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Stanford experts cast grim predictions for U.S.-China relations following Pelosi’s Taiwan visit

Aug. 5, 2022, 6:39 p.m.

Experts forecast great friction between the United States and China, as well as increased danger for Taiwan, following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Tuesday visit to Taiwan. 

“Both sides have accepted tension as the status quo and are not particularly interested in defusing tensions,” wrote Oriana Mastro, a Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) fellow and expert on China, in a statement to The Daily.

The first speaker since Newt Gingrich to travel to Taiwan, Pelosi received outrage from China over the July 19 reports on her plans. That day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the U.S. “must stop official interactions with Taiwan” or “China will take strong and resolute measures to safeguard its sovereignty.” This came after President Joe Biden committed “to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan” if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attempted to reacquire rule over Taiwan following the 1949 split of their governments.

When the U.S. did not abort Pelosi’s scheduled visit, the Chinese government issued increasingly dire threats. In a July 28 call with Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping accused the U.S. of violating its established position that China and Taiwan together form a “one-China” nation and likened it to playing with fire. On July 29, Lijian repeated the fire metaphor with a deadly edge, claiming “those who play with fire will perish by it.”

Mastro said that China’s tremendous increase in power over the past few decades has emboldened the nation’s government.

“China is much stronger than it was 25 years ago during the last Taiwan Strait crisis, so Beijing is eager to show that this time it has options the U.S. won’t like,” Mastro wrote.

FSI senior fellow and medicine professor Dean Winslow spoke similarly of the power China wields and referred to the nation as “our biggest strategic threat.” He commended Pelosi for remaining resolute.

“Her traveling there as the speaker of the House of Representatives showed courage and showed that the U.S. is not going to roll over if China invades Taiwan,” Winslow said. “Arguments can be made that this was an unnecessary provocation, but one could also make the argument that this was an appropriate show of concern and support for one of our major allies in the Asia Pacific region.”

To give perspective to China’s terse dialogue, FSI senior fellow and Korea Program founding director Gi-Wook Shin noted that Xi Jinping must face a CCP National Party Congress in October for election to an unprecedented third term. Shin attributed Xi’s conduct as an unwillingness to be “seen as pushed over by American behavior.”

FSI senior fellow emeritus and Southeast Asia Program director Donald Emmerson also referred to the Chinese Communist Party’s upcoming congress in his analysis of the U.S.-China dynamic. 

“Neither Beijing nor Washington wants a war, so at least until Xi Jinping gets his third term in November, that link is unlikely to break,” Emmerson wrote.

Instead, Emmerson said that Pelosi’s visit posed a “greater risk” to relations between the Chinese and Taiwanese governments. While he found China’s threats against Taiwan thus far to be “more alienating than persuasive,” Emmerson expressed concern that Pelosi’s trip may inspire a redoubled effort from the CCP to coerce Taiwan into submission.

“Pelosi’s trip has prompted Beijing to punish Taipei in both economic and security terms, by blocking food imports from Taiwan and holding live-fire drills in six locations encircling the island,” Emmerson wrote. “Beijing likely hopes that Taipei, seeing these steps as a dress rehearsal for a future blockade that it cannot afford to risk, will stop acting as if it were an independent country.  Beijing may even hope, however wishfully, to leverage Taiwan’s democracy against independence by motivating risk-averse domestic opposition to President Tsai Ing-wen and her party.”

Emmerson added that this campaign could “weaken the Taipei-Washington link.”

In contrast, Shin hoped that the resolution of current strains between the U.S., China and Taiwan will result in a stronger relationship between the U.S. and Taiwan. He emphasized the importance of “support for Taiwan democracy” due to the strong economic ties that have blossomed between the two entities. He cited Congress’ July semiconductor manufacturing bill, in which the Taiwanese chip industry plays a substantial role.

But despite his strong support for an enduring U.S.-Taiwan relationship, Shin concluded by questioning the timing of Pelosi’s visit in relation to Xi’s upcoming election.

“I don’t have any issue with the U.S. Speaker visiting Taiwan,” Shin said. “But I wonder, was it the right time to do so? Was it necessary at this point?”

Jed Ngalande ‘23 is the Politics and Government beat reporter for the Stanford Daily.

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