Friday, June 9

White House struggles to insulate Biden’s China policy from Pelosi’s Taiwan trip

WASHINGTON — As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reportedly prepares to land in Taiwan on Tuesday evening for a long-rumored official visit, her trip has exposed a rare schism between the Biden White House and the most powerful Democrat in Congress.

Officially, the Biden administration has been careful to avoid directly answering questions about whether it agrees with Pelosi’s decision to make the trip.

But unofficially, the White House and the Pentagon have made little secret of their opposition to such a visit, which comes at a time when US-China relations are the poorest they’ve been in decades.

In late July, Biden responded to a question about Pelosi’s then-rumored stop in Taiwan by saying, “The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now. But I don’t know what the status of it is.”

For weeks, American officials from the president on down have tied themselves into knots trying to talk about Pelosi’s choice to visit Taiwan, and stressing that it was her decision, and hers alone.

missing the point

Now, experts say it’s becoming clear that this effort missed the point. That’s because schisms in Washington are effectively meaningless to the rest of the world, which has learned to view American presidents and their top allies in Congress as interchangeable stand-ins for one another on foreign policy matters.

The fact that US policy toward Taiwan is deliberately ambiguous only serves to make it that much more difficult to draw any meaningful distinction between what Pelosi is doing and what the White House is saying.

Pelosi, a longtime China hawk, has not officially announced that she will visit the self-ruled island off the coast of mainland China, which Beijing considers a renegade province.

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I think what you really see from China’s side, and it’s not unreasonable, is that we’re kind of pushing the envelope of the One China policy.

Andrew Merta

China Global Research Center, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

‘Independent branch of government’

As reports of the trip solidified in recent days, Biden’s top spokespeople have been forced to say over and over that they cannot confirm or deny the existence of any upcoming trip, and at the same time downplay its significance.

“I want to reaffirm that the Speaker has not confirmed any travel plans,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday, “So we won’t be commenting or speculating about the stops on her trip.”

Still, Kirby confirmed moments later that Biden had specifically raised the topic of Pelosi’s unconfirmed trip with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week, during a video call that lasted more than two hours.

Biden “made clear that Congress is an independent branch of government and that Speaker Pelosi makes her own decisions, as other members of Congress do, about their overseas travel,” Kirby said. “That was made clear.”

Moments after saying Biden and Xi had personally discussed the trip, Kirby again sought to downplay its importance.

“I think we’ve laid out very clearly that if she goes — if she goes — it’s not without precedent. It’s not new. It doesn’t change anything,” he said. “We’ve not ramped up the rhetoric. We’ve not changed our behavior.”

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To foreign policy experts, the White House’s effort to convince Beijing that it must distinguish between the behavior of the top Democrat in Congress and the attempt of the Democratic administration is a futile one.

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“Saying that this is a whole lot of nothing or that the Chinese shouldn’t read into it… Well, anybody who has spent half a minute looking at China knows that they attach some sort of intentionality to everything we do,” said Andrew Mertha, the director of the China Global Research Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Any suggestion that a visit by someone as important as Pelosi would be seen by Beijing as anything but an in-person expression of American support for Taiwanese independence, he said, is unimaginable.

This is especially true after Biden himself said, on three separate occasions, that the US would come to the defense of Taiwan if China were to invade the island.

Those statements, said Mertha, undermined decades of assurances from Washington that the US would maintain a policy of strategic ambiguity on the question of who controls Taiwan.

“I think what you really see from China’s side, and it’s not unreasonable, is that we’re kind of pushing the envelope of the One China policy,” said Mertha, referring to the longstanding US position of recognizing Beijing as the sole legal government of China, but not formally recognizing Taiwan as subject to the government in Beijing.

“They’re alarmed,” Mertha said of Beijing, “and I don’t blame them.”

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