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“A choice between democracy and autocracy”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visits Taiwan

Taiwan's Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, left, with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Taipei, Taiwan, Aug. 3, 2022 Associated Press/Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs

“A choice between democracy and autocracy”

Nearly three million people tracked a seven-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei on Flightradar24 on Tuesday. The company said the Boeing C-40C became the most-watched live flight in its 16 years of service. The plane was carrying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the highest-ranking diplomatic visit to Taiwan since then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s similar trip in 1997.

On Wednesday, Pelosi met with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, who presented her with the Order of Propitious Clouds With Special Grand Cordon by way of thanks for promoting ties between the U.S. and Taiwan. Meanwhile, Beijing scrambled People’s Liberation Army aircraft and announced a slew of sanctions against the self-governing island. While Taiwan was not originally published on the speaker’s itinerary for her delegation to Asia, the 24-hour visit sparked international attention when President Biden revealed military officials had security concerns and China warned Pelosi to stay away. The visit and the fallout might indicate a shift in U.S.-China relations and the small democracy that tests them.

In anticipation of Pelosi’s visit, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters Monday, “Those who play with fire will perish by it.” It was one of several admonitions that Beijing directed at the U.S., claiming that a visit to Taiwan violates the sovereignty of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Although the island has never officially been part of the republic, experts say China is playing the long game of trying to “reunify” it to the mainland.

Michael Sobolik, an Indo-Pacific studies fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, said the mere existence of a functioning democracy challenges the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). While the United States has historically remained neutral between the two sides, Pelosi’s visit acted as a symbolic slap in the face of Xi Jinping.

“Pelosi visiting Taiwan is great symbolism and a great signal of the Congress’ commitment to the safety and self-determination of Taiwan,” Sobolik said. “However, inevitably China will do something to hurt Taiwan. You need substance as well to back this up.”

It’s the substance that worries China. By the time Pelosi touched down in Taipei, 35 Taiwanese food exporters were banned from doing business with mainland China, the Taiwanese presidential office suffered a cyber attack, and Chinese authorities announced military drills surrounding Taiwan’s waters. State media reported the live fire drills began Thursday morning, local time.

Despite the retaliation, Taiwanese officials welcomed and thanked the American delegation. Pelosi defended her visit in a Washington Post op-ed: “In the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) accelerating aggression, our congressional delegation’s visit should be seen as an unequivocal statement that America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, as it defends itself and its freedom.”

In the article, Pelosi recalled a visit to China in 1991 when she unfurled a pro-democracy banner with the rest of the congressional delegation in Tiananmen Square. She condemned Xi Jinping’s attempts to extend his term in power and the nation’s human rights record. She also praised the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, an agreement where the United States established unofficial diplomatic relations with the nation and promised defensive arms if it is ever attacked.

In a rare moment of bipartisanship, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers rose to Pelosi’s defense in the days leading up to her trip. They defended the right of the speaker to conduct diplomatic visits without White House approval and insisted she was right to include Taiwan in the itinerary. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell joined 25 other senators in a statement supporting Pelosi’s trip. Georgia Republican Senate candidate and Trump-endorsee Herschel Walker broke ranks on Tuesday when he tweeted that he supports any attempt to stand up to China and that he would make the same trip.

Although recognition of Taiwan’s autonomy is typically met with brinkmanship from the CCP, the tide could be turning. In separate speeches in Washington last week, former Vice President Mike Pence and former President Donald Trump warned that China could be eyeing the world stage with particular interest in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Both predicted that Taiwan could be the next victim. Analysts like Sobolik agreed.

“The Biden administration is in a pattern of behavior that is reinforcing a message over and over again that when push comes to shove, America lacks the resolve to throw a punch,” Sobolik said, referring to the withdrawal from Afghanistan and ineffective threats of sanctions prior to Russia’s invasion. “The most important thing now is to beef up Taiwan’s military capabilities and our own to deter China from ever launching an attack.”

“Today the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy,” Pelosi said during her meeting with Tsai. “America’s determination to preserve democracy here in Taiwan and around the world remains ironclad.”

Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a reporter for WORLD Digital. She is a World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College graduate. She resides in Washington, D.C.



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