Speaker Nancy Pelosi concluded her whirlwind 19-hour visit to Taiwan Wednesday, leaving behind fevered messaging on both sides of the Taiwan Strait about the significance of her visit.
But she’ll return to a muddled mess in Washington, bracketed by warnings from journalists and China experts about the long-term damage that her visit may have inflicted and rare GOP lawmaker applause for thumbing her nose at Beijing.
What may linger longest is how the Biden administration’s fumbling of the public narrative for Pelosi’s trip bolstered the Chinese government’s depiction of her journey as an inflammatory escalation in U.S. engagement with Taiwan.
Taiwan expressed near-rapture — electronic welcome billboards with heart emojis lit up the Taipei 101 skyscraper and Pelosi was bestowed with a government honor called the Order of the Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon.
Beijing’s response ranged from rabid to unhinged, complete with calls for President Joe Biden to “restrain” the third-highest elected official in the United States from committing “perverse acts” against China’s territorial integrity.
Such clarity was glaringly absent in Washington, D.C., in the run-up to her trip. Instead, U.S. officials rendered a drum beat of gaffes, contradictions and denials that Beijing adroitly exploited in a propaganda offensive aimed to compel Pelosi into changing her travel plans.
“By openly arguing among ourselves about Pelosi’s travel, we made the trip a public spectacle, forcing Beijing to react,” said David R. Stilwell, former assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. “Had we done the trip quietly, as we usually do, it would have generated none of the brinkmanship we’re seeing now.”
Those arguments began when Biden cast public doubt on the wisdom of Pelosi’s Taiwan visit by suggesting that the Pentagon saw it as too risky. “The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now,” Biden said last month.
The president perhaps can be forgiven for an errant comment that suggested White House interference in the legislative branch’s business. It was hot. He was jet-lagged from his recent Middle East travels. And a PCR test the next day revealed that he’d probably been wrestling with Covid as he spoke with reporters.
But Pelosi added accelerant to what would rapidly become a media dumpster fire by suggesting the next day that the Pentagon had warned that her plane “would get shot down” if she traveled to Taipei.
Those statements demanded swift messaging from the White House that struck a reasonable balance between Pelosi’s right to visit Taipei under the 2018 Taiwan Travel Act and the longstanding U.S. position regarding Taiwan’s status embodied in the U.S.-China Three Communiqués, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act and the 1982 Six Assurances. It also should have helped that there was precedent for her trip: Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan in 1997 without incident.
But after unhelpfully signaling discomfort with the visit, the White House stayed mum.
“[Biden] should have said: ‘We don’t want high-level visits to Taiwan, we know they’re not productive in terms of the overall relationship, but you know, a one-time [speaker’s] visit [every] 25 years, what’s the big deal?’” said Howard Stoffer, associate professor of national security at the University of New Haven.
GOP lawmakers are also unimpressed. “The Administration’s messaging around the Speaker’s trip has been horrendous,” said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Asia Subcommittee. “The failure of the White House to set a clear tone has left too many Americans blaming us for Beijing’s territorial ambitions and left many in the American media repeating CCP talking points.”
The result was two weeks of White House mumbling about separation of powers, complemented by a news blackout on whether the Pentagon was on board with Pelosi’s trip. Whereas most congressional delegations, or CODELs, to Taiwan have been kept quiet until officials are wheels up out of Taipei, the loud signaling made absurd later protestations that she might not even go. Beijing gleefully exploited the information vacuum with a daily stream of headline-ready threats and invective.
The administration is undoubtedly sensitive to any developments that might worsen an already fraught bilateral relationship. Pelosi’s visit occurring on the heels of Biden’s two-hour call with Chinese President Xi Jinping didn’t help matters. It created bad optics for both leaders, despite the high probability they would have exchanged frank views about its implications and a mutual desire to contain the domestic political fallout.
In the end, the muddled messages out of Washington allowed the Beijing’s propaganda engine to weaponize a questionable assertion of collective Chinese national opposition to Pelosi’s trip — in contrast to the apparent divisions on the wisdom of that plan in the U.S.
“Some U.S. politicians only care about their self-interests, blatantly play with fire on the Taiwan question, make themselves enemies of the 1.4 billion Chinese people, and will definitely end up in no good place,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, World War III was trending on Twitter while international news media covered the approach of Pelosi’s plane to Taipei with breathless anticipation of a potentially violent Chinese response. When China’s Defense Ministry on Tuesday announced live-fire military exercises from August 4-7, that coverage intensified due to White House warnings of potential “unintended consequences.”
The White House compounded the media circus with a denial strategy that verged on gaslighting.
A reporter’s question about the “drama” fueled by U.S. public communications on the Pelosi trip prompted a see-no-evil response worthy of the Chinese Foreign Ministry. “I haven’t seen any drama. … I don’t know about the drama that you’re claiming exists. It’s quite the contrary here,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Monday.
Such public bungling to Beijing’s advantage raises questions about the Biden administration’s management of a dynamic that Secretary of State Antony Blinken described in January 2021 as “the most important relationship that we have in the world.” Blinken has centered the bilateral relationship around a bullet-point strategy linked to the slogan “invest, align, compete” — anchored by Biden’s conception of a bulwark of allies and partners committed to the “international rules-based order.”
Perceptions of administration disarray over the fundamental issue of U.S. engagement with Taiwan could fuel doubts about the viability of that strategy.
But even the most pitch-perfect public messaging would have done little to ease Beijing’s suspicions about U.S. intentions toward Taiwan.
“The messaging could have been clearer. It could have been more consistent. It certainly could have been handled better,” said Bonnie Glaser, Asia program director at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. “But the relationship right now is so acrimonious, the distrust is at such a high level, that I am just not confident that we really could have in any way convinced China that this visit really didn’t matter.”