The story so far: On August 3, United States House Speaker and senior Democratic Party politician Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. In Taipei, Ms. Pelosi held talks with President Tsai Ing-wen, addressed the legislature, and received a civilian honour. The trip was the highest-level visit from the U.S. to Taiwan in 25 years. China, which had publicly warned the U.S. against going ahead with it, saying it would violate commitments under the ‘One China Policy’, has since responded with diplomatic, military and economic measures.
Why did the U.S. House Speaker visit Taiwan?
Speaking in Taipei, Ms. Pelosi said her visit was focussed on three issues: human rights, trade and security. Ms. Pelosi also wanted to send a message of solidarity with Taiwan. She said the world “faces a choice between democracy and autocracy” and the visit was aimed at expressing that “America’s determination to preserve democracy in Taiwan and in the world remains iron-clad”. Ms. Pelosi has previously spoken out about human rights issues involving China in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and the visit, by most accounts, has been driven by the House Speaker rather than by the administration. Taiwan has welcomed this rare high-level visit as a boost to its global standing, although the White House and U.S. military were far from enthusiastic about the visit, expecting repercussions on relations with China. U.S. President Joe Biden said last month the visit was “not a good idea”, but added that the decision to visit was entirely Ms. Pelosi’s. However, as she was a representative of a different branch of government (the legislature), the White House (representing the executive) could not intervene.
Why did China oppose the visit?
Members of the U.S. Congress — Ms. Pelosi is currently Speaker of the House of Representatives — have previously visited Taiwan, although Ms. Pelosi is the first Speaker, and thus highest-level visitor, since 1997. While U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken argued that this suggested there was “precedent” for the visit, China has seen it as an attempt by the U.S. to change the status quo as far as its ‘One China Policy’ is concerned. In Beijing’s view, Ms. Pelosi’s visit is the latest of a number of moves, going back to the previous Trump administration, aimed at “hollowing out” and redefining the ‘One China Policy’. Hence, the robust response from China.
Does the visit violate the ‘One China Policy’?
The answer depends on how the ‘One China Policy’ is interpreted, and both sides have clearly done so differently. The joint communique that established diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China in 1979 declared that “the United States of America recognises the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China”. Since the establishment of relations with China, the U.S. no longer has formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan under the ‘One China Policy’. Within this context, the very first paragraph of the communique adds, “the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.”
China has seen Ms. Pelosi’s visit as a political one and thus as a violation of this communique, which it has described as the very foundations of the relationship. Beijing has pointed to her status as House Speaker and second in line to the presidency after the Vice President. The U.S. argument is that Ms. Pelosi does not represent the executive branch — the White House, Cabinet and federal agencies — that has continued to abide by the policy and eschewed high-level political engagement with Taiwan. Beijing, however, has rejected that argument, pointing out that the U.S. cannot have multiple foreign policies. It also rejected the “precedent” argument saying that past visits were also violations.
How has China responded?
The most significant response so far has been the holding of unprecedented live-firing military drills in six regions surrounding Taiwan. The four-day exercises, which began a day after Ms. Pelosi’s visit on August 4, have essentially blockaded Taiwan’s waters and airspace, and marked a number of firsts, such as the crossing of the median line of the Taiwan Strait by a large number of warships and aircraft, and the firing of conventional missiles over the island of Taiwan into waters to the east. Chinese analysts have said the drills were aimed at signalling a new normal in China’s military activities around Taiwan, as well as simulating a future blockade and thus sending a message both to Taiwan and the U.S. Ships and flights were barred from entering the zones.
The broader messaging is to the domestic audience in China, some of whom last week raised questions of the government on social media asking why its public warnings had failed to deter Ms. Pelosi from going ahead with the visit. In addition to the military measures, China has so far put in place modest economic curbs such as barring more than 100 Taiwanese exporters, and a suspension of fish, fruit and sand imports, which account for a small portion of two-way trade. Measures have not, so far, targeted the main drivers of bilateral trade, including semiconductors, for which Chinese companies are dependent on Taiwan, while for Taiwan, China is by far the biggest export market, accounting for 42% of its total exports last year.
What will be the visit’s impact on China-U.S. relations?
On August 5, China announced it will cancel or suspend eight key dialogue mechanisms with the U.S. With the cancellation of three key bilateral military dialogue mechanisms — a Theatre Commanders meet, Defence Policy Coordination Talks, and talks under the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) — observers fear growing military tensions, particularly with China’s new exercises taking place closer to Taiwan. Beijing has also suspended bilateral talks on climate change, repatriation of illegal immigrants, legal assistance in criminal matters, transnational crimes, and counter-narcotics. An extended period of tense relations is in store both between China and the U.S. and across the Taiwan Strait.
- Speaking in Taipei, Nancy Pelosi said her visit was focussed on three issues: human rights, trade and security. Ms. Pelosi also wanted to send a message of solidarity with Taiwan.
- While U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken argued that this suggested there was “precedent” for the visit, China has seen it as an attempt by the U.S. to change the status quo as far as its ‘One China Policy’ is concerned.
- China has seen Nancy Pelosi’s visit as a political one and thus as a violation of this communique, which it has described as the very foundations of the relationship.