The one thing Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit achieved
Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) visit to Taiwan has demonstrated one thing beyond question: The speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is a strategic genius — perhaps on par with Sun Tzu and Clausewitz and far exceeding that other strategic genius of the moment, Russian President Vladimir Putin. In one bold stroke, she has goaded Beijing into seriously overplaying its hand, baiting it into over-reacting to a more-or-less routine diplomatic gesture and so accelerating and amplifying the counterbalancing dynamics already at play in the region.
The result: The crystallization of an anti-hegemonic coalition in the Western Pacific that will effectively contain Chinese expansionism for decades to come.
I jest, of course. Nancy Pelosi is no strategic genius; Beijing has by no means overplayed its hand; and the speaker’s visit to Taiwan will have no such salutary impact on the regional balance of power. But her visit was consequential nevertheless; for at this pivotal moment in world affairs, it raises a crucially important question: How should the United States manage the complex and always-fraught three-way relationship between Beijing, Taipei and Washington?
Historically, there have been three discrete answers to this question, each shaped by the overarching geopolitical context of the moment.
The first of these answers crystalized during the early years of the Cold War. During that era – defined fundamentally by two antagonistic ideological blocs competing for supremacy in a rapidly decolonizing world – Washington recognized the anti-communist Kuomintang regime that had been forced to retreat to the island of Taiwan as the legitimate government of all of China. The relative weakness of the newly established People’s Republic of China (PRC), its alliance with the Soviet Union and the imperatives of the United States’s strategy of containment all inclined and enabled Washington to adopt a policy of robust support for Taiwan.
Diplomatically, this took the form of recognizing the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name) as encompassing all of the mainland and supporting its claim to China’s seat on the United Nations Security Council. Militarily, this support took the form of garrisoning the island with several thousand U.S. troops and deploying the U.S. Navy to patrol the Taiwan Strait, and even implicitly covering it with the American nuclear umbrella.
During the second half of the Cold War, both the global geopolitical context and Washington’s Taiwan policy changed dramatically. Geopolitically, rising Sino-Soviet tensions through the 1960s eventually resulted in Beijing leaving the Soviet bloc and siding (more or less) with the United States within the still-bipolar international order, shifting the global balance of power in favor of the West.
Diplomatically, this inclined and enabled Washington to downgrade its relationship with Taiwan. Perceiving the need to lock in its new strategic relationship with the PRC, in 1979 the United States shifted its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, withdrew its troops from the island and adopted a more ambiguous policy of “strategic ambiguity,” according to which Washington was not formally committed to defend Taiwan against China but was nevertheless committed “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” and “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”
And then, during the post-Cold War period of Pax Americana, the advent of a new unipolar order dominated by the United States converged with liberalizing reforms within the PRC to push the issue of Taiwan to the back burner. In the new era of neoliberal globalization and American military primacy, mutually beneficial economic relations between Taiwan and the PRC expanded dramatically, and fears that Beijing would use military force to “reincorporate” the island into its fold largely evaporated, especially after the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996 subsided.
This inclined and enabled Washington to continue to adhere to its policy of strategic ambiguity, which continued to work because it was reflective of, and consistent with, both the balance of power on the global stage and the constellation of interests at play within the Beijing-Taipei-Washington relationship.
In all three of these historical cases, the United States crafted a Taiwan policy that was consistent with the logic of the then-prevailing international order. The result: Taiwan was secured, broader U.S. interests in the region and around the world advanced and – not trivially – major war was avoided.
Now, however, we have entered a radically different geopolitical moment — one that renders all previous answers to the Taiwan question moot. Both the Cold War and the post-Cold War unipolar moment have come and gone. In their place has crystallized a new international order — one that is defined by a more multipolar distribution of power, by the terminal demise of the institutional operating system built by the U.S. in 1945 and coming fully into its own with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, and by the definitive end of the “end of history” fairytale — the utopian delusion that in the aftermath of the Cold War the world had entered a time in which wars of conquest would be no more.
In this new geopolitical world, the U.S. can’t simply deploy troops to Taiwan to secure the island as it did early in the Cold War. Nor can it count on Chinese military weakness and its inability to carry out a cross-strait amphibious assault — if Beijing doesn’t already have that capability, it soon will. Nor, finally, can it count on China’s leaders eschewing military action (invasion or blockade) in the interests of further integrating itself into the U.S.-dominated liberal international economic order.
While that was once China’s overriding interest, those days are long past. In short, in this new geopolitical moment, Washington cannot fall back on its old playbook for managing its relationship with Taiwan and the PRC. The rules have changed, and the relative abilities of the players have shifted to the point where that playbook is simply irrelevant.
And that brings us back to Mrs. Pelosi’s brief stopover in Taipei. If her decision to visit Taiwan, and all the storm and fury that surrounded it, can be said to have achieved anything, it is that it has raised once again the question of how the United States should answer the Taiwan question. It is worth recalling that Washington has answered this question correctly on three previous occasions, each time prudently trimming its policy sails to the then-prevailing geopolitical winds.
The challenge now is to gauge those winds anew and once again trim the sails of our Taiwan policy accordingly. Let’s hope that those with their hands on the tiller in Washington are as adept at judging the geopolitical winds as their predecessors.
Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.