Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is not taking place during a change in the status quo on the island, yet it will require that Washington and Beijing reestablish mutual trust.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s calculated visit to Taiwan will usher in a new phase in the state of Washington-Beijing relations. Three months before the celebration of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which will surely reaffirm Xi Jinping for a third term, the intense U.S. agenda in the Indo-Pacific actively incorporates Taiwan in a complex strategy to be witnessed on the geostrategic chessboard of that region.
During his two years in office, President Joe Biden has spoken of the U.S. commitment to defend the Taiwan Strait militarily, adding to the permanent state of alert in the region. In this time of high tension, reiteration of Washington’s support for the “One China” principle during the telephone call between Biden and Xi Jinping just one week ago presents a scenario of complex geometry that will have to align with China’s forceful reaction to Nancy Pelosi’s visit, which China described as “playing with fire.”
Broadly speaking, Beijing’s assertive agenda is advancing in its countdown toward completion of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation announced by Xi in 2017. This vision will not be realized if it does not include reunification with Taiwan at some point; a timetable marking 2049 has been set for reaching that goal. The military scenario of a possible conflict involving the United States could be raised, however, by the end of this decade or early in the next decade when the balance of power between the two powers is greater and China’s financial resilience is stronger.
Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the highest-ranking visit by a U.S. official in 25 years, does not come against a backdrop of a changing status quo on the island, yet it will require that Washington and Beijing reestablish mutual trust. Beyond the forceful military demonstrations anticipated when the speaker of the House of Representatives leaves the island, an overt military response to Washington would not be part of Beijing’s approach, given the imperative of maintaining current stability in the run-up to the momentous National Congress of the Communist Party of China in the fall and the possibility of further escalating tensions between the two countries. Nor would Beijing be willing to enter into a military conflict with the United States that it believes it cannot win.
The assertive reaction, however, will be more visible to the Taiwanese public with actions that will show China’s determination for reunification to remain on track. The bans on more than 100 products imported from the island’s food and agricultural industries are just the tip of the iceberg in the strangulation of Taiwan’s economy. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, and the restrictions could also resume earlier bans on individual or group travel by Chinese citizens to the island, although the biggest weakening would come by reducing the competitiveness of Taiwan’s semiconductor industry, its economic mainstay. Chip manufacturing accounts for 35% of the island’s exports, and the policy of boosting Taiwanese talent drain to fuel China’s ambition for technological self-sufficiency is already implicitly weakening the island’s economy.
The geopolitical challenge of Pelosi’s visit also has an impact on ambitions for stability in the Indo-Pacific, which, once again, are caught up in the balance of a power game between Washington and Beijing in the region. The growing sphere of regional influence that China has managed to deploy has reactivated the U.S. administration’s Pivot to Asia strategy to counter the deployment of Chinese diplomacy, mainly in security and defense.
Asian countries, however, aspire to maintain their regional peace and security ambitions in the face of the escalating tensions already evident in U.S.-China relations before Pelosi’s arrival in Taiwan, which will be raised to a higher level with her visit to the island. The strength of the Chinese economy has made the Asian giant a preferred partner of its neighbors in Asia with which it has jointly created the world’s largest free trade agreement, promoting the shift of the axis of the world economy to the East.
Keeping the focus on U.S.-China relations with respect to peace and security in the Indo-Pacific has been Singapore’s demand of Pelosi, a geopolitical yearning of the entire region. Washington, meanwhile, is assessing Beijing’s reaction.
Águeda Parra Pérez is an analyst of China’s geopolitical and technological environment. Founder and editor of #ChinaGeoTech, she is the author of “China, The Routes of Power,” and a contributor to Agenda Pública.