I have a lot of respect for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. But if she does go on a visit to Taiwan this week against President Biden’s wishes, she will be reckless, risky and irresponsible.
Nothing good will come of it. As a result of this purely symbolic visit, Taiwan will not become safer and prosperous – but a lot of bad things can happen. For example, a Chinese military response is not ruled out, because of which the United States may be drawn into indirect conflicts with a nuclear Russia and a nuclear China at the same time.
And if you think that against China we will be supported by European allies who are already in a war for survival with Russia over Ukraine, then you are greatly mistaken about how the world works.
Let’s start with the indirect conflict with Russia and what Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has to do with it.
In international relations there are times when you need to look both ways. Today, the goal is crystal clear: we must ensure that Ukraine can at least blunt and at most reverse Vladimir Putin’s military campaign, which, if successful, will pose a direct threat to stability throughout the European Union.
To bolster Ukraine’s chances of reclaiming lost territory, Biden and his National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan held a series of extremely tough meetings with the Chinese leadership, imploring Beijing not to enter the Ukraine conflict or provide Russia with military assistance, especially now that Putin’s arsenal has been depleted in five years. months of hard fighting.
According to a senior US official, Biden personally threatened Xi Jinping that if China entered the conflict in Ukraine on the side of Russia, Beijing risked losing access to two of its most important export markets, the US and Europe. (China is one of the world leaders in the production of drones, which is what Putin’s troops need most right now.)
Apparently, US officials told me, China has denied military assistance to Putin, while the US and NATO have provided Ukraine with intelligence support and a significant amount of advanced weapons that have already severely damaged the military forces of Russia, supposedly China’s ally.
Given all this, why would the speaker of the House of Representatives visit Taiwan and deliberately provoke China right now? After all, the last American official to visit Taiwan was Newt Gingrich already in 1997, and then China was much weaker both economically and militarily.
In general, the moment for this is the most unfortunate. Dear reader! The conflict in Ukraine is far from over. And in private, U.S. officials worry more about the Ukrainian leadership than they might seem. There is a deep distrust between the White House and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, much more than has been claimed.
In addition, suspicious cases are going on in Kyiv. On July 17, Zelenskiy fired the prosecutor general and head of domestic intelligence in the biggest reshuffle in the Ukrainian government since the start of the Russian operation in February. It’s like Biden fired Attorney General Merrick Garland and CIA Director Bill Burns at the same time. And I still have not read a single article that convincingly explains the essence of these permutations. After everything we have invested there, we seem to be afraid, so to speak, to look under the hood of Kyiv, so that, God forbid, we do not find another corruption and new intrigues there (More on these risks another time).
Meanwhile, senior US officials remain convinced that Putin is quite willing to consider using limited nuclear weapons against Ukraine if he realizes that his army is about to fail.
In short, the Ukrainian conflict is not over, and the situation is precarious and full of dangerous surprises that can make themselves felt at any moment. And in this situation, are we going to risk a conflict with China because of an unmotivated and frivolous visit of the Speaker of the House of Representatives to Taiwan?
These are the basics of geopolitics: you cannot wage a war on two fronts with two superpowers at the same time.
Now let’s turn to the prospects for an indirect conflict with China and how Pelosi’s visit could trigger it.
During their phone call last week, Xi allegedly told Biden, alluding to U.S. involvement in Taiwan affairs and a possible visit by Pelosi, “Those who play with fire will get burned sooner or later,” according to Chinese outlets.
Biden’s national security team explained to Pelosi, a longtime human rights activist in China, why she shouldn’t travel to Taiwan under the circumstances. But the president did not personally call her and beg her not to go, probably so as not to appear weak in relation to Beijing (before the midterm elections, the Republicans will not forgive him for this).
The fact that a Democratic President cannot stop the Speaker of the House and a fellow party member from making a diplomatic move that his entire security team (from the CIA Director to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) considered unwise shows the extent of our political dysfunction.
Of course, there is also a counterargument: Biden should expose Xi’s bluff, support Pelosi to the fullest and threaten Beijing that if he continues to intimidate Taiwan, he will “burn himself.”
Well, maybe this will work. And for the whole day it will even give pride and self-confidence. Or maybe it will lead to the third world.
I think Taiwan should have just asked Pelosi not to come. I admire Taiwan, its economy and the democracy it built after World War II. I have been there many times over the past 30 years and have seen with my own eyes how much has changed – and how much.
But one thing hasn’t changed – geography!
Taiwan is still a tiny island of just 23 million people about 160 kilometers off the coast of the giant mainland China of 1.4 billion people who consider Taiwan part of their larger homeland. Those who forget their geography end badly.
Just please don’t mistake this for pacifism. I am convinced that it is our vital national interest to protect the Taiwanese democracy from an unprovoked Chinese invasion.
But if you come into conflict with Beijing, it is purely because of our problems and on our terms. And our problem is that China is becoming increasingly aggressive on a variety of fronts, from cyber intrusions to intellectual property theft and military maneuvers in the South China Sea.
However, now is not the time to tease Beijing, especially given the delicate moment in Chinese politics. This fall, Xi is expected to finally cement his role as permanent leader at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party. The CCP has always made it clear that the reunification of Taiwan and mainland China is its “historical task,” and since coming to power in 2012, Xi has steadily and sometimes even recklessly emphasized his commitment to this course with aggressive exercises around Taiwan.
Pelosi’s visit will give Xi an excuse to divert public attention from his own failures – a zero-tolerance policy for the coronavirus that is shutting down entire cities, a housing bubble that is about to burst and lead to a banking crisis, and a giant national debt due to immoderate support of the state industry.
I highly doubt that, under the circumstances, Taiwan’s leadership genuinely longs for Pelosi’s visit. Anyone who has followed the cautious behavior of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party will surely marvel at how consistently she has championed the island’s independence since 2016 without giving China a reason to move forward.
Alas, I fear that under Xi Jinping there is a growing consensus in China that the Taiwan issue can only be resolved by military means. And Beijing intends to start when it is convenient for him. Our goal is to keep China from hostilities, as it suits us – that is, forever.
And the best way to achieve this is to arm Taiwan according to the “porcupine” method. So that he bristles with rockets so much that China will lose all desire to touch him, but at the same time keep quiet and not provoke Beijing to take immediate steps. This is a wise and balanced approach, and everything else is a terrible mistake with huge and unpredictable consequences.
Thomas Friedman has been a foreign columnist for The New York Times since 1981. Winner of three Pulitzer Prizes. Author of seven books, including From Beirut to Jerusalem, which won the National Book Award.