By Ambassador John Bolton
This article first appeared in the Washington Examiner on July 24th. Click here to view the original article.
Whether or not Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) travels to Taiwan in August is a major foreign policy issue. Indeed, the answer will tell us a great deal about who actually controls American foreign policy: Washington or Beijing. We will see whether Xi Jinping’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy, which caught the Biden administration off guard at its inception, will work for Beijing regarding Pelosi.
China’s position on the status of Taiwan, not careful American calculations, has too long dominated U.S. diplomacy with Taipei. Too many in Washington have fretted about “damaging” relations with Beijing, with a few notable exceptions in recent administrations. Too few officials seem concerned either about America’s relations with Taiwan, an important Indo-Pacific ally, or about the damage that capitulating to Beijing would do to our credibility resisting its hegemonic aspirations worldwide.
Responding to Pelosi’s potential trip, China erupted, publicly and privately. “The United States is hollowing out and blurring up the ‘One China’ policy,” China’s U.S. ambassador complained. The White House responded that it still adheres to “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan, leaving the distinct impression Beijing’s intimidation was succeeding. Perhaps due to its overriding concern for climate change negotiations with China, the White House is working overtime to prevent (or at least postpone) Pelosi’s trip — if only it could figure out how.
Biden himself has not addressed the issue squarely, leaving concern about Pelosi’s trip to the Pentagon and worries about the speaker’s safety. Of course, China’s efforts to interfere in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, its menacing approaches by “fishing fleets” to the Senkaku Islands, which are disputed with Japan, its militarized assertion that the South China Sea constitutes a province of China, and its persistent harassment of Indian forces along the disputed border all indicate that any travel near China — not to mention within China — is potentially dangerous.
Of course, the source of the danger is China itself. Beijing creates the problem and then warns against it as if discussing threatening weather. If we simply accept that Middle Kingdom ultimatums alone will dictate our behavior, Beijing gets its way cost-free. Obviously, we should be clear-eyed in evaluating hostile threats, but our policymakers must learn to distinguish “wolf warrior” diplomatic theater from military reality.
What about the risks to China if it uses force against a Pelosi visit? She is, most importantly, an American citizen. She is also speaker of the House, a position the Constitution created, and, by statute, in the line of presidential succession. Her visit would be no vacation jaunt, whether she travels on military or commercial aircraft. Are we more intimidated by Chinese fist-shaking than they are by the retaliation we would unleash if they endangered the speaker’s safety? If that is true, America has a real problem, a severe one.
Pelosi’s travel highlights why America needs a forthright debate on the fundamentals of our relationship with Taiwan. Biden himself said openly he supported U.S. military involvement in Taiwan’s defense (unlike in Ukraine), but, as so often, his advisers walked that comment back. But jettisoning “strategic ambiguity” is not simply a legitimate viewpoint — it is now quite likely a near-consensus among serious analysts of American interests in the region. Integrating Taiwan into larger frameworks to constrain China makes sense not just for Taiwan but for other concerned neighbors such as Japan and South Korea.
Ultimately, of course, Washington should extend full diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. Doing so would be entirely consistent with the 1933 Montevideo Convention’s conditions for “statehood,” all of which Taiwan meets: defined territory, stable population, functioning government, and the ability to carry out international affairs. The only reason not to act is that Beijing would be unhappy. Given China’s unacceptably belligerent conduct around its Indo-Pacific periphery for the last several decades, however, it is time to recognize reality: Taiwan is a legitimately independent state.
In 1971, then-U.N. Ambassador George H.W. Bush first proposed “dual recognition” (full diplomatic linkages with both China and Taiwan) as a way to stave off expulsion of the Republic of China from the U.N. and its replacement by the People’s Republic of China. Both Taipei and Beijing rejected the compromise, but President Nixon maintained recognition of Taipei. Jimmy Carter mistakenly abandoned that position in 1979 by recognizing Beijing and ditching Taipei. Had Carter not folded dishonorably, the mainland could have done little more than grumble.
In fact, that’s still Beijing’s only real option to this day. Doing anything more than blustering is far riskier to them than to us. I recommended full recognition for Taiwan back in 2000, and the arguments still apply today. Let Pelosi go to Taiwan. It’s a good warm-up for the real thing.
John Bolton was national security adviser to President Donald Trump between 2018 and 2019. Between 2005 and 2006, he was the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.