Politics & Law
Aftermath of the Pelosi visit
It remains to be seen what the long-term implications of the visit to Taiwan by US House of Representatives’ Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be, but for now, the aftershocks are being felt both regionally and globally
By Brian Hioe
Even as much of the international world had strong reactions to the Pelosi visit to Taiwan, with a Financial Times op-ed taking the view that the visit was "pyromania," reactions in Taiwan were muted. There was not much discussion of the visit until shortly before Pelosi was due to arrive, leading to a joke on the Internet that many individuals had mistaken Pelosi for the name of an incoming typhoon.
But this was partly due to the Tsai administration keeping a low profile for the visit, until it took place. Most likely this was a prudent move on the Tsai administration’s part, especially given that caution over the visit led US President Biden to express concerns about the advisability of the Pelosi visit openly. The Tsai administration was likely hoping to avoid offending either Biden or Pelosi by openly supporting or opposing a visit.
Some reports suggest that Taiwan may not have had a choice in the matter. The China Times reported, based on a purported leak, that the Tsai administration had, in fact, tried to disinvite Pelosi but that Pelosi was still insistent on visiting Taiwan, as a result of which the visit still took place. Skepticism has been expressed about the reliability of this leak, given that the China Times has been reported on by the Financial Times and Apple Daily as accepting funding from the Chinese government and pre-approving articles it runs with China’s Taiwan Affairs Office.
Nevertheless, it is possible that some arm-twisting took place behind the scenes for the Pelosi visit, and either way, the Tsai administration was probably placed into an awkward position between Pelosi and Biden due to their open split on the issue.
The Tsai administration likely also wished to not be associated with the perceived recklessness of the Pelosi visit. It has been a priority for the Tsai administration to avoid being seen as a pro-independence provocateur and threat to regional stability, to distinguish her from her predecessor, Chen Shui-bian. Indeed, lack of faith in Tsai to maintain regional stability led to the White House to attempt to sabotage her 2012 run for president with a phone call placed to the Financial Times expressing lack of faith in Tsai.
What comes next for US-Taiwan relations remains to be seen. For one, China carried out live-fire exercises around Taiwan for four days last week, scheduled for after Pelosi left Taiwan. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense suggested that these live-fire exercises constituted a de facto blockade, while analysts also stated that the exercises were aimed at simulating an invasion of Taiwan. China has since announced that drills will continue.
Actions carried out by China included firing missiles over Taipei, probably intended to show the capacities of the People’s Liberation Army to hit targets in Taiwan’s capital from missiles fired from the Chinese mainland. This included missiles that landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, which were followed by Chinese naval vessels deployed to near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and Chinese maneuvers to take place in the Bohai Sea and the Yellow Sea near South Korea. To this extent, the US has announced that it will conduct operations in the Taiwan Strait in the near future.
US military support for Taiwan is expected to continue in this vein, although one can expect that there will not be any diplomatic visits to Taiwan from US officials in the immediate future to avoid escalation. Pelosi touted economic cooperation between the US and Taiwan during the visit through the CHIPS Act, but it remains to be seen if the visit will produce any tangible results in efforts to strengthen economic relations between the two sides, so as to increase the political incentives for the US to defend Taiwan. For example, the Pelosi visit may not hasten US-Taiwan trade talks with the aim of signing a prospective bilateral trade agreement.
While China may intend to hit back at possible regional allies of Taiwan in the event of an invasion, preemptive efforts at military intimidation may have the opposite of the intended effect, in pushing South Korea and Japan closer to Taiwan–particularly the latter, given strong affinities between Taiwan and Japan. The Pelosi visit to Taiwan, as the first visit of a US Speaker of the House to Taiwan in 25 years, was preceded by a visit to Japan by vice president William Lai to mourn the death of assassinated former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, as the first visit of its kind in half a century. In the wake of Abe’s death, there was discussion of solidifying Taiwan-Japan trade ties.
With the PLA announcing that drills would not end on 8 August, but that they would continue–without specifying when and where further drills would take place–China is expected to try and maintain pressure on Taiwan. By keeping it vague as to how it intends to continue its military acts of intimidation, China may hope to keep Taiwan guessing.
At the same time, this, too, could backfire. For example, by framing its naval exercises as a blockade of Taiwan, this will simply put more wind in the sails of efforts to strengthen military preparedness to fend off blockade scenarios or avoid grey zone warfare targeting Taiwan’s outlying islands. Cyberattacks attacking government websites as well as convenience store and train station displays, which Chinese hacker group APT27 has claimed credit for, could also lead to further momentum to improve digital security practices in sections of government or among Taiwanese companies. The trend toward civil defense that developed following the Russian invasion of Ukraine could also be strengthened, or China’s actions may make it easier to justify extending the draft or increasing military spending.
Or, it could be that inertia against taking any effort wins out, seeing as there were not strong reactions to China’s drills given that Taiwan has faced decades of threats directed at it from China. China ramping up military threats in past years, such as increasing air incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone on a near-daily basis may have not established any sense of escalating Chinese threats but led to the threats to become a repetitive news item that is something like background noise.
Nevertheless, even if the US is unlikely to dispatch any diplomatic visits to Taiwan anytime soon, some analysts have remarked that it is easier now for other countries to send diplomats to visit Taiwan. This has been termed the "Broken Window effect", though here this refers to the Overton Window. Recently, there have been calls for a delegation of European Union leaders to visit Taiwan from Lithuania, with Lithuania having openly supported Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. But Europe has been relatively quiet on the trip overall, perhaps viewing it as a mistake.
It remains to be seen if other countries jump on board with this call, though one notes that eastern European countries have less economic entanglements with China that may make western European countries think twice before risking Chinese retaliation. Indeed, China’s preemptive military threats against South Korea and Japan, import restrictions on Taiwanese food products, and sanctions on Pelosi and her family, may have been intended to show potential allies of Taiwan that China could adopt military, economic, or personal means of retaliation in response to support for Taiwan. Even if China’s actions seem performative to some extent, rehearsing a playbook of possible responses is intended to send a message to more than just Taiwan.
As such, the aftershocks of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan are still being felt. This is happening not only in Taiwan, but also regionally and globally.
Brian Hioe is a Taiwanese American writer, translator, and the founding editor of New Bloom