Pelosi and Taiwan: the players, the stakes and the consequences

Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, is leading a congressional delegation on a tour of the Indo-Pacific. The world is waiting to see whether she will visit Taiwan, with some reports suggesting she may do so as early as tonight. In protocol terms, such a visit would be the most senior visit since then-speaker Newt Gingrich visited the island in 1997. Three of ASPI’s China experts, Samantha Hoffman, Yvonne Lau and Alex Bristow, analyse the players, stakes and potential consequences of such a visit.

For context, Taiwan (formerly called Formosa) was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945, following its annexation from Qing dynasty China. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Taiwan was handed to the ruling party of China, the KMT, also known as the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek. It was China under the leadership of Chiang that was made one of the five permanent United Nations Security Council members.

In 1949, Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party took power across mainland China, and Chiang’s Nationalists fled to Taiwan with around two million people, shifting the capital of the Republic of China from the mainland to Taipei. The island has been a crucible for potential great-power conflict since the US Navy ‘neutralised’ the Taiwan Strait in 1950, protecting the Nationalist government and preventing the CCP from incorporating Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China.

Both Chiang’s ROC and Mao’s PRC supported ‘one China’, with both claiming to be the legitimate government of the mainland and Taiwan. The ROC maintained China’s permanent UN Security Council seat until 1971 when a General Assembly vote transferred the seat to the PRC. In 1979, the US recognised the PRC as the sole legal government of China but did not recognise the CCP’s sovereignty over Taiwan; instead, it ‘acknowledged’ China’s position that Taiwan was part of China.

Similarly, Australia has a ‘one-China policy’ in which it acknowledges the PRC’s position. Australia doesn’t recognise the ROC as a sovereign state and dealings between Taiwanese and Australian government officials are unofficial.

For its part, Taiwan’s government hasn’t dropped its own ‘one China’ approach and has never declared independence. Taiwan has continued to democratise and held its first presidential election in 1996. The Nationalists remain a major political party, and Taiwan is currently ruled by the Democratic Progressive Party.

The compromise has established a status quo—but under President Xi Jinping, China is openly committed to what it refers to as ‘reunification’, preferably through peaceful means but by force if necessary. It’s important to understand that while reunification is a term used by the PRC, Taiwan has never been ruled by communist China.

Should Pelosi go ahead with the visit and is the US administration’s stance correct?

Samantha: Decades of effort to maintain ‘strategic ambiguity’ has, in my view, only helped Beijing politically and weakened US capacity to push back against Chinese aggressiveness towards Taiwan. Yes, Pelosi should visit, but the leak of the planned visit and President Joe Biden’s response have only empowered China and made the administration appear weak on Taiwan. The White House probably would have been better staying out of this, reflecting the constitutional separation of the executive and legislature, rather than give the impression of an internal dispute.

Yvonne: Pelosi going ahead with the visit will be a concrete action to demonstrate US support of Taiwan. The context is important. Many believed Biden was deliberately signalling a stronger approach to China during his trip to the region in May, answering ‘yes’ when asked whether the US was willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan. The White House promptly clarified that the US policy of strategic ambiguity hadn’t changed, and its work behind the scenes to dissuade Pelosi has exacerbated the impression that the Biden administration is confused about its Taiwan stance. China will likely view this internal dispute as a sign of weakness and question US commitment.

Alex: I agree Pelosi should go. To reverse course now would be seen as kowtowing to Chinese coercion and encourage China to repeat its tactic whenever any high-profile figure considers travelling to Taiwan. But I take a more charitable view of strategic ambiguity, which I think has been a pragmatic response to unique circumstances—dissuading Taiwan from declaring independence, while providing sufficient deterrence so that China has not risked invasion, at least not yet. On that basis, I think it was right for the White House to maintain a more measured tone than Beijing after last week’s Biden–Xi phone call, reiterating that US policy has not changed and the US continues to oppose any unilateral attempt to change the status quo. But whatever our opinion of strategic ambiguity, the vignette of a tussle between the White House and Pelosi is certainly unhelpful.

How might China react and what are its aims?

