As U.S.-China relations have steadily deteriorated, perhaps no other issue threatens to tip them over the breaking point than the island of Taiwan. While the two global powers have always disagreed about Taiwan’s status, both sides have become increasingly forceful about their position. Tensions have skyrocketed over the past few weeks as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island over Chinese objections. Many analysts now wonder: Is a conflict between the U.S. and China over Taiwan inevitable?
Background. Taiwan is an island roughly 100 miles off the coast of mainland China. After Communist forces prevailed in a civil war and formed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, many opposing Nationalists fled to Taiwan. While the Nationalists set up a government in exile, the PRC claimed to be the rightful government over both mainland China and the island.
In 1979, U.S. President Jimmy Carter established formal relations with the PRC, severing American ties with Taiwan. Shortly after, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, allowing the U.S. to maintain a robust unofficial relationship with Taiwan and mandating that America provide the island with the tools to defend itself.
The PRC maintains a “One China” policy, saying it is the sole legal government of China and Taiwan is a part of that China. While the U.S. recognizes the PRC as the legal government of China, it merely acknowledges China’s position that Taiwan is a part of it. This subtle difference in language, laid out under three joint U.S.-PRC proclamations — known as the Three Communiqués — has guided American policy towards the island for decades.
Bubbling Tensions. China’s growth of economic and military might has emboldened its leaders to more forcefully assert themselves on the issue of Taiwan in recent years. China’s current President, Xi Jinping, has repeatedly promised reunification and has not ruled out using force to do so. In June 2022, a few weeks before Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, Chinese officials took the dramatic step of declaring the Taiwan Strait — a body of water separating the island from mainland China — not international waters. The U.S. responded by sailing several warships through the channel.
Pelosi’s Visit. As reports of Pelosi’s plans to visit Taiwan became public, China began to threaten “strong and resolute measures” in response. In a phone call between the two leaders the week before Pelosi’s trip, Xi warned Biden that “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” referring to her rumored stop on the island. Amid these boiling tensions, President Biden seemingly publicly discouraged her trip, citing several military officials’ opposition.
Yet on August 2, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan amid Chinese threats and unease at home. She is the most senior U.S. lawmaker to visit since 1997 and met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen while there. As Pelosi landed in Taipei, the capital city, she said the trip honored “America’s unwavering commitment” to Taiwan’s “vibrant Democracy.” Pelosi has insisted the visit was consistent with U.S. policy toward Taiwan.
China’s Wrath. China acted quickly in response to Pelosi’s trip. As the Speaker arrived, they blocked a handful of Taiwanese imports in a largely symbolic move. China also announced sanctions against Pelosi and her immediate family and canceled eight working-level talks with the United States. Then, after Pelosi’s delegation left Taipei, China launched its largest military exercises around the island in decades. These drills disrupted shipping around Taiwan for days, prompting a global outcry.
Stiff U.S. Response. However, China’s reaction apparently strengthened American resolve. Pelosi has received relatively broad support from lawmakers of both parties. A bipartisan group of senators is pushing for Congress to take up the Taiwan Policy Act, which would substantially strengthen American security and diplomatic ties with the island. Additionally, another group of lawmakers landed in Taiwan last week, prompting more Chinese fury.
While initially expressing caution about the trip, the White House said that Pelosi had “a right” to visit the island, insisting that the trip did not represent a policy change. U.S. officials have also condemned China’s steps as an “overreaction,” arguing that China is trying to use Pelosi’s visit as a pretext to change the status quo. The administration has announced plans to send more military aircraft and warships through the Taiwan Strait and has begun trade talks with Taiwan in response to the Chinese reaction.
Likelihood of Conflict. With tensions continuing to escalate, many wonder whether the Taiwan issue could lead to direct conflict between the U.S. and China. While the United States has no official position on whether it would get militarily involved if China attempts to take Taiwan by force — known as “strategic ambiguity” — Biden has suggested he would do so on three separate occasions. Meanwhile, Chinese officials have increasingly used harsher rhetoric toward the island, prompting many experts to believe it is a question of when, not if, China attempts to invade Taiwan. Ultimately, while it is unclear if Chinese military action against Taiwan is imminent, U.S.-China relations are at their worst in decades, heightening the risk of conflict.
As democracy faces dangers around the world and here in the United States, it is important to show unity and celebrate our partners. Despite the constant looming threat of autocracy, Taiwan has flourished, embodying the very best of democratic values. Our leaders have a moral obligation to stand with the Taiwanese people as they advance the cause of freedom.
The importance of combating the rising Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cannot be overstated. The grave human rights abuses and assaults on freedom has caused some Republicans to openly support Speaker Pelosi for her stance on Taiwan. With that being said, it was a foolish move to increase tensions with the CCP with this unwarranted trip.
Birth of Taiwan
The roots of the China-Taiwan dispute lie in the island’s lengthy history, from the Chinese Civil War to the modern day.
The Diplomat argues that Pelosi’s Taiwan trip is a strategic representation of Congress’ stance on the island and how China interacts with it, including potential military actions. These authors suggest that Congress plays a vital role in deterring China from taking Taiwan by force and say that the Speaker’s visit is a notable part of that overall strategy.
Do you think Pelosi should have gone to Taiwan? Explain your view.
Amid her arrival in Taiwan, Speaker Pelosi’s office published this press release about the visit. It argues that the trip shows solidarity with the island’s democracy, and insists it is consistent with longstanding U.S. policy.
Do you believe Pelosi’s visit threatens the status quo? Why or why not?