At 82 years old, the president of the House of Representatives of the United States Congress, Nancy Pelosi, is leading a geopolitical escalation between the two main powers of the world and everyone wonders: why?
Pelosi arrived in Taiwan on Tuesday as part of her tour of Asia, a trip previously confirmed by a senior Taiwanese government official and a US official. The trip was not on Pelosi’s public itinerary, and it comes at a time when US-China relations are at a low point.
It is the first time in 25 years that a speaker of the House of Representatives has visited Taiwan, a self-ruled island that is considered a rogue province by the People’s Republic of China. Republican Newt Gingrich was the last to do so, in 1997.
Why did Nancy Pelosi decide to visit Taiwan despite China’s warnings?
The conflict between China (official name People’s Republic of China) and Taiwan (official name Republic of China) dates back to 1949, when Mao Zedong’s communist forces triumphed in the civil war against Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists, who went into exile in the island of Taiwan. Since then, Taipei and Beijing have recognized the existence of a single country to be reunited — the “one China” principle — but disagreed over who is the legitimate authority.
Currently, Taiwan has only limited recognition in the international community, although this was not always the case. The United States, which does not currently recognize the island as an independent country and adheres to the “one China” principle, maintains a very good political and defensive relationship with the government in Taipei, which it recognized as legitimate in China until 1979, when it became recognize the government in Beijing.
China’s warnings about traveling to Taiwan
The leak of Pelosi’s visit had prompted warnings from China about the “appalling” political consequences this would entail for relations with the United States. Beijing also said its military “will not sit idly by.”
“The ‘one China’ principle is the universal consensus of the international community, the political basis for China’s exchanges with other countries, the core of China’s interests, and an unquestionable red line and end result,” he said on Tuesday. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in a statement.
“Some politicians in the US only care about their own interests, openly play with fire on the Taiwan issue, and make enemies of the 1.4 billion Chinese people, which will never end well,” Wang added.
Chinese President Xi Jinping warned the United States on Thursday not to “play with fire” on the Taiwan issue, during a lengthy phone call with US President Joe Biden.
There is recent history of this type of visit: in June 2021 a group of US senators flew to Taiwan on a military plane to announce a major donation of vaccines against covid-19, and the trip was also seen by Beijing as a provocation.
Why, then, did Nancy Pelosi insist on this trip?
The visit goes beyond Taiwan and will take place, if it comes to fruition, in the broader context of China’s growing challenge to America’s determination to preserve democracy, Western values, and military and economic primacy in the Pacific and around the world.
The relationship between the United States and China, the two largest economic powers in the world, is at a very low point, with regular geopolitical tensions in the Pacific Ocean amid a growing commercial and strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing that reaches the entire world.
It would have been politically unfeasible, for strategic reasons and because of the US’s position in the world, for Pelosi to backtrack on her visit to Taiwan just because of Beijing’s warnings, Collinson argues. Even more so considering that Pelosi has defined her political career, at least in part, based on the confrontation with China.
In the past, Pelosi has denounced Beijing’s human rights record and met with pro-democracy dissidents and the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibet’s spiritual leader who remains a thorn in the side of the Chinese government.
In 1991, Pelosi even unfurled a banner in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to commemorate the victims of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters. More recently, he expressed support for the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
The current situation also affects President Biden, who although he publicly admitted that the United States Armed Forces were concerned about the repercussions of the visit, he could not side with China and against Pelosi, who in addition to being an important member of the Legislative Power is part of the same party (Democratic).
Finally, the supporters of Pelosi’s visit, which unusually also include Republicans, believed that it is essential that the speaker of the House show support for Taiwan and ratify Washington’s commitment to defending the democratically governed island, says Collinson.
“Pelosi is the third public official in the line of succession after the president and vice president, I think the Chinese take her very seriously,” said Susan L. Shirk, president of the Center for 21st Century China at the University of California in San Diego.
“So she is a very important figure in American politics. She is different from an ordinary member of Congress.”
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