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A Pelosi Taiwan trip? 'High risk, low reward'

Michaela Küfner
July 30, 2022

It remains unclear whether US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will visit Taiwan, but the possibility has Chinese officials upset. Zack Cooper, of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, says a visit might do more harm than good.

Nancy Pelosi with her index finger raised
The speaker of the House may or may not stop by TaipeiImage: J. Scott Applewhite/ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance

DW: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has left the possibility of her visiting Taiwan open. Why do you think she's doing that?

Zack Cooper: My guess is that they would like to keep their options open, but I do think at this point it's pretty clear that she is going to go to Taiwan. I would be very surprised if she does not do that.

From a US perspective, what are the risks?

There are a couple of risks. First, let me say Pelosi absolutely is within her rights to go to Taiwan. There's no question about that. There's nothing in US policy or law that says that she can't go. I think the risk, though, is not really about this visit. It's about a feeling on Beijing's part that the United States is sort of salami-slicing elements of the status quo — elements of the understanding about the US and Chinese policies regarding Taiwan. You've had Joe Biden make three major misstatements about US policy regarding Taiwan. You've had two senior Republicans, Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper, go to Taipei recently and suggest doing away with the US "One China" policy. There is legislation in Congress that would change some parts of the US-Taiwan relationship.

So I think, from the Chinese point of view, it's this string of actions. And now you have Pelosi's visit, as well. My guess is that the Chinese will, especially with the party congress upcoming, that they will have to do something to show their serious displeasure with this visit. Exactly what that is, I don't know. The concern is that, you know, the Chinese will will do some sort of escalation. There's just inherent risk when something like that happens, and, with a lot of military forces in the neighborhood of one another, that there could be some sort of accident or incident that escalates.

Taiwanese military exercise with a plane and shoulders
Taiwan is regularly conducting military drills to repel a Chinese attackImage: Daniel Ceng Shou-Yi/Zuma/picture alliance

What is your reading into what Nancy Pelosi wants to achieve? And what do you think is feasible for her to achieve?

The reason that I have questioned the wisdom of this visit is I don't think there's very much that it will achieve, and, in fact, I actually think in some ways it's undermining the unity within the US about cross-strait issues. Because now you've got Joe Biden separated to some degree from Nancy Pelosi on a major policy issue, which is not healthy. I'm guessing that Pelosi wants to go because she's been a longtime critic of the Communist Party. She famously went to Tiananmen in 1989 and spoke out in favor of the protesters. So this is not a new approach for her, but it's not clear what this does specifically help Taiwan.

And I think that's the problem with this type of visit. Taiwan needs a lot of help with things we could do on the US-Taiwan economic relationships or things we could do to help Taiwan militarily. But visits and rhetoric do not really, in my view, help in those kinds of ways. So I think it's sort of a high-risk, low-reward trip.

In the telephone conversation between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping just a couple of days ago, there were threats from the Chinese side, while Joe Biden clearly was trying to reassure that there was no US policy change on China, particularly in relation to Taiwan. Where does that leave the outlook on this trip?

I feel better than I did two or three days ago. I think the Biden-Xi virtual meeting went about as well as it could have gone. There is no world in which Xi Jinping was going to say: The Pelosi trip is fine — we're not going to escalate. But there was a world in which the Chinese could have been much more direct and angry than I think they were in the meeting. So I'm cautiously optimistic that there are some paths out of this crisis.

I think we have to be realistic that we are going to have a very tense next week. And the day or two around Pelosi's actual visit could be a very, very tense period. But I guess I'm at a point now where I'm hopeful that we can avoid what I had thought might be the Taiwan Strait crisis — the last one in 1995-'96 — and this might be a lower level irritant and not something we look back on as such a major event.

How close are we to a military confrontation if Nancy Pelosi does set foot on Taiwan?

You know, 10%-20% is my guess. It's just inherently risky anytime these forces are so close to each other. So I think that's the risk and it's possible that the Chinese will take some significant escalation. And just a quick point on that: It's not just the US and China that are involved, but also Taiwan — so you've got three parties here that have to work their way out of this crisis.

Zack Cooper is the co-director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.