swing through the Far East. CNN says it now has confirmation from sources on the ground in Taipei. Buckle up.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to visit Taiwan as part of her tour of Asia, according to a senior Taiwanese government official and a US official, despite warnings from Biden administration officials, who are worried about China’s response to such a high-profile visit…

The Taiwanese official added that she is expected to stay in Taiwan overnight. It is unclear when exactly Pelosi will land in Taipei…

Administration officials have worked over recent weeks to apprise the House speaker of the risks of visiting the democratic, self-governing island of 24 million residents, including in briefings from Pentagon and other administration officials. But Biden did not believe it was his place to tell her she should not go, and he has avoided commenting publicly about her trip since his initial statement on July 21…

Officials also believe the Chinese leadership doesn’t completely grasp the political dynamics in the United States, leading to a misunderstanding over the significance of Pelosi’s potential visit. The officials say China may be confusing Pelosi’s visit with an official administration visit, since she and Biden are both Democrats. Administration officials are concerned that China doesn’t separate Pelosi from Biden much, if at all.

Misunderstandings between nuclear powers: Never a good thing.

I said my piece about this in a post on Saturday. Pelosi’s visit has now become a pure test of prestige between the two powers. China says she can’t go, the United States says it doesn’t take orders from China, and now the onus is on Beijing to prove that there are consequences for America when defying it within its “sphere of influence.” There will be a reprisal here; the question is simply how reckless it’ll be.

My squishy proposal on Saturday was to compromise. Pelosi should go — but not yet. The Chinese appear to be sensitive to the timing, as the visit is happening just a few months before Xi Jinping is reelected supreme leader by the CCP Congress. Xi can’t afford to look weak by letting the Americans blow off his threats in that context, which raises the risk of war. The obvious move is to wait until after Xi gets another term and then have Pelosi visit Taiwan — maybe in December, after the midterms, as part of her farewell tour from public service. The Chinese might not even care much at that point, knowing that she’ll soon be out of power.

At NRO, Jim Geraghty makes the hawkish case that the visit should proceed as scheduled: “Otherwise, backing down communicates to China that if it rattles the saber enough, it can veto what our political leaders do.” Agreed. Having announced her intention to go, Pelosi can’t cancel altogether without it amounting to a capitulation by the United States. But Peter Beinart makes a dovish counterpoint that I made in my own post two days ago, that the risk from the trip now grossly exceeds any potential reward. This isn’t a case of the Secretary of State flying into the region to meet with allies in the midst of some urgent crisis. Pelosi’s visit is unnecessary, strictly speaking. It’s a thumb in China’s eye just to show that we’re willing and able to do it. “Had Pelosi not said she was going to Taiwan in the first place, no one would be suggesting she needed to go in order bolster American credibility in Asia,” says Beinart.

Is that trip worth a war that could turn nuclear in a worst-case scenario? Is it worth a conventional war that the U.S. military would likely lose, elevating China to the status of global superpower? Is it worth a “mere” economic war that would cripple U.S. supply chains in the midst of already historic inflation?

Taiwanese media reports that the government there has canceled scheduled leave for some soldiers and put the country’s air force on a war footing. That’s a high price for a nonessential diplomatic visit.

Beinart also makes the point that this isn’t a simple case of China deciding that diplomatic gestures that used to be tolerable (Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan as Speaker in 1997) no longer are. The U.S. has gotten more aggressive about Taiwanese independence in the last few years as popular opinion towards China has soured post-COVID. For instance, Biden has stated numerous times offhandedly that the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s aid in a conflict, departing from the official policy of strategic ambiguity. “In 2020, Democrats removed the phrase ‘one China’ from their platform. In January 2021, Biden became the first US president since 1978 to host Taiwan’s envoy at his inauguration. Then, last April, his administration declared it was relaxing decades-old limitations on official US interactions with the Taiwanese government,” Beinart writes. None of that is to say that China has a legitimate claim to Taiwan, of course, only that they may view Pelosi’s visit as just the latest move in a broader U.S. campaign to use Taiwan to erode their prestige. Which means they may be more serious about enforcing their red lines this time than we expect.

A few days ago two China experts (one of whom worked for George W. Bush) warned readers in an op-ed that “we are sleepwalking into a crisis” by having Pelosi follow through on her trip.

Some members of Congress are pressing ahead with the Taiwan Policy Act, which would redefine the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, providing funding for Taiwan’s arms purchases, raising Taiwan to the status of a “major non-NATO ally,” and taking other steps to upgrade recognition of Taiwan’s government. Beijing interprets these as violations of longstanding U.S. pledges made to China.

In our conversations with Chinese experts, the accumulation of these perceived changes in the U.S. position has led some of them to argue that China needs to take steps to make its red lines credible.

Chinese leaders would want to avoid war with the United States, but might be willing to risk an escalation such as challenging Ms. Pelosi’s plane or flying military aircraft directly over Taiwan for the first time. Inadvertent escalation would be a real risk.

They also believe Pelosi should postpone her visit, at least to give the White House time to clarify America’s Taiwan policy — ideally by emphasizing peaceful resolution of the dispute between Beijing and Taipei. But oh well. Damn the torpedoes; it’s full speed ahead.