I’m not in the habit of saying that Nancy Pelosi is right. But if she wants to visit Taiwan next month as part of a congressional delegation to several countries in the Indo-Pacific, she really ought to go. Canceling the trip now would be a capitulation to tyranny.
Canceling now would mean that Congress buckled in the face of Chinese threats and the Biden administration wavering. It would establish the principle that Beijing has veto power over the travel plans of senior U.S. officials. It would tell the world that America is more interested in mollifying Xi Jinping than in supporting the democratically elected Tsai Ing-wen. It would be another example of self-deterrence, Biden-style. And America would be weakened.
Pelosi would be the first speaker of the House to visit Taiwan since Newt Gingrich in 1997. The Chinese Communist Party was no happier 25 years ago than they are today. Back then, the People’s Republic said that Gingrich’s support of Taiwan was “improper” and “contradictory.” China’s rhetoric has grown harsher as it has grown stronger. Earlier this year, when Pelosi first scheduled a visit in April, a Chinese government spokesman called it a “malicious provocation.” He pledged that China would respond “resolutely.” Then Pelosi got COVID. She had to cancel.
Last week the Financial Times reported that the trip was back on and rescheduled for August. Once more, the jackals in Beijing began to howl. The enslavers of Xinjiang, the oppressors of Hong Kong, the bullies of the Indo-Pacific acted as if they were the victims. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian threatened that China would “take determined and forceful measures to firmly safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The Chinese propaganda machine spoke forebodingly of consequences for the United States. A former editor of Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party’s version of Pravda, wrote of Pelosi, “If the U.S. can’t restrain her, let China restrain her & punish her.”
Punish her? Any hostile action taken against the speaker of the House of Representatives, no matter her party and no matter the circumstances, would be an act of war. Is China willing, much less prepared, to provoke armed conflict with the United States over a co-del? If so—and I doubt it—then China is itching for a fight and will ramp up its demands no matter what Pelosi decides.
If the visit does happen, China will respond for sure. But the cost it might impose on U.S.-China relations still will be less than the price of cancellation. Neither China nor the United States is prepared for a major confrontation. Better to take the hit to the relationship now than let Xi Jinping dictate Nancy Pelosi’s—or anyone else’s—itinerary.
As usual, President Biden is not helping. Asked about the controversy on July 20, he said that “The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now” and “I don’t know what the status of it is.” Thanks for letting the world know what the joint chiefs are telling you, Joe. And what a way to go to bat for a fellow Democrat. Another command performance.
Biden’s mention of his upcoming call with Xi—it took place on July 28—suggested that he doesn’t want Congress to get in the way of presidential diplomacy. That’s understandable. The elected branches always compete for foreign-policy influence and prestige. There probably ought to have been closer coordination between the speaker’s office and the White House. But once the visit became the object of China’s vitriol, the only sensible response was to close ranks and defend Pelosi’s right to travel where she pleases, when she pleases.
Why? Because China’s aim isn’t just to stop Pelosi. It wants gradually to isolate Taiwan by coercing the United States into abandoning a longtime ally. It wants to replace the United States as the preeminent power in the Indo-Pacific. Giving China what it wants now helps it achieve its goals. If Pelosi can’t visit Taiwan, then surely other U.S. officials will think twice before traveling there. And if Beijing calls the shots for Washington, D.C., why should other regional governments take us seriously?
The Washington Post editorial board is wrong to suggest that Pelosi postpone her visit until “the optimal moment.” There is no optimal moment. There are only moments when we decide to act and take responsibility. Does the Post believe that China would be any less angry at a Pelosi visit six months or a year from now? “Given the temptation for Mr. Xi to divert attention and bolster his own political standing by targeting Taiwan and the United States,” the editors write, “it’s smart not to give him any excuses.” Reading those words, I hear an echo of Barack Obama. As if Xi Jinping needs an excuse to further his evil designs. As if America and Pelosi are the problem, and not the despotic, expansionist, belligerent government in Beijing.
“Those who play with fire will perish by it,” Xi told Biden on Thursday, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. It’s a line Xi has used before. But who is playing with fire here? Pelosi, by following a precedent set by Newt Gingrich a quarter century ago? Or China, by trying to steamroll the speaker of the House? U.S. foreign policy works best when America acts boldly to create facts on the ground favorable to freedom. Which is why I am about to commit to print words I never thought I’d write: Go, Nancy, go!