Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan Visit Inspired Immediate Controversy — Here’s Why

Nancy Pelosi

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The House speaker landed in Taipei on Tuesday evening.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan on Tuesday evening in a controversial show of support for an island whose democratic freedom has been increasingly threatened by China in recent years. Her visit to Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, marks the first time a House speaker has visited the territory in 25 years — and according to CNN, Pelosi made the visit in spite of several warnings from the Biden administration.

Shortly after Pelosi landed, the Washington Post ran an op-ed written by the House speaker, in which she explained her decision to visit Taiwan. Pelosi referenced the Taiwan Relations Act, which was passed 43 years ago and established a legal framework for the United States’ longstanding commitment to an economic and diplomatic relationship with Taiwan. Pelosi went so far as to explicitly quote a specific section of that act, in which the United States promised to “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means…a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”

“America must remember that vow,” Pelosi wrote. “We must stand by Taiwan, which is an island of resilience… In the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 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’s decision to visit Taiwan has already inspired controversy — but now that she has clarified the intentions of this visit, it’s likely to become a major foreign policy topic for the indefinite future. Here’s why.

A timeline of Taiwan’s increasingly tense relationship with China

For decades now, China has been at odds with its neighbor, Taiwan, which is an island in the South China Sea and exists — for now — as an autonomous, democratic society. The relationship between China and Taiwan might seem very complicated, but the roots of the conflict are simple: The Chinese government believes that the island of Taiwan is a breakaway province and should eventually become part of China again, and the people of Taiwan disagree entirely, and instead believe they are their own nation.

The origins of this disagreement date way, way back in history — and, like most land disputes, there’s an element of truth to both sides of the argument. It’s true that the island of Taiwan appears in Chinese historical records as early as 239 AD, according to BBC, when a Chinese emperor sent an expedition to explore the territory.

It’s also true that the island became colonized under Dutch rule centuries later (1624-1661). Ming loyalists drove out the Dutch and established authority from 1662-1683. Then, the island was ruled by a Chinese dynasty called the Qing dynasty, which lasted until 1895. At this point, China ceded the territory of Taiwan to Japan following the Sino-Japanese War. Fifty years later, Japan gave the territory back to China following its defeat in World War Two.

From here, the story gets even more complicated, if you can believe it. To put it as simply as possible: A civil war in China led to the exile of a Chinese leader named Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to Taiwan along with his government and his followers in 1949. Ever since that event, the island of Taiwan has increasingly separated itself from the nation of China, creating its own constitution, its own democratically elected leaders, and even its own military force.

For a short period of time, relations between the two governments improved. In 1991, Taiwan claimed the war with China was over. Tensions quickly began to ratchet up again after that, though, when China proposed a “one country, two systems” rule, which would allow certain autonomy to Taiwan but also essentially force the island back under Chinese rule.

In the last several years, tensions between the two regions have continued to ratchet up, and up, and up. China has placed economic and military pressure on other world leaders to not recognize Taiwan, and as a result, only 13 countries recognize Taiwan as a legal country. Interestingly, the United States is not one of those countries but has continued to support Taiwan’s democratic freedom in other, indirect ways, such as the Taiwan Relations Act that Pelosi referenced in her op-ed.

It’s also worth noting that Taiwan has managed to create a name for itself as one of the top computer technology producers in the world, and as a result has managed to create unofficial diplomatic relations with a number of countries including France, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

Given this centuries-old battle over the sovereignty of this island, Pelosi’s visit, along with her explicit recognition of Taiwan’s democratic freedom in that op-ed, might lead to a sharp rise of tension between the United States and China, as well.

What China has said about Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan

As soon as Pelosi’s plane landed in Taiwan, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement condemning her decision. It claimed her visit “has a severe impact on the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and seriously infringes upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The statement went on to assert that Pelosi’s visit “sends a seriously wrong signal to the separatist forces for ‘Taiwan independence,’” and that China “has made serious démarche and strong protest to the United States” in response to this behavior.

Now, many critics are saying that Pelosi’s move will be disastrous for United States-China relations — but surprisingly, she’s also won support from across the aisle. A group of over 20 Senate Republicans issued a statement of support for Pelosi’s decision to visit Taiwan.

The statement reads in part, “We support Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan. For decades, members of the United States Congress, including previous Speakers of the House, have travelled to Taiwan. This travel is consistent with the United States’ One China policy to which we are committed. We are also committed now, more than ever, to all elements of the Taiwan Relations Act.”

As CNN notes, President Biden has not endorsed Pelosi’s visit, and the White House did relay concerns over the idea of a delegation visiting Taiwan. But at the same time, many have noted that Pelosi has every right, as the House Speaker, to make the decision to visit Taiwan, as many speakers have done before. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed this right in a statement on Monday, explaining, “Congress is an independent, coequal branch of government. The decision [to visit Taiwan] is entirely the speaker’s.”

Why Pelosi’s visit is so controversial — and potentially dangerous

The general history of tension between Taiwan and China likely gives you an idea of why it’s controversial to visit the small island. After all, China is a superpower in global politics, and to visit Taiwan is to directly risk facing China’s wrath. But the dynamics at play are actually much more complicated than that — and the stakes of this visit couldn’t be higher.

In an op-ed for The New York Times, historian, columnist, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Tom Friedman laid out these stakes as plainly as possible. “The timing could not be worse,” he wrote. “[Russia’s war with] Ukraine war is SO not over, SO not stable, SO not without dangerous surprises that can pop out on any given day. Yet in the middle of all of this we are going to risk a conflict with China over Taiwan, provoked by an arbitrary and frivolous visit by the speaker of the House? It is Geopolitics 101 that you don’t court a two-front war with the other two superpowers at the same time.”

Friedman also noted that there’s more than one way to show support for Taiwan and that Pelosi’s way might not be the smartest.

“Our goal should be to deter China from military endeavor on OUR schedule — which is forever,” Friedman wrote. “But the best way to do that is to arm Taiwan into what military analysts call a porcupine — bristling with so many missiles that China would never want to lay hands on it — while saying and doing as little as possible to provoke China into thinking that it MUST lay hands on it now. Pursuing anything else than that balanced approach would be an awful mistake, with vast and unpredictable consequences.”