House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has touched down at the center of one of the most problematic diplomatic sites in the world with her visit on Tuesday in Taiwan. The California Democrat has prompted concern from the Biden administration that her visit may exacerbate the situation.
With all the buzz over Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, however, we are failing to focus on an equally important issue: What she could usefully say and do while there to bolster U.S. interests and set the tone for greater stability in the region.
What's the background on Pelosi's visit to Taiwan?
A democracy since 1996
First, a quick review of the historical context: Taiwan is an autonomous government of 23 million people more than 100 miles off the coast of China. Since 1949, it has been governed largely by the losing side in the Chinese civil war that brought the communists to power in Beijing. A democracy since 1996, it is a prosperous nation that makes the majority of the world’s best semiconductors. China claims it as a sovereign territory. The people of Taiwan have mixed views but clearly and strongly prefer their self-governance to any near-term merger with the mainland.
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The United States shifted its diplomatic recognition of China to the mainland in 1979, because neither Beijing nor Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, would tolerate that we recognize them both.
Although it was probably a smart realpolitik decision, many Americans saw it as a betrayal of our non-communist partner and, as such, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, which guaranteed we would take a special interest in that democracy's well-being.
This does not mean we would necessarily defend it in time of war, however. Although President Joe Biden has said that we would do so unambiguously, official U.S. policy still says it depends on the circumstances. Our strong preference, of course, is that the issue will be resolved by Beijing and Taipei peacefully.
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During her visit, the House speaker can usefully make three points:
Stick with the 'One China' policy
►Although former U.S. officials have argued otherwise of late, Pelosi and the Biden administration should underscore publicly that we still acknowledge the Chinese position that Taiwan is a part of China. Anything else would be extremely provocative to Beijing and risky.
Today, Taiwan nearly has it all – autonomy, a strong military, prosperity, democracy and human rights. Admittedly, the people of Taiwan would like to be thought of as part of a country by the international community, and they really are not viewed that way.
To China, Taiwan is like Hawaii or Alaska. And it is not just the communist government but the preponderance of the Chinese people who feel that way. Encouraging Taiwan to seek independence would be a red line that China has repeatedly warned would lead to war.
We need to play for time until the two Chinas can find some formulation, years or decades in the future, that they can both live with – perhaps some form of loose confederation or commonwealth.
Maintain strategic ambiguity for Taiwan and China, but with a twist
►Pelosi also should remind audiences in Taiwan, China and beyond that Washington's commitment to Taipei is conditional, despite recent American experts’ views to the contrary.
We have no treaty commitment to Taiwan. Some hypothetical Chinese attacks, like certain types of naval blockades, could be so difficult for us to counter that we would also want to think hard about specific options before going to war.
However, it is time to signal one thing clearly to Beijing – and in 2022, after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the message should resonate. If China did use lethal military force against Taiwan, our relationship can never be the same.
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The United States would seek to decouple from China economically and otherwise, to a considerable extent, even if that process is slow and difficult and incomplete. And we would bring along as many of our allies in the process, such that China would lose much of its access to the Western world’s wealthy consumers whose purchases have driven China's growth for decades. This promise should be unconditional.
Encourage Taiwan to improve its military operations
►Because no U.S. military response can or should be guaranteed in the event of war, Taiwan needs to do more to defend itself.
Rather than emphasize vulnerable ships and fighter aircraft in its defense posture, Taiwan should buy helicopters, anti-ship missiles that can be hidden in shore batteries, advanced mines that can threaten approaching Chinese ships, and resilient sensors as well as command-and-control networks so that if China attacked, its prospects for success would be mediocre even without U.S. intervention.
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Taiwan also needs to stockpile key commodities, essentials such as medicine and food to withstand a protracted naval blockade and buy time for diplomacy.
With these messages, to go along with her warmth and support, Pelosi can perhaps make her trip to Taiwan of net benefit to the goal of a stable and safe Western-Pacific region.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is author of "The Art of War in an Age of Peace: U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint." Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelEOHanlon
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nancy Pelosi in Taiwan: She has chance to send strong message to China