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Should Nancy Pelosi go to Taiwan?

Hunter Baker | The speaker’s planned visit comes amid a delicate diplomatic balancing act

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks to the press. Associated Press/Photo by Mariam Zuhaib, File

Should Nancy Pelosi go to Taiwan?
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Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wants to go to Taiwan. Citizens and officials in the island country would like to meet with her. As speaker, she is a significant figure in U.S. policy, foreign and domestic. In addition, she represents a wealthy district in metro San Francisco, which means the interests of Asian nations possess further salience for her and for many of her Silicon Valley allies.

It may surprise many Americans to hear that China has expressed displeasure and even made threats upon hearing of Speaker Pelosi’s intentions. They may be still more surprised to discover that President Biden’s administration is not terribly eager to have Pelosi make the trip. What’s going on?

Taiwan occupies a unique place in American international diplomacy. When Mao and the Communists gained control of China, the losing party relocated to Taiwan where they founded a nation that has since become a significant player in the world economy despite its small size. Though it began as an authoritarian dictatorship, it has become a liberal democracy with significant rights and freedoms. Perhaps the most important single maker of microchips on the planet is a Taiwanese company.

China has never really accepted the independent existence of Taiwan. China’s vast markets and growing economic power have given it the ability to insist with growing effectiveness that other nations and corporations act as though Taiwan does not exist, at least as a matter of public relations. The official ideology of the People’s Republic of China under the rule of the Community Party is that Taiwan is part of China and that it will inevitably become part of the PRC.

Americans, historically anti-communist, have typically stood on the side of Taiwan. Our approach has evolved into what is now sometimes called “strategic ambiguity.” China’s leaders are left with the impression that we will probably defend Taiwan if they attack the island, but there is no certainty about the matter. President Biden recently confirmed we would defend Taiwan only to have his administration immediately begin walking the statement back.

When a major American figure such as the Speaker of the House visits, it lends legitimacy to the idea of Taiwan as a country of its own. Taiwan has its own economy, its own citizenry, its own foreign policy, and its own functioning political system. The microchips it makes are in incredible demand and are needed around the globe. China, convinced that it will eventually absorb Taiwan as it has Hong Kong, opposes anything that highlights these facts.

How should American Christians think about the situation? It pays to be humble and to appreciate the ambiguity U.S. diplomats have cultivated. It steers a nice course between avoiding offense to Chinese pride and also not giving a green light to aggression. By way of respecting the strategy thus far, we need not puff out our chest and wonder aloud how dare the Chinese tell us what is or is not acceptable in our relationships with other nations. On the other hand, there may be some virtue in paying little heed to Chinese warnings and embarking upon visits and other diplomatic relations we deem reasonable and honorable.

It is important not to send the message to China that we are easily cowed. PRC leaders need to know that we respect them, but that we also do not defer to them. Too much deference could ultimately have severe consequences for some of China’s neighbors. Indeed, disruptions to the world economy could also be costly. The conflict between Ukraine and Russia has brought focus to the negative potential of a battle for Taiwan. What has been a theoretical possibility for a long time suddenly seems more real.

Strategic ambiguity has worked well so far for the U.S. as it interacts with China and Taiwan, so what course should we take with regard to Nancy Pelosi’s planned trip? We don’t have an embassy in Taiwan, which shows some deference, but we do maintain an American institute there. It functions as much the same kind of thing. Part of the reason we do that is because Taiwan is significant to the U.S. and not just as some kind of thumb in the eye of the Chinese Communists. Speaker Pelosi is more than justified in wanting to conduct diplomacy with a free people with whom Americans have much in common, but the President of the United States bears central responsibility for foreign affairs. In any case, we can’t let the communist leaders in China tell us who can and cannot go anywhere on behalf of the United States. We can also be assured that some very interesting conversations are taking place between the speaker’s office and the White House.

Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker serves as dean of arts and sciences and professor of political science at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. He is a research fellow of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the author of three books (The End of Secularism, Political Thought: A Student's Guide, and The System Has a Soul).


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