The crisis sparked by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s potential visit to Taiwan misses a key point, experts say: that the real focus should be on how the United States and China manage their differences so the risks of confrontation don’t spiral out of control.
News of a possible visit by Pelosi has set off intense speculation about China’s potential diplomatic and military responses. But for Taiwan, the visit — if it occurs — would be merely the latest point of strife in an already tense situation that has shadowed the island democracy for decades.
“The main point is not in Pelosi coming to Taiwan, but it’s to look at how the U.S. and China effectively control the risks that may arise,” said Arthur Zhin-Sheng Wang, a defense studies expert at Taiwan’s Central Police University.
Wang said that Thursday’s call between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping was an example of how the two sides can manage their differences through dialogue. The fact that it occurred amid the debate over Pelosi visiting Taiwan was a sign of at least a “basic level of mutual understanding,” he said.
Taiwan, meanwhile, has continued to strike a balance between the two superpowers mainly by keeping quiet, even as tensions have risen.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen “has done everything possible to avoid unnecessary provocations while maintaining the integrity of Taiwan’s democracy,” said Vincent Chao, a former director of the political division of Taiwan’s representative office in Washington, D.C.
If her trips goes ahead, Pelosi would be the highest-ranking elected U.S. official to visit Taiwan since Newt Gingrich went there more than 25 years ago.
Experts in Taiwan say they do not expect China to respond with direct military confrontation and that it is important to view the potential visit in context.
“This is not an unnecessary provocation. This is keeping with the precedent that has been established with the U.S. and Taiwan,” Chao said.
For Taiwan’s diplomatically isolated government, any exchange with a foreign political leader is seen as positive.
“We are very grateful to Speaker Pelosi, who has been very supportive and friendly to Taiwan for many years, and we would welcome any friendly foreign guest to visit,” Taiwan’s premier Su Tseng-chang said Wednesday.
China has continued to silence Taiwan on the global stage, opposing all official exchanges between the island and other governments. It has poached Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, including many small island nations, offering them access to Beijing’s resources and support. And China threatens governments that send official visitors to Taiwan, as it has done with France, Lithuania and the European Union, among others.
Pelosi’s visit is no more threatening than Biden’s comments that the U.S. has a military commitment to defend Taiwan, said Natasha Kassam, director of the public opinion and foreign policy program at the Lowy Institute in Australia. Biden has said as much three times, even though U.S. law and policy are more ambiguous. The remarks drew a strong condemnation from Beijing but no military action.
Experts say just months ahead of China’s all-important 20th Party Congress in the fall in which Xi is expected to assume a third term as leader of the Party and country, China is unlikely to make any destabilizing moves.
“China will punish Taiwan primarily through intimidation,” said Kuo Yu-jen, a defense studies expert at the Institute for National Policy Research in Taiwan, citing a past instance when China fired missiles at ports on the island during the 1995-1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis.
Not all Taiwanese people support Pelosi’s visit, and she is not a household name in the same way that former President Donald Trump or Biden are.
On a balmy Friday morning in the island’s capital city, tourists and families strolling around Da’an park said they did not feel any threat of war.
Kelly Chou, a Taichung resident visiting Taipei for a vacation, said she hadn’t felt any tensions over the possibility of China attacking Taiwan.
“I saw the news, but I don’t think there would actually be any military movement,” Chou said. “I think for them to actually invade, there’s nothing good to come out of it. It will be bad for both sides.”
Chou is not supportive of a Pelosi visit, saying it would “cause more trouble and raise a dispute.”
A 76-year-old Taipei resident who gave only his last name, Su, said Pelosi’s visit would offer “symbolic support.”
“But in actuality, whether Taiwan will derive some good out of this, it’s a big question,” he said.
China’s assertiveness toward Taiwan has increased in recent years, with the People’s Liberation Army regularly flying military planes toward the island. China has also sought to punish Taiwan through economic measures, for instance by banning the island’s pineapple and grouper exports to China.
A visit by Pelosi would likely cause short term strain, said Wang, the defense studies expert, but he dismissed aggressive threats from China’s nationalistic circles, including from Hu Xijin, a former editor at the state newspaper Global Times.
This week, as Taiwan held annual military drills to train for a potential Chinese invasion, Japan’s military said it spotted a Chinese reconnaissance drone flying in international waters off Taiwan’s eastern coast on Monday.
The military risks are real, experts say, but unlikely to rise to the level of war.
“The intense speculation from everyone is indicative of the way that Taiwan is being tossed around like a political football, and quite unhelpful,” said Kassam of the Lowy Institute.