It shouldn’t have taken courage to do what Nancy Pelosi did. Touching down in Taiwan, one of America’s key trading partners in the Pacific, as part of her swing through East Asia is justified on its merits. And yet, given the apoplexy her decision inspired among influential figures across the American political spectrum, Pelosi’s visit was commendably brave.
Almost from the moment the rumor began to circulate that Pelosi would make an appearance in Taipei, Chinese officials furiously pounded the table. “If the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives knowingly commits a sneaky visit to Taiwan, it will be a malicious provocation to China’s sovereignty,” the People’s Republic’s foreign minister declared. This “extremely dangerous” move would have profound consequences, and China would respond “resolutely.” Well, Pelosi went.
So, how has China responded so far? By halting the importation of Taiwanese fruit. We may yet see something more provocative—an increase in the PRC’s semi-regular intrusions into Taiwanese airspace, firing missiles into the Strait, or even the harassment of U.S. citizens and assets—but China’s response so far has been reassuringly calibrated.
Indeed, this is a rational response to what amounts to a diplomatic row. Pelosi’s trip does not alter the status quo in the region. It doesn’t make a declaration of Taiwanese independence, to which Beijing would respond with force, more or less likely. It doesn’t threaten China’s strategic interests, and it is not the reason that American officials increasingly believe China is likely to act against the island nation within a decade. It’s not even unprecedented; House Speaker Newt Gingrich also traveled to Taiwan in 1997. But to hear opponents of Pelosi’s visit talk about it, you would think she lit a historic fuse.
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman savaged Pelosi’s “utterly reckless, dangerous, and irresponsible” sojourn. He warned that America’s allies would bolt “if there is a U.S. conflict with China over Taiwan, triggered by this unnecessary visit,” adding that the speaker had jeopardized American interests in Europe by making Chinese material support for Russian ambitions more likely. The Washington Post editorial board chided Pelosi over the “unwise” decision, which (somehow) scrambles the Biden administration’s carefully calculated approach to relations with Beijing. The Boston Globe accused the Speaker of selfishly signaling her “toughness” at the expense of U.S. interests. Why, they ask, “would she run the risk of giving China an excuse to nudge the two nations further toward the brink of military conflict?”
Some more ideologically pacifist voices were just as terrified of the consequences Pelosi invited. “The [People’s Liberation Army] has repeatedly warned that their fighter jets are ready to follow, intercept, electronically interfere, force a landing, or drive Pelosi’s plane back,” the journalist Danny Haiphong warned. “This is not a drill. Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan is a dangerous war provocation.” The congressional delegation is “such a bad idea it’s hard to know where to begin criticizing it,” said the Quincy Institute’s Michael D. Swaine. “It will drastically increase the chance of a crisis—even conflict—with China to no good end.”
The president himself initially claimed that “the military thinks it’s not a good idea” for Pelosi to make the trip, and reports indicate that the White House privately discouraged her from courting “the potential risks” of such a visit.
Though it takes less political courage to defy them, a few right-leaning figures and institutions joined in the chorus of condemnation. “Pelosi’s trip is needless and reckless, with obvious downsides and no clear upside,” Reason’s Bonnie Kristain wrote. “In fact, the best possible result of this visit is maintenance of the status quo.” Preserving the status quo in the Pacific from Chinese revisionism is, in fact, a worthy goal and a crucial American strategic objective. “Why is Crazy Nancy Pelosi in Taiwan,” former President Donald Trump wrote with his signature crassness. “Always causing trouble. Nothing she does turns out well.” Even Mitt Romney called the trip “ill-advised,” in part because it could convince China to take a more active role in the Ukraine crisis.
The frequency with which critics of Pelosi’s trip bring up the war in Europe is revealing—possibly of intelligence indicating Beijing’s willingness to provide material support to Russia, or perhaps of the psychological clarity that accompanies the realization that nations do still fight terrible conventional wars over territory. If, however, China escalated in this or some other way, the escalation would be China’s alone. China’s slowing economic growth, its growing diplomatic isolation, and the insecurity of its aging, permanent leadership are troubling. The People’s Republic has a growing tolerance for risk as it perceives its inevitable ascendance to global hegemony slipping away. Beijing may yet do something reckless that it, and the world, will regret.
But Pelosi isn’t going to make them do it. Indeed, affirming American support for Taiwan and its commitment to keep the globe’s navigable maritime trade routes open—by force, if necessary—is the only thing that might stay China’s hand. The speaker deserves credit for contributing to that vital strategic imperative.