Samantha: China has little choice other than to show a strong reaction. At a minimum, this will include propaganda and diplomatic messaging. But there is a risk of a disproportionate response because Xi is facing political pressures at home. I don’t think Beijing will choose to start a war now, but the aggressive military posturing that we’re already seeing increases the risk of inadvertent escalation.

Yvonne: China will certainly react. From its point of view, Beijing must impose a cost on Taiwan and the US, demonstrate its power and resolution to the world, and satisfy nationalistic clamour at home. Further coercive measures to constrain Taiwan’s space to engage internationally are probable. More concerning, perhaps, are potential military actions, which might include incursions by People’s Liberation Army Air Force planes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone or further live-fire drills. The West risks misinterpreting Xi’s intentions if we unpack them through our framework for rational decision-making. Xi is focused on the long-term goal of what he calls ‘reunification’.

Alex: Beijing has painted itself into a corner, raising expectations for an unprecedented response through shrill rhetoric, including the threat that ‘those who play with fire will perish by it’. It’s worth recalling some recent benchmarks: former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott’s visit to Taiwan in October prompted PLAAF incursions, and former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s visit in March was disrupted by widespread power outages, highlighting the risk of a hybrid attack that Beijing could deny involvement in. Even if Pelosi’s visit is stage-managed to downplay its significance—for instance, if she just makes a quick, ‘informal’ stopover, reflecting the fact that Taipei is not on her official itinerary, and doesn’t make a speech—I still expect Beijing to respond in a more robust fashion than it has before.

What does this all mean for Taiwan?

Samantha: Domestically in Taiwan this visit only became a topic of conversation very recently; most of the coverage to date is in foreign media. The Taiwanese people would generally welcome Pelosi’s visit, especially against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For Taiwan, China’s increasingly aggressive posturing and mid-term plans to invade make US strategic ambiguity increasingly less helpful. The US needs to be clearer about its willingness to stand up for Taiwan. China’s systematic approach to political messaging puts it ahead of the US and allies that are hesitant to publicly state their positions. Handled right, Pelosi’s visit could have sent a clear deterrent signal to Beijing that would have been welcomed by Taiwan. But that opportunity has been largely missed.

Yvonne: It’s important to take note of Taiwanese views and opinions, which are often overlooked. In general, the Pelosi visit is viewed by the Taiwanese as a symbol of US support for the island. In the wake of the Ukraine invasion, Taiwan’s vulnerability means any form of support, whether political or military, is welcomed. While there are concerns about full-fledged military aggression from China, the Taiwanese generally perceive it as all talk and no action.

Alex: It’s surprising to me how little attention is given to Taiwanese perspectives. The framing of a battle of wills between Washington and Beijing is so compelling that we overlook the fact that Taiwan is not a bystander in this. Public views are mixed, but Chinese threats are such a part of everyday life in Taiwan that it’s understandable many seem nonplussed. Taiwan’s leaders need senior foreign figures to continue visiting the island to help fend off further isolation, but I don’t expect Taipei to talk up the significance of this visit in the way Beijing has. Looking ahead, this episode should reinforce the importance of Taiwan’s efforts to improve its defences—making itself as porcupine-like as possible, working with the US and learning the lessons of Ukraine.

What are the wider implications for Australia and the region?

Samantha: I don’t think this episode will produce a major shift in the status quo. But for Australia at least, it might reinforce the importance of developing power-projection capabilities and joint interoperability with US and allied forces in the region.

Yvonne: The region is watching. Whether Pelosi visits or not, Australia and others, including China, will draw conclusions about US commitment to the Indo-Pacific and its resilience to Chinese pressure. This episode will become another reference point for how the US deals with Chinese threats and intimidation, and how far Washington will go to support and defend Taiwan.

Alex: This is a quiet nightmare for Australia. In line with US strategic ambiguity, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has had to remain vague about potential Australian involvement in a conflict. And Australia risks being subjected to similar coercion in future, perhaps when a former PM like Abbott or Malcolm Turnbull next visits, even if the recent trip by the retired Liberal grandees Christopher Pyne and Kevin Andrews went largely under the radar.