By Thomas L. Friedman
New York, August 1 (New York Times): I have a lot of respect for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But if she does go ahead with a visit to Taiwan this week, against President Biden’s wishes, she will be doing something that is utterly reckless, dangerous and irresponsible.
Nothing good will come of it. Taiwan will not be more secure or more prosperous as a result of this purely symbolic visit, and a lot of bad things could happen. These include a Chinese military response that could result in the U.S. being plunged into indirect conflicts with a nuclear-armed Russia and a nuclear-armed China at the same time.
And if you think our European allies — who are facing an existential war with Russia over Ukraine — will join us if there is U.S. conflict with China over Taiwan, triggered by this unnecessary visit, you are badly misreading the world.
Let’s start with the indirect conflict with Russia, and how Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan now looms over it.
There are moments in international relations when you need to keep your eyes on the prize. Today that prize is crystal clear: We must ensure that Ukraine is able, at a minimum, to blunt — and, at a maximum, reverse — Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion, which if it succeeds will pose a direct threat to the stability of the whole European Union.
To help create the greatest possibility of Ukraine reversing Putin’s invasion, Biden and his national security adviser Jake Sullivan held a series of very tough meetings with China’s leadership, imploring Beijing not to enter the Ukraine conflict by providing military assistance to Russia — and particularly now, when Putin’s arsenal has been diminished by five months of grinding war.
Biden, according to a senior U.S. official, personally told President Xi Jinping that if China entered the war in Ukraine on Russia’s side, Beijing would be risking access to its two most important export markets — the United States and the European Union. (China is one of the best countries in the world at manufacturing drones, which are precisely what Putin’s troops need most right now.)
By all indications, U.S. officials tell me, China has responded by not providing military aid to Putin — at a time when the U.S. and NATO have been giving Ukraine intelligence support and a significant number of advanced weapons that have done serious damage to the military of Russia, China’s ostensible ally.
Given all of that, why in the world would the speaker of the House choose to visit Taiwan and deliberately provoke China now, becoming the most senior U.S. official to visit Taiwan since Newt Gingrich in 1997, when China was far weaker economically and militarily?
The timing could not be worse. Dear reader: The Ukraine war is not over. And privately, U.S. officials are a lot more concerned about Ukraine’s leadership than they are letting on. There is deep mistrust between the White House and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine — considerably more than has been reported.
And there is funny business going on in Kyiv. On July 17, Zelensky fired his country’s prosecutor general and the leader of its domestic intelligence agency — the most significant shake-up in his government since the Russian invasion in February. It would be the equivalent of Biden firing Merrick Garland and Bill Burns on the same day. But I have still not seen any reporting that convincingly explains what that was all about. It is as if we don’t want to look too closely under the hood in Kyiv for fear of what corruption or antics we might see, when we have invested so much there. (More on the dangers of that another day.)
Meanwhile, senior U.S. officials still believe that Putin is quite prepared to consider using a small nuclear weapon against Ukraine if he sees his army facing certain defeat.
In short, this Ukraine war is SO not over, SO not stable, SO not without dangerous surprises that can pop out on any given day. Yet in the middle of all of this we are going to risk a conflict with China over Taiwan, provoked by an arbitrary and frivolous visit by the speaker of the House?
It is Geopolitics 101 that you don’t court a two-front war with the other two superpowers at the same time.
Now, let’s turn to the potential for an indirect conflict with China, and how Pelosi’s visit could trigger it.
According to Chinese news reports, Xi told Biden on their phone call last week, alluding to U.S. involvement in Taiwan’s affairs, such as a possible Pelosi visit, “whoever plays with fire will get burnt.”
Biden’s national security team made clear to Pelosi, a longtime advocate for human rights in China, why she should not go to Taiwan now. But the president did not call her directly and ask her not to go, apparently worried he would look soft on China, leaving an opening for Republicans to attack him before the midterms.
It is a measure of our political dysfunction that a Democratic president cannot deter a Democratic House speaker from engaging in a diplomatic maneuver that his entire national security team — from the C.I.A. director to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs — deemed unwise.
To be sure, there is an argument that Biden should just call Xi’s bluff, back Pelosi to the hilt and tell Xi that if he threatens Taiwan in any way, it’s China that “will get burnt.”
That might work. It might even feel good for a day. It also might start World War III.
In my view, Taiwan should have just asked Pelosi not to come at this time. I so admire Taiwan and the economy and democracy that it has built since the end of World War II. I have visited Taiwan numerous times over the last 30 years and have personally witnessed how much has changed in Taiwan in that time — so much.
But there is one thing that has not changed for Taiwan: Its geography!
Taiwan is still a tiny island, now with 23 million people, roughly 100 miles off the coast of a giant mainland China, with 1.4 billion people, who claim Taiwan as part of the Chinese motherland. Places that forget their geography get in trouble.
Do not mistake this for pacifism on my part. I believe it is a vital U.S. national interest to defend Taiwan’s democracy, in the event of an unprovoked Chinese invasion.
But if we are going to get into a conflict with Beijing, at least let it be on our timing and our issues. Our issues are China’s increasingly aggressive behavior on a wide range of fronts — from cyber intrusions to intellectual property theft to military maneuvers in the South China Sea.
That said, this is not the time for poking at China, especially considering what a sensitive time it is in Chinese politics. Xi is on the eve of locking in an indefinite extension of his role as China’s leader at the 20th Communist Party Congress, expected to be this fall. The Chinese Communist Party has always made clear that reunification of Taiwan and mainland China is its “historical task,” and, since coming to power in 2012, Xi has steadily and recklessly underscored his commitment to that task with aggressive military maneuvers around Taiwan.
By visiting, Pelosi will actually give Xi an opportunity to divert attention from his own failures — a whack-a-mole strategy of trying to shut down the spread of Covid-19 by using lockdowns of China’s major cities, a huge real estate bubble that is now deflating and threatening a banking crisis and an immense mountain of government debt resulting from Xi’s unrestrained support for state-owned industries.
I seriously doubt that Taiwan’s current leadership, in its heart of hearts, wants this Pelosi visit now. Anyone who has followed the cautious behavior of President Tsai Ing-wen, of Taiwan’s pro-independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, since her election in 2016 has to be impressed by her consistent efforts to defend Taiwan’s independence while not giving China an easy excuse for military action against Taiwan.
Alas, I fear that the growing consensus in Xi’s China is that the Taiwan question can only be resolved militarily, but China wants to do it on its own schedule. Our goal should be to deter China from such a military endeavor on OUR schedule — which is forever.
But the best way to do that is to arm Taiwan into what military analysts call a porcupine — bristling with so many missiles that China would never want to lay hands on it — while saying and doing as little as possible to provoke China into thinking that it MUST lay hands on it now. Pursuing anything else than that balanced approach would be an awful mistake, with vast and unpredictable consequences.