KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan — My 10th grade social studies class in Palo Alto, California, would often break into groans when our teacher, Ms. Stewart, played the news she’d recorded the previous night. One spring day in 1996, however, video of a U.S. aircraft carrier group heading toward the Taiwan Strait drew hoots and cheers in the classroom. My American classmates knew I was from Taiwan, and there was a genuine feel-good quality to the “cavalry coming to the rescue” of a friend in need.
The carrier group had been ordered by President Bill Clinton because China’s government, angered by a high-profile visit of the then-Taiwanese president, Lee Teng-hui, to the U.S., had fired volley after volley of missiles into the waters off Taiwan — a sovereign state that Beijing claims is part of its territory and demands other countries recognize as such. Clinton’s deployment of the carriers effectively put an end to what became known as the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis.
Taiwan has been relegated to serving as the proving ground for Great Power insecurities.
Today, I am back home in Kaohsiung after a recent trip abroad to Germany, and my feelings were decidedly more mixed than they were almost three decades ago as I watched a TV screen showing another dramatic development in Taiwan: the image of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plane landing in Taipei juxtaposed against the thinly veiled warnings from China’s Communist Party of impending retaliation.
As a university professor in international affairs in Taiwan, I couldn’t have been more excited. The visit is sure to prompt new geopolitical developments for my students to debate. These discussions will examine the fierce response expected from China, as well as whether Pelosi’s visit represents a culmination of pro-Taiwan policies begun in the Trump administration that signal a shift from the current U.S. stance of “ambiguity” in how it would respond to a Chinese attack on Taiwan to one in which the U.S. makes a definitive commitment to defend us.
But those two dynamics reveal the quandary in Pelosi’s visit. Yes, it is a strong signal of U.S. support to Taiwan. But whether the symbolism means anything concrete in policy terms is harder to ascertain, and its benefits might well be outweighed by the other side of the equation: how China interprets it. Should Beijing see the visit as signaling U.S. support for altering Taiwan’s ambiguous international status toward one of formal independence, China could respond aggressively, such as by isolating us economically or through provocative displays of military force.
Despite this danger, Taiwanese politicians from across the political spectrum have voiced support for Pelosi’s visit. Personally, I’m more ambivalent. Substantive U.S. support is indeed welcome and appreciated. On the surface, Pelosi’s declaration upon landing that the U.S. has an “unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant Democracy” shows solidarity against a common threat. But why does it have to come when relations between the U.S. and China are already tense? Could Pelosi’s visit trigger a Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis?
During my recent trip to Germany, where my friends are worried about how they’ll heat their homes this winter after the disruption in the gas supply from Russia stemming from the West’s opposition to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, I was repeatedly asked whether people in Taiwan were concerned that China might invade to claim the island by force — that China would draw inspiration from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine and take advantage of the fluid situation in Europe to make a move.
While I don’t think a Chinese attack or punitive strike is imminent, Pelosi’s arrival has me thinking about the fear and vulnerability Taiwan, like Ukraine, perpetually faces.
Taiwan has been relegated to serving as the proving ground for Great Power insecurities. China must demonstrate its resolve to punish Taiwan in the face of this visit, while the U.S. wouldn’t back down by scrapping the visit just because of Chinese rhetoric. Both sides are pointing fingers and shifting blame for escalating tensions, while Taiwan is uncomfortably caught in between.
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Still, it should be noted that the Taiwanese have had a long history of living in proximity to China without succumbing to its threats. After all, only through knowing one’s adversary can you reduce the likelihood of miscalculation. Compromises between Taiwan and China have been struck in the past, even in tense times, and we must remember that.
So while China’s threats toward Taiwan are real, Taiwan isn’t Ukraine. Taiwan, unlike what some media suggest, isn’t the most dangerous place on Earth. Taiwan’s economy and the relatively free movement of people and goods with China indicate a high level of mutual dependence. People in Taiwan aren’t fretting over China’s threats; they are likely more concerned about inflation than a military attack. Unfortunately, false prophecies can stoke our darkest fears — ironically increasing the chance that they come true.
Ultimately, it is up to the Taiwanese, rather than U.S. politicians, to chart our course with China. Pelosi’s call for solidarity can best be realized back in the U.S. by Congress’ passing substantive legislation that allows Taiwan to thrive while maintaining peace in the Indo-Pacific region, keeping it well-armed with credible deterrents but also leaving flexibility for dealing with Beijing. Support that enhances Taiwan’s standing by admitting it as an independent member of international forums and helping further its economic, technological and governance capabilities is also useful.
But it is Taiwanese citizens who will pay the price should things spiral out of control because of calculation or miscalculation. After Pelosi’s delegation leaves, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian regime will remain.
We in Taiwan have chosen to confront China through our example: Maintaining our democracy as a model for defiance of authoritarianism mere miles from the Chinese mainland is a daily reminder to the communist regime in Beijing that we will not be cowed. This approach has been effective in demonstrating that resistance is not futile, and it is one the Taiwanese themselves must continue.