We all know that Nancy Pelosi, who likely has only a couple of months left as speaker of the House, decided to spend her summer vacation stirring up the entire Pacific theater for the apparent purpose of satisfying her ego. Just days after RIMPAC 2022 concluded—China sure knew the U.S. had just wrapped up the largest live fire exercise of the year in the Pacific—bully Pelosi shoved Joe Biden into a mud puddle and said she was going to Taipei.
For those worried about “showing weakness,” mark this: Biden was too weak to tell a member of his own party to stay out of trouble when he was sick with Covid, struggling to control inflation, and digging an ever deeper hole in Ukraine.
There was no real need for anyone to visit Taiwan this week. There was no crisis brewing, no event requiring anyone to “stand with Taipei,” support Taiwanese democracy, or start wearing colored masks. This mess was created by Nancy Pelosi, made worse by Joe Biden, and lit aflame by the Chinese.
Remember the advice your mom gave you on bullies? “Ignore them and they’ll go away.” Imagine China listening to its mom on this one and announcing, “We heard Nancy was going to Taipei. Neither Nancy nor Taipei are particularly important to the soon-to-be greatest economy in the world, so we’ll ignore them both.” If pressed for comment, Beijing could add, “We hope Nancy chokes on her dinner” and leave it at that.
But while Nancy the Bully imagined she was standing up to Beijing the Bully, pretty soon everyone joined in. So you have the New York Times—no stranger to losing its lunch money—saying that “Bullies often seek tests of strengths to probe for signs of weakness. And they always read efforts at conciliation as evidence of capitulation.”
The Times even quotes Sun Tzu (note to China watchers: if a pundit quotes Sun Tzu, duck; some B.S. is coming your way). “If Beijing,” the Times continued, “had gotten its way over something as seemingly minor as Pelosi’s visit, it would not have been merely a symbolic victory in a diplomatic sideshow. It would have changed the rules of the game. Rather than avert a diplomatic crisis, it would have hastened a strategic disaster: the further isolation of a democratic U.S. ally and key economic partner as a prelude to surrender, war or both.”
So there you have it. We just barely avoided a strategic disaster, a game-changer, a mere preclude to surrender or war… or both! Good golly! Lucky for us, Nancy landed the plane safely in Taipei.
It is time for some seriousness. China is not going to war with Taiwan. After all the smoke clears and overflights are tallied, China did only one substantive thing to punish Taiwan: it halted Taiwanese snack imports (including biscuits and pastries ahead of mooncake season) just before Pelosi’s arrival. That does not seem, Sun Tzu’s admonishment aside, akin to war nor surrender.
It actually really does not matter. Like Nancy Pelosi’s visit.
Do we need to walk through the rest of the Taiwan-China relationship? Between 1991 and March 2020, Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. China applied last September to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well.
China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. “One country, two systems” has not only kept the peace for decades, it has proven darn profitable for both sides. As Deng Xiaoping said of this type of modus vivendi, “Who cares what color a cat is as long as it catches mice?” China might one day seek to buy Taiwan, but until then, what incentive would it have to drop bombs on one of its best customers? Taiwan even attended the same Beijing Olympics Pelosi thought the U.S. should boycott.
An attack on Taiwan would likely induce a frightened Japan and South Korea to step over the nuclear threshold. China would thus face more powerful enemies. Further, a serious attack on Taiwan would severely damage its economy, and a stable economy is something Xi would no doubt see as part of the prize. Lastly, an attack on Taiwan would see Chinese killing Chinese, people who speak the same language and share several thousand years of culture.
Pre-Covid, travelers from China made 2.68 million visits a year to Taiwan, many of which were to visit relatives. Student exchanges between Taiwan and China began in 2011, with some 25,000 mainland kids studying in Taiwan. Even a “successful” attack would be near-political-suicide for Xi. An invasion of Taiwan would leave China politically isolated, economically damaged, and its reputation crippled. A failed attack could lead to a Taiwanese declaration of independence that China would be incapable of stopping.
Caution is not appeasement. Every diplomatic move is not a full-spectrum weighing out of strength. Tiananmen was 33 years and a major change or two of governments ago. Hong Kong was taken from China and colonized by the British before being returned to much the same status under Beijing. Same for Macao and the Portuguese. The U.S. fought China directly in Vietnam and Korea, and that did not bleed over into Taiwan. China went nuclear and did not invade Taiwan.
Strength and weakness do not rest on a single visit by someone as close to the end of her tenure as Nancy Pelosi. Bullies are going to bully, but China and Taiwan are not in that sort of relationship. They exist in a complex diplomatic dance, overshadowed by massive amounts of cross-straits commerce, investment, and travel. In every sphere outside the political and martial they grow closer together, not further apart, and much of the differences that do exist are promoted by the U.S. and an industry of “China experts” who thrive like dung beetles off the potential for conflict.