Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is on as of August 1, and once again the American public will see news about Chinese objections, military exercises, and the question of war. There will be heat and no new light.
To be sure, Xi Jinping has “missed his chance to dismiss” the visit as insignificant; a Speaker of the House is indeed a national leader, but sits constitutionally outside the foreign policy process. As the White House has noted, the policy status quo has not changed. Still, the speaker’s political profile matters. We could use it to pull new meaning into our policy discourse around China, and Taiwan in particular. We have our own opportunity to say something useful.
First, happily as an aside, had Pelosi skipped the visit, we would have faced the impression that China’s power forced the U.S. to back down. China’s signal is a power exercise. If the visit had been dropped, we would have to fight the impression that any resolve we express, and any principles we might cite for our policies, can be trumped by threats. Now we do not face this problem.
The White House’s point that no policy stances have changed is correct. But of course this expression will not ease tensions, and could mitigate the visit’s value in showing solidarity with Taiwan. The trip would end up as little more than one more marker of declining Sino-American relations.
We might cast the visit as support for democracy and human rights. Pelosi herself has a long history of denouncing China’s human rights abuses. But does support for Taiwan mean the same thing as sanctions over the oppression of Uyghurs? We have other complaints about China too, from technology theft to their threats against our allies. Is Taiwan just one more, or is there something about Taiwan in particular? If we do not differentiate among our issues, do we raise them simply to weaken China? In that case, how do we show that any principles we cite are not just pretexts, tools to preserve our global power position against a rising rival?
This visit does present an opportunity to distinguish among our interests, and express our priorities and purposes more clearly. Might we offer this rationale: that Taiwan is a free country by all the highest current measures of the term, and we cannot countenance erasure of the freedom that they have? This point would be accompanied by the reminder that the U.S. has long agreed on the One-China policy, and China has long understood that unification should not occur by force. We are not, per John Quincy Adams’ famous injunction, going abroad in search of monsters to destroy; we are already there, long committed to Taiwan’s autonomy. Even more to the point, consonant with Adams’ words in the same speech, freedom has “unfurled its banner” in Taiwan. We support Taiwan not to oppose China per se, but because we cannot countenance external destruction of its manifest freedom. In Adams’ day we lacked means to protect freedom abroad, which was also deeply deficient at home. But Taiwan’s people have their rights deeply enshrined. We cannot diminish our existing commitment to them if we believe that unalienable rights, equally endowed in all, are a self evident truth.
This expression could not stand on its own – we need to start aligning other policies, toward China and elsewhere, to validate and clarify our full intent. Poorer countries will need encouragement and support to develop in an ethos of rights, as a big matter. But we have not yet stated, in any policy expression, that protecting free societies, expressly for their commitment to freedom, is a priority. The idea underlies our urges, but we should make it explicit. The Pelosi trip provides an opportunity to do so; it can lead to more than just another nasty dispute with China. And with new orientation we can start building a coherent foreign policy on a fundamentally American purpose.