Tensions, risk of miscalculation heightened after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan

two masked women walking with a crowd of masked men and women behind them
In this photo released by the Taiwan Presidential Office, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, left, and Taiwanese President President Tsai Ing-wen arrive for a meeting in Taipei, Taiwan. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meeting top officials in Taiwan despite warnings from China, said Wednesday that she and other congressional leaders in a visiting delegation are showing they will not abandon their commitment to the self-governing island. Taiwan Presidential Office via AP

Despite stern warnings from Beijing, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan on Tuesday and left Wednesday afternoon, marking the first visit by a high-ranking U.S. official in the Chinese-claimed territory in more than two decades. 

Pelosi’s visit highlighted just how strained U.S.-China relations are over Beijing’s growing authoritarian influence in Asia and its insistence on the so-called “One China” principle, which, simply stated, refers to the People’s Republic of China’s claim over Taiwanese sovereignty.

Military activity above Chinese and Taiwanese airspace increased dramatically during the visit, with China flexing its might through “highly choreographed” drills designed to send a clear message to its Western adversary, says Philip Thai, associate history professor and director of the Asian Studies Program at Northeastern. That Pelosi carried out the diplomatic trip as a show of solidarity with the island democracy is yet another example of the U.S. pushing back against China’s influence, Thai says. 

“I think what her visit reminds us of is the asymmetry of interests between the U.S. and China over the Taiwan question,” Thai says. “It’s certainly not the most important issue [Taiwan] in the foreign policy agenda of the U.S. But for China, it is a core issue.” 

Taiwan transitioned in the late 1980s and early 1990s from authoritarian rule to representative democracy and has had a track record of clean elections and civil rights protections. It currently ranks as the eighth strongest democracy in the world, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

headshot of philip thai outside
Northeastern Director of the Asian Studies Program and Associate Professor of Asian Studies Philip Thai poses for a portrait in ISEC Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“From the perspective of many ordinary Taiwanese people, there is something to be said about an international leader recognizing the democratic values of their island,” Thai says. 

The U.S. military warned President Joe Biden that Pelosi’s visit would be ill-timed amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and China but, according to the New York Times, Biden declined to ask her to cancel her trip “out of respect for the independence of Congress.” 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in anticipation of the visit, deflected concerns on Tuesday, suggesting that any escalation on the part of Beijing would be self-made. 

“If the speaker does decide to visit, and China tries to create some kind of crisis or otherwise escalate tensions, that would be entirely on Beijing,” he said. 

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Stephen Flynn, director of the Global Resilience Institute. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Pelosi wrote about the visit in an op-ed published in the Washington Post on Tuesday, saying her delegation’s visit will focus on “reaffirming our support for the island and promoting our shared interests, including advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

“In the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s accelerating aggression, our congressional delegation’s visit should be seen as an unequivocal statement that America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, as it defends itself and its freedom,” Pelosi wrote. 

Stephen Flynn, founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern, says he doesn’t believe China is committed to escalating militarily based on Pelosi’s trip alone. But, against the backdrop of Russia’s war with Ukraine, the inflamed tensions will no doubt put the international community in a state of heightened alarm, especially now that Europe is becoming increasingly dependent on Chinese exports, he says. 

“Europe is already a bit back on its heels, and doesn’t need to get into an adversarial relationship with China as they’re already wrestling with the fallout from the Russia-Ukraine war,” Flynn says. 

It’s clear, however, that China has communicated that Taiwan is a red line not to be crossed by the U.S., he says. 

“What we’re seeing are rather significant military exercises, probably the most significant they’ve had in 25 years,” Flynn says. “One risk with that is, of course, miscalculation.”

The question now becomes, will such diplomatic visits continue in the face of international provocation? The U.S. has maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” as it relates to Taiwan, meaning it may or may not respond to an attack by the Chinese military on the island nation—although Biden has signaled the U.S. might. 

“Is this visit going to be followed up with a substantive change in American foreign policy?” Thai says. “What exactly is the American position?” 

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