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Bad Fences, Bad Neighbors

Dispatch: Taiwan

There was never any truly coherent policy reason for Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, it was about a personal legacy. The House will likely go to the Republicans in November and she’ll lose the speakership. Even if the democrats cling on, her own party wants her out. The talk is that the Biden administration will pack her off with an ambassadorship to Rome. Before she goes, though, Pelosi wanted another swing at Beijing, a bee in her aqua-net bonnet since at least 1991, when she unfurled a banner in Tiananmen Square to protest the killing of protestors there two years earlier. Of course, she had a perfect right to go, and if we’ve learned nothing else from Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine adventure, it’s not to indulge bullying – you only get more of it.


On the other hand, the timing here is particularly bad. The speaker’s high-profile visit coincides with the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, so that Chinese jingoism is at full throat. Not a great time to go shaking a tree. In response, China fired missiles over (as opposed to near) Taiwan for the first time in 26 years. Beyond that, Beijing is holding a series of live-fire military exercises in the strait of Taiwan and the surrounding seas.


This is particularly tricky because the military exercises appear to have surrounded the island at the exact moment where the already incoherent stance of the administration look even more incoherent, that it already is – which circles around the “One China” concept that never explains how, exactly, Taiwan fits in with China other than supporting their right to not be under communist rule. The US has no formal diplomatic links to the island, so even by our own tortured logic, this would be a purely domestic affair.


The American’s stance was never fully thought out. In June of 1950, just months after then Secretary of State Dean Acheson said “The Asia peoples are on their own, and they know it.” President harry Truman sent the USS Valley Forge to protect the island from invasion from the Red Army. It seems to be the remnants Cold War strategy we picked up from the Brits in Hong Kong. Look how well their “One Country, Two Systems” policy has worked out.


Worse than incoherent, the Biden administration looks conniving, with president saying one thing, the administration walking those comments back, and then the top democrat flying to Taiwan anyway. Either confusion or duplicity will likely embolden Chinese aggression to test what are the actual limits. As if to codify this, the stance is actually called “strategic ambiguity.” If good fences make good neighbors, then a vague, ill-defined concept of a fence would certainly lead to conflict between two neighbors who already hate each other in a zero-sum sort of way.


The timing is bad for Taiwan as well: if the lid blows off this thing, the cold reality is simply that Taiwan simply can’t defend itself. Although, dependent as they are on the United States, Taiwan’s low-key president Tsui Ing-wen seemed unsure of what to make of the visit, but canceled leave for every single member of the army to be on alert for the visit. All of which went well enough, and China still does not appear to want a direct confrontation with the United States.


Not yet at any rate, but the clock is ticking down for Taiwan. For that matter, for China’s President Xi. He is angling (evidently successfully) for a third term as president – something not done since Chairman Moa, and with good reason. But President Xi is getting on in age and this is likely to be his last term as well. Like Nancy Pelosi, he is likely looking toward his personal legacy, and a large part of that is a resolution, by any means possible, of what he calls the “Taiwan problem.”


It’s never good when personal legacies supersede national interests. Pelosi got one last parting swing at an authoritarian China. And China, in response, has held military exercises that have surrounded the island. Whether they stay on as an effective military blockade after she’s made herself obvious one last time is another question.


With one five-year term left, Xi needs to make something happen. Now that the assumption that wars of conquest are over has been flushed, what options are open? Like Moscow, Beijing’s baseline calculus for an invasion of Taiwan is almost entirely on the that China’s forces can overwhelm the locals in before outside (read: American) forces can arrive and take the island in a fait accompli. Russia’s gambit was badly planned, but don’t assume the same about China. Besides, Russia could never surround Ukraine without attacking a NATO or EU country, this triggering a wider war it can’t win. Taiwan is an island that China has already effectively surrounded. in its military exercises.


So yes Nancy, the timing was remarkably bad.