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Taiwan, China, Pelosi

Beyond the Optics of Pelosi’s Visit to Taiwan

While the US and China are showing off their strengths, the Taiwanese want a seat at the table.

Words: Richard Wei-Yi Chen
Pictures: Poh Soo Donald Soh

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited Taiwan for the first time this week. But as the US’s third-highest official, the visit is not a simple one and has led to some breathless analysis in Washington — and a flurry of apoplectic threats from Beijing.

As Pelosi’s flight touched ground at Taipei’s Songshan Airport at 10:45 pm Taipei Time on Tuesday, the Washington Post published an op-ed by the speaker, outlining the reasons behind her visit. The article was laden with language and commitments of bilateral friendship, the shared interests between the United States and Taiwan, and US values-based diplomacy. It also reiterated the “vow” made in the Taiwan Relations Act more than 40 years ago that the United States would defend Taiwan against existential threats like China.

Yet, as Pelosi arrived, the streets outside of the Grand Hyatt Taipei (台北君悅酒店) in Xinyi District were filled with hundreds of locals with “Welcome to Taiwan!” banners, as well as a smaller crowd, clad in red, wielding “American Witch Get Out” signs. On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, merely 16 minutes after Pelosi’s delegation landed, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army announced on the state-run Xinhua news agency that six live-fire military drills will take place from Thursday to Sunday; basically planned to start the day after Pelosi departs from Taiwan.

What is Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan really about? And what do the Taiwanese really want?


Though the congressional delegation’s trip lasted no more than 24 hours, the whirlwind of meetings, appearances, and pressers on the agenda was undoubtedly significant and highly publicized.

When the dust settles, will Washington and Beijing allow the people in Taiwan to weigh in on their own future? To some degree, yes; but not before both sides continue to use Taiwan as leverage in their great power competition.

During her meeting with the members of major political parties from Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan on Wednesday morning, Taiwan parliamentarians praised Pelosi on her continuing fight for democracy and democratic values around the world, citing her past support of Chinese activists in Tiananmen and Hong Kong. During his welcoming remarks, Vice President of the Legislative Yuan, Tsai Chi-Chang said: “As long as there is Speaker Pelosi, those who pursue the values of democracy, freedom and human rights will never be alone.” Pelosi, in turn, emphasized the main focus areas of her broader Asia trip: security, economy, and governance. Regarding Taiwan, she stated on Twitter: “Our delegation’s visit to Taiwan honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant democracy.”

She commended Taiwan for its remarkable success during the COVID-19 pandemic and discussed the recently passed CHIPS Act by the US Congress, which includes semiconductor manufacturing grants, research investments, and an investment tax credit for chip manufacturing. For Taiwan, which houses several of the world’s key semiconductor companies, building fabs in the United States has been costly. With the passing of the CHIPS Act, US government subsidies have the potential to make building and manufacturing nanometer chips more cost-effective.

Later that day, President Tsai Ing-Wen awarded Pelosi the Order of Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon, Taiwan’s highest civilian honor. During the meeting at the Presidential Office Building, Pelosi said the US had made “a bedrock promise to always stand with Taiwan,” echoing President Joe Biden’s sentiment and statements during his own Asia tour in May 2022. She described Taiwan as “an island of resilience,” and emphasized that American solidarity is crucial. Pelosi further tweeted: “Our discussions with Taiwan leadership reaffirm our support for our partner & promote our shared interests, including advancing a free & open Indo-Pacific region.”

In a continuation of sending mixed diplomatic messages, the White House and the National Security Council have repeatedly sought to keep their involvement with Pelosi’s visit to the minimum, by explaining that the speaker’s trips belong constitutionally to a different branch of government. John Kirby, the National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the White House clarified prior to the trip: “We don’t support Taiwan independence, but we absolutely do support the right and the prerogative of congressional leaders to include Speaker Pelosi to visit Taiwan if that’s what she wants to do.”

For Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party, the worry is that the “US seeks to contain China by playing the Taiwan card,” as the PRC’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying proclaimed before Pelosi’s arrival. As China continues its saber-rattling in the region, Chunying’s explanation that any action by China would be a “justified and necessary response to the US oblivion to China’s repeated démarches” has become a Sisyphean task. Beijing’s go-to mantra that Washington is “playing with fire” on the issue of Taiwan has been uttered on more than a few occasions by now.


While Pelosi was in Taiwan, Congress was preparing to pass the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022, which has been months in the making. The comprehensive rehaul seeks to bolster Taiwan’s defense capabilities in face of an increasingly belligerent Beijing. The legislation is set to make three major moves. First, the new law will upgrade the existing Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 by not only maintaining the US military capability to come to Taiwan’s defense but also providing the Taiwanese military with defensive weapons. Second, the new law will formally designate Taiwan as a “major non-NATO ally,” even though the US State Department has been treating Taiwan as such unofficially. And third, the law goes beyond providing Taiwan arms “of a defensive character” but will also include “arms conducive to deterring acts of aggression by the People’s Liberation Army,” among other areas of support. Though the onus is on Taiwan and its military to take the looming threat seriously and implement concrete strategies and reform, the seminal initiative will boost US–Taiwan cooperation in strengthening deterrence and joint bilateral military planning/training.

Most Washington analysts and policymakers agree that Pelosi’s visit was the right choice, not only because there is precedent, but also because “the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] can’t tell us where the Speaker can travel,” as expressed by Ryan Hass, current Michael H. Armacost Chair in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institute and former Director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia in Obama’s National Security Council. Pelosi’s Taiwan trip is a rare example of bipartisanship, where Senate Republicans jointly backed and supported the trip in a statement released and signed by 25 GOP senators. Elbridge Colby, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development, thinks that more than symbolism, an increase in actual defensive capabilities to defend Taiwan is necessary.

The Taiwanese, however, have a different view. Public nonchalance toward premature and inflated threat assessments coming from the international community, much less from the Chinese Communist Party’s bellicosity, seemed to have been met with an almost indifferent reaction from the Taiwanese public at-large. Locals living in Taipei, seem to find most of the international and media hyperbole around Pelosi’s visit to be “external,” and went on with their Tuesdays as it was like any other day. Many incumbent policymakers and politicians in Taiwan — barring Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense — did not respond to the threats coming from across the Taiwan Strait.

Several hours after Pelosi’s departure from Taipei, a sortie of 27 People’s Liberation Army aircraft entered the surrounding area of Taiwan in a further escalation of tensions and intimidation tactics from the mainland. Currently, Taiwan’s top-military officials have accused Beijing of violating international law and Taiwan’s sovereignty, in response to the live-fire military drills that China began yesterday.

Beijing’s actions in elevating Pelosi’s Taiwan visit into a “crisis” is now facing international backlash. Meanwhile, Taiwan and its people seek to break free from being caught in a potential US-China conflict.

As a local journalist and ex-pat based in Taipei, Clarissa Wei, puts it:

“Our lives in Taiwan do not revolve around cross-strait relations. We do not see ourselves as ‘an austere rock in a typhoon-laden sea’ or ‘the most dangerous place on Earth.’ If anything, we are more focused on slowly opening up and loosening Covid-19 restrictions after two years of strict pandemic measures… Because if the world truly cares about the well-being of Taiwan, then give us a seat at the table.”

When the dust settles, will Washington and Beijing allow the people in Taiwan to weigh in on their own future? To some degree, yes; but not before both sides continue to use Taiwan as leverage in their great power competition.

Richard Wei-Yi Chen is the membership coordinator at the Truman National Security Project and formerly the research coordinator at the Taiwan Center for Security Studies. A graduate of KU Leuven and Georgetown University, his research focuses on US–Taiwan relations, Chinese foreign policy, Indo-Pacific geopolitics, and grand strategy.

Richard Wei-Yi Chen

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