On Tuesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan, becoming the first person of her rank to do so in nearly thirty years. Her trip was not officially approved by the Biden administration, but the president did not publicly discourage her from going. The Chinese government, which views the island as part of the People’s Republic of China, announced a series of military exercises in response. The US has a long-standing relationship with Taiwan, and is the main supplier of military equipment, but it maintains an official distance from the island to avoid angering China and provoking armed conflict. These fears have grown over the past decade as Chinese leaders have increasingly endorsed nationalist ideology, cracking down on protests against their rule in Hong Kong. (The US approach to Taiwan is often described as “strategic ambiguity”; it agrees that the PRC is the sole governing authority in China, but maintains an informal relationship with Taiwan.)
I recently spoke by phone with Shelley Rigger, a political science professor at Davidson College and the author of the books “Why Taiwan Matters” and “The Tiger Leading the Dragon: How Taiwan Propelled China’s Economic Rise.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the problems that Pelosi’s visit could cause for Taiwan, the division among Taiwanese over how to deal with an increasingly assertive China, and the lessons from the different sides of the Sino-Taiwan conflict has drawn from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
What did you make of Pelosi’s decision to visit?
The main takeaway from Pelosi’s visit is that it was ultimately about American domestic politics and the P.R.C. domestic politics, and Taiwan was the farmer caught in the middle. Initially, Pelosi’s goal was almost certainly to do some cheerleading for Taiwan, to show that the United States cares about it, that we’re watching, and that it’s an important friend and partner — that sort of thing. But once there was this testament between Pelosi and her team and Xi Jinping and his team, whether it was good for Taiwan or not fell apart, and it became strictly something that people in the United States and China were talking about, saying we have to do this because we cannot retreat. And I think that’s a real shame. It does not benefit Taiwan, probably harms Taiwan’s security, and it has ensured that US-China relations, which were already quite bad, are worse than they were before. We may have a much harder time recovering than we thought three weeks ago.
Based on what you just said, it seems that Pelosi should not have planned the visit at all, or that American politicians should not be trying to show support for Taiwan in this way. After China gets upset, there are reasons why American policymakers won’t just say, “O.K., you’re upset about it. We’re not going to do that.” The logical outcome is, well, don’t do it at all.
This is completely predictable. We know what’s going to happen if we get into a shoving match with the P.R.C. Unless American policymakers actually want to drive the most important diplomatic relationship of our time into the ground, they must be strategic and thoughtful about the costs and benefits of any particular course of action.
I am not opposed to US officials or politicians doing things that have actual benefits for Taiwan’s security. I am not against arms sales. I would have loved it if Pelosi, instead of going to Taiwan, had spent some time trying to convince her party that it is a good idea to actually set aside her will to oppose any trade deal and make some sort of trade deal with Taiwan, or even try to get the US back into a regional trade deal, like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. What Taiwan needs from the United States are concrete actions that improve its security and help it maintain a strong economy that can continue to support the cost of Taiwan’s security and also maintain the standard of living in Taiwan so that its people are enthusiastic about defending their democracy. .
The Pelosi visit to Taiwan was never a big deal. It was always a symbolic gesture; it was a proof of support. From the first moment they announced that it could happen, my question has been: What concrete benefit does Taiwan get from this support that outweighs the predictable response from the P.R.C.? I’ve never heard anyone try to express it. They used the slogan “We’re supporting Taiwan”, and when the P.R.C. pushed back, it became “Well, now we have to go, because Beijing is pushing back.” To me, it’s not strategic, it’s not rational, it’s not smart, and it’s not driven by national security expertise or thinking.
My understanding is that the Taiwanese government, and even those aspects of the opposition that are seen as pro-China, have broadly welcomed Pelosi and not criticized the visit, but maybe that’s because they’re in a pretty tough spot and they do it I don’t want to annoy the Americans. What do you read from the answer?
I don’t know if the Taiwanese encouraged the visit. Maybe they did. I haven’t seen any evidence that they did. The evidence I’ve seen suggests that the Pelosi team came up with this on their own. I had an email exchange last night with a colleague who said that when she was at the State Department, if a congressional delegation wanted to come to the country where you were stationed, they came. It was not an invitation, it was not a request; it was: “We’re coming.” Many countries feel that it is impossible to say no to an American delegation.
And definitely, Taiwan would be the last country in the world that would want to insult the US president in the House. House of Representatives approves arms sales to Taiwan. There is Taiwan-related legislation pending in Congress right now. You can’t say no. So whether or not they initiated or encouraged the visit, they spoke as little as possible about it. And the ruling representative of the Democratic Progressive Party (D.P.P.) in the United States gave quotes to the South China Morning Post that seem to me to show some reservations about this visit.
When it really blew up, Taiwan had no way to influence the outcome, and it became a show of strength by a determined American politician. We also know that the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House had reservations about the trip. This was the legislative branch taking action outside the policy and preferences of the executive branch and without any concrete evidence, that I have seen, of encouragement from the host government.
And what about the response of the Kuomintang (K.M.T.), which is the largest opposition party and favors closer ties with China than the D.P.P. do?
They are stuck in exactly the same position. The big push for K.M.T. in recent months has been rebuilding ties with the United States, because under the Ma Ying-jeou administration, from 2008 to 2016, the K.M.T. drifted away from the United States. There was a growing feeling in Washington that the K.M.T. just didn’t seem to care about this relationship. Earlier this summer, K.M.T. sent a representative, their likely presidential candidate who is also party leader, to Washington. They also try not to cross paths with the US government. Many members of the K.M.T. would be more likely to express some criticism of [Pelosis’] visit in normal times, but it’s difficult right now because no one in Taiwan wants to exacerbate the situation by adding a Taiwan angle to the US-China angle.
Has China’s current era of aggressive nationalism changed Taiwanese politics?
I think what has changed Taiwanese domestic politics or attitudes towards cross-strait relations to some extent are the trends you describe, but even more so, the domestic developments in the P.R.C. In the early 2000s, I held focus groups with young people in Taiwan on various political topics, including mainland China. One of the things that came out of these very strongly was that they thought about the P.R.C. as a kind of scary, but also a place with many opportunities, where you can go and develop your career. I did the same research again, in 2015, with focus groups of young people in Taiwan, and the picture was much darker. What really darkened the picture wasn’t “Well, they’re in the South China Sea” or anything like that. It was, “When you go to China, there’s all this surveillance. You have to do everything on the phone, from ordering food to buying a train ticket, and someone has all that information.” The state knows all about you, and there is a general feeling that you are not free in the P.R.C., even compared to fifteen years ago. True, the P.R.C. was not a free country fifteen years ago, but from the perspective of young Taiwanese people, it has become much worse. There are many Taiwanese who have been arrested, detained and subjected to these forms of detention where you are not completely in the legal system, so you can wait years for any kind of legal action. It’s just scary.