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Op-ed

Bret Stephens: Good for Pelosi; we can’t back down from a bully | GUEST COMMENTARY

FILE - People walk past a billboard welcoming U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in Taipei, Taiwan, Aug 3, 2022. Days after Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in Kabul, China staged large-scale military exercises and threatened to cut off contacts with the U.S. over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying, File)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan carries undeniable risks.

Beijing could respond by harassing U.S. Navy ships and aircraft in the area, with a distinct potential for collision or confrontation. It could seize the (largely demilitarized) Taiwanese island of Kinmen — better known to aficionados of the Cold War as Quemoy — which lies just a few miles off the Fujian coast. It could lend Moscow a hand in the war in Ukraine, perhaps by selling it the kinds of precision munitions the Russian military is reportedly running low on.

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A month ago, all of this might have added up to a plausible, if not exactly convincing, argument for the speaker of the House to skip Taiwan during her Asian tour, at least while the United States contends with other crises. But after her visit was effectively announced, it would have been catastrophic to back down.

Bullies often seek tests of strengths to probe for signs of weakness. And they always read efforts at conciliation as evidence of capitulation.

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That’s what’s happening now. “To win 100 victories in 100 battles is not the acme of skill,” Sun Tzu wrote. “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” If Beijing had gotten its way over something as seemingly minor as Ms. 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.

What happens next? Let’s first recap where we were.

Members of Congress have been visiting Taiwan for decades. In May, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., led a congressional delegation and met with President Tsai Ing-wen. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., led a bipartisan delegation in April. None of these sparked any kind of crisis.

In 1997, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich visited Taipei, stopping first in Beijing, where he warned his hosts that the United States would defend Taiwan militarily if it was attacked. “We never got into an argument,” Mr. Gingrich said at the time. “They never said, ‘Well, you can’t have that right — that’s interference.’ They said, ‘OK, noted.’ And then they basically would say: ‘Since we don’t intend to attack, you won’t have to defend. Let’s go on and talk about how we’re going to get this thing solved.’ And I think that’s very healthy.”

These visits all took place under diplomatic understandings that have governed U.S.-China-Taiwan relations since the 1970s: the one-China policy and the Taiwan Relations Act. But as China has felt its power rise — and sensed American power and resolve wane — it has written a new playbook: Make outrageous legal claims, turn alleged provocations into useful pretexts, take incremental but increasingly aggressive steps and use force only as a psychologically crushing last blow.

This is how it imposed dictatorial control over Hong Kong. It is how it is gradually gaining military dominion in the South China Sea. It is how it is seeking to undermine Japan’s sovereignty over some of its outlying islands.

And it is the approach it now appears to be using with Taiwan. Given the loss of face Beijing will believe it has suffered from Ms. Pelosi’s visit, you can expect that it will ratchet up the intimidation factor without risking outright war. Kinmen is ringed by islets that China could easily take as a show of force.

What should the U.S. do then? Don’t back down.

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  1. Congressional delegations ought to arrive in Taiwan every week for the next year.
  2. President Joe Biden should formally state what he has said repeatedly off the cuff: that the United States will intervene militarily if China seeks to invade Taiwan. He can underscore the point with frequent transits of U.S. Navy ships through the Taiwan Strait, along with an expansion of the secretive joint training exercises that American and Taiwanese special-operations forces have already conducted.
  3. The United States can also provide Taiwan with the kind of easily dispersed, easily hidden, asymmetric weapons that have done such damage to the Russians: Javelin anti-tank missiles, Switchblade “kamikaze” drones, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, naval-strike anti-ship missiles.
  4. Mr. Biden should propose sharp increases in military spending, particularly for the Navy, which now ranks behind China’s in terms of ship numbers. It would have bipartisan support both as an industrial policy and as a measure of global security.

With luck, China will accept that the ultimate costs of confrontation vastly outweigh the benefits. It is a lesson Russian President Vladimir Putin may have learned — albeit only after he invaded Ukraine and at a tragic price for the world. The key to saving Taiwan is to get that point across to Beijing now, before they blunder into similar tragedy. Cheers to Ms. Pelosi for standing firm.

Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times, where this originally appeared.


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