That is not to say U.S. officials don’t visit Taiwan. They do. Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) traveled there in July, and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) was there in June. But they weren’t super high-level affairs. Duckworth took along Illinois’s first assistant deputy governor for public safety, infrastructure, environment, and energy, along with the state’s first assistant deputy governor for budget and economy, according to a press release from her trip. They’re not exactly in the line of presidential succession.
But Pelosi is. And her trip comes at a time of high tension internationally, stirring intense, over-the-top antipathy from the Chinese. And the Biden administration did not want her to go. Given that, Pelosi’s reason for being in Taiwan is not exactly clear.
The contrasts with Gingrich’s trip are remarkable. At the time, the speaker was the leader of the opposition, encouraged by House Republicans to visit. But Gingrich worked with the Democratic Clinton administration on the trip. He took a bipartisan delegation. And first, he visited China. In fact, Gingrich and his delegation arrived in Beijing just as Vice President Al Gore was leaving after a visit of his own.
In a recent account for Newsweek, Gingrich wrote that the Chinese were outraged that he planned to visit Taiwan. They threatened to withdraw his invitation to China. If you do that, Gingrich threatened, then I’ll just make a longer visit to Taiwan. “At that point, the Chinese Communist Party backed down, and we settled with a face-saving compromise,” Gingrich wrote. “I would go to Taiwan but not directly from the Chinese mainland. So we flew there by way of Japan.”
Nevertheless, in China Gingrich said he delivered a tough message. “I said frankly … we understand that in principle you will not renounce the right to use force,” Gingrich said he told the Chinese, according to an account in the Washington Post. “We want you to understand that we will defend Taiwan. Period.”
This time, China is not on Pelosi’s itinerary, which includes Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan, and now Taiwan. And since President Joe Biden himself, in what some people called gaffes and others called policy statements, has said multiple times that the United States would defend Taiwan if it were attacked by China, it’s not clear what Pelosi’s message is.
It is clear that the White House — the president, who has the constitutional authority to conduct foreign policy — does not want her in Taiwan. The main reason is that the president is trying to make sure China does not offer aid to Russia in the war in Ukraine.
The following is from the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman, who for many years has been weirdly sympathetic to the Chinese regime. So feel free to take it with a grain of salt. But Friedman is also plugged in with the Biden White House, so it’s worth listening to what he has to say. Friedman writes that Biden and Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, had “a series of very tough meetings” with top Chinese leaders, “imploring Beijing not to enter the Ukraine conflict by providing military assistance to Russia.” That is more important with each passing day as Russia burns through its military stockpiles in Ukraine.
The “tough meetings,” according to Friedman, included Biden personally telling Chinese President Xi Jinping that the U.S. would isolate China economically if it helped Russia. The result, again according to Friedman, is that China has refrained from helping its “ostensible ally,” Russia, even as the U.S. and other NATO countries have been sending tons of advanced weaponry to Ukraine.
“Given all of that,” Friedman asks, “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?” Friedman does not have an answer. Neither does anyone else.