Why Nancy Pelosi's Trip to Taiwan Is Turning Up the Heat Between US & China

The US government's 'No. 3' is visiting Taiwan. Why are the Chinese so upset about that?

6 min read
Edited By :Tejas Harad

Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi's Asia tour, which began on Sunday, 31 July, has reignited active tensions between the United States and China.

Her first stop was Singapore, where she arrived on Monday, but it is her trip to Taiwan on Tuesday that has raised temperatures to a fever pitch.

Upon landing, Pelosi released a statement asserting that the congressional delegation's "visit to Taiwan honours America's unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant democracy."

Additionally, in an opinion article for The Washington Post published on 2 August, around the same time she landed, Pelosi wrote:

"We must stand by Taiwan, which is an island of resilience. Taiwan is a leader in governance: currently, in addressing the covid-19 pandemic and championing environmental conservation and climate action. It is a leader in peace, security and economic dynamism: with an entrepreneurial spirit, culture of innovation and technological prowess that are envies of the world."
Nancy Pelosi, The Washington Post

On Wednesday, Pelosi met Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei.

Speaking on her visit, Tsai Ing-wen said that US Speaker Pelosi is "truly one of Taiwan's most devoted friends. We are grateful to you to make this visit to Taiwan to showcase the US Congress' staunch support for Taiwan."

On the same day as her arrival in Singapore, China said that its military will "not sit idly by" because of Pelosi's stature in the US government, that is, as the 'No. 3 official of the US government,' a trip to Taiwan would "lead to egregious political impact."

Those were the words used by Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian who had given a similar warning last week, claiming that his country will take "firm and resolute measures" if Pelosi's trip happened and "the US will be responsible for all of the serious consequences."

Shortly after Pelosi landed, AFP cited Taipei as saying that 20 Chinese military planes had entered Taiwan's airspace on the day of her arrival.

On the same day, four US warships were deployed towards the east of the island. The US has said that these are "routine" deployments.

China has also sent warplanes up to the informal line that divides the Taiwan Strait between Mainland China and Taiwan. Live drills have also been held by the People's Liberation Army.

Additionally, the Chinese government on 3 August announced that it was halting exports of natural sand to Taiwan, reported CGTN news, citing the Chinese Ministry of Commerce.

Do remember that the US government does not formally recognise Taiwan, and even President Joe Biden has said the US military does not think that the House Speaker's visit to Taiwan is "a good idea right now."

What is going on here? Why are the Chinese so upset about the US government's 'No. 3' visiting Taiwan?


How Does Nancy Pelosi See China?

With contempt. And this has been the case for more than three decades now.

In 1991, two years after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, she visited the site and displayed a banner in memory of the pro-democracy protesters gunned down by the Chinese military.

More than a decade later, she tried to send four letters to the then Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao in 2002, calling for the release of activists in China and Tibet, the BBC reported.

She has also opposed the Chinese government's bids to host the Olympics Games due to alleged human rights abuses, once even unsuccessfully urging President George W Bush to boycott the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics hosted by China.

Even this year, she called for a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics, held in Beijing, to protest the alleged human rights abuses of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

"For heads of state to go to China in light of a genocide that is ongoing - while you're sitting there in your seat - really begs the question, what moral authority do you have to speak again about human rights in any place in the world?" Pelosi had said.


China Claims Taiwan as Its Own

The Chinese government, since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, has considered Taiwan as a breakaway province.

President Xi Jinping has clearly said that Taiwan "must and will be" reunited with China, according to two separate BBC reports.

China has always considered Taiwan to be historically a part of it. Therefore, if and when the third-highest office-bearing member of the US visits Taiwan, the Chinese see it as a trip to their land without seeking their permission.

An unforgettable factor, of course, is that the US has de facto provided economic and military support to Taiwan for decades under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, a clause of which reads, "The United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capabilities."

A part of the full title states that the TRA is an act to authorise "the continuation of commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people of Taiwan, and for other purposes."

On the other hand, Taiwan is crucial to China, with respect to both domestic and foreign policy. The Communist Party of China believes that the history of the country during the two centuries preceding the 21th century are rife with instances of national humiliation such as the Opium Wars and the defeats to Japan. Xi has plans for the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the creation of the PRC.

What the great rejuvenation means for him is not just economic predominance in Asia, but also regaining control of "greater China," which includes territories like Tibet, Hong Kong, and of course Taiwan.

Taiwanese independence would have catastrophic consequences for Xi’s and the Chinese Communist Party’s nationalist legitimacy.

It would also promote separatist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang, which while not the same, would be reminiscent of the national humiliation that Xi has vowed to never let happen again.

Given that China has these goals with respect to Taiwan, a Pelosi visit is being perceived by the Chinese as a direct challenge thrown by the US at them, their prestige, and their authority.


The Taiwanese Have Other Ideas

Amidst this Sino-American superpower rivalry of sorts, where do the Taiwanese people lie?

Today, few in Taiwan support its reunification with Mainland China. The two key reasons for this are ethnonationalism, and more importantly, civic nationalism.

According to polls conducted in 2020, almost two-thirds of Taiwan’s residents consider their identity as simply 'Taiwanese,' while almost one-thirds consider themselves as Taiwanese and Chinese, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Only around three percent consider themselves simply 'Chinese.' A strong sense of Taiwanese identity lies in the core of Taiwan’s resistance to reunification. These statistical findings are also consistent with the conclusions of Pew Research Centre.

Millions of Taiwanese youth, who are the future of Taiwan, consider themselves being born as independent from China, having no cultural ties to the mainland. But what is even more important is the loyalty of Taiwan’s residents to their democratic political system, or what the late Richard Bush, an expert on Chinese affairs, calls civic nationalism.

A vast majority of Taiwanese people are opposed to the "one country, two systems" model, in which Taiwan, like Hong Kong and Macau, would function as a Special Administrative Region of China, and maintain its own economic and administrative system, according to the CFR report.

This is because the people of Taiwan are too attached to their democracy, and they simply don’t trust China to keep their promise of granting limited but significant autonomy to Taiwan after the reunification, especially in the context of the latter's recent approach to Hong Kong.

Yun, a digital designer in Taipei, told The Diplomat that he doesn’t hate Chinese people, but he hates the Chinese government. And he hates the Chinese government because he loves freedom and democracy. As per reports, this sentiment is echoed by a majority of the Taiwanese population.

"They promised Hong Kong 50 years of freedom. They’re already breaking it. They couldn’t keep the promise and why would I trust them? I will never trust them," he added.

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Topics:  Taiwan   US China   China-Taiwan 

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