We are heading to a Taiwan crisis
Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here, and a Quick Take for you as we kick off this Monday on Taiwan. Not the place we wanted to be talking about. Certainly not the place Biden wanted to be talking about. But it looks like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is going to Taiwan after all. Biden himself did not know, late last week. And Pelosi had announced her Asia trip this weekend, with four countries listed. On a quick read, it looked like that said she wasn't going, but actually just left it out. It did say in the note that it was including those four states, so clearly they were leaving themselves space.
It is surprising, frankly, because President Biden absolutely didn't want Pelosi to go on this trip. Certainly not now. Certainly in the run-up to the Party Congress and Xi Jinping's succession for this third term. He had found out, and the White House had found out a couple of weeks ago, that she was planning the trip. This was private at this point. None of it was in the media.
And the White House made it very clear to Pelosi's office that they didn't think this was a good idea; that it would be seen as provocative and would lead to escalation. Didn't mean she had to cancel. Could mean she could postpone after the Party Congress. They understood that she wanted to make this trip while she's still Speaker of the House, looking forward to her legacy and because she's been historically very strong-willed and outspoken on China and democracy issues for decades. But not right now.
Unfortunately, that back and forth leaked. The fact that Pelosi was going on the trip, was planning to go on the trip, leaked. And that of course made life a lot more difficult because, once it's out there publicly, if Pelosi then says she's not going, she looks like she's backing down, and she doesn't care. And so much for her democracy legacy. And she's pretty strong-willed. And if Biden lets her go, then, it looks like he's can't keep a hold on his own Democratic caucus.
And if meanwhile, she cancels, then it looks like Biden's being soft on Taiwan. And look, this is a bad look for everybody. And what's the principal takeaway? I guess one is that maybe 80 year olds shouldn't be making big decisions on US foreign policy. But to look into the issue itself, we should recognize, over the last year and a half, the headlines on Taiwan had been frequently that Biden is being too tough on Taiwan. That he's saying, three times now, that the United States would defend Taiwan if China attacks it. And that, at face value, is a change in stated US-Taiwan policy.
Biden's also made it clear he wasn't changing Taiwan policy. But the headlines were all that he was being too tough. Now it's, "Biden's being too soft on Taiwan. Why is he pushing Pelosi not to go? Everyone has the right to." Back when Gingrich was House Speaker, he went and visited Taiwan. That's of course decades ago. And it was very different. The balance of power between the US and China was different then. But also, the timing was not as significant in potentially embarrassing the Chinese leadership, making them feel like they're losing face and have to respond.
The world has changed. And the Chinese have been very clear. They were warning the United States not to do this; that this would lead to a significant reaction, both military and diplomatic from the Chinese. I do accept them at their word on that. I'm sure there are going to be many people that say, "How dare the Chinese tell the Americans what to do?" And, "This is not something the US likes at all." That's true. And the Americans certainly aren't used to other countries telling them that there are red lines. But of course, the Americans do it all the time. And do it to China all the time. And the Chinese, when it really matters to the Americans, usually accept it.
For example, when the Americans told China just a couple months ago, "We hear that you're thinking about providing military support to the Russians. Do not dare or else. We know you're thinking about breaking sanctions on Russia. Don't you dare or else." And the Chinese response was they weren't happy about it, of course. In fact, they were pretty angry about it. But they ended up ceding to American demand. So, it's not as if suddenly the Chinese have all the power and the Americans no longer tell the Chinese what to do.
The US has the global reserve currency, a much bigger economy, the dominant global military. And power is asymmetrically still very much in the hands of the United States around the world. But this issue does really matter to China, more than almost anything else on the global stage. And of course, China doesn't see Taiwan as a foreign policy issue. They see it as a domestic policy issue.
The Americans of course, most assertively do not. And that hence creates this policy of strategic ambiguity where both sides try to coexist with dueling perceptions of reality that don't really line up with each other.
Biden is not personally responsible for Pelosi going. Again, he tried to stop her. But at the same time, he is Commander in Chief. She is taking a military plane. If he had really wanted to stop her, he could have. He chose not to. He didn't want that confrontation with Pelosi. So now, he's going to have it with the Chinese.
Look, the impact. China says there's going to be a military response. The likelihood of a direct military confrontation, where the Chinese would escort the plane out of China airspace, I think is vanishingly small. The Chinese military is obviously not going to shoot down Pelosi's plane. That would cause war. But there's going to be a high military alert on both sides. And greater mistakes are clearly possible. And inadvertent escalation's clearly possible in that environment.
I think, more broadly, what we would expect would be that China will change what it considers to be the red lines of Taiwan sovereignty at their Party Congress. Who can visit Taiwan for example, or how the Taiwanese business people are allowed, and under what conditions, to conduct business with mainland China, all of which would be seen as significantly escalatory and creating greater tripwires that could lead to direct confrontation between the US and China, and American allies and China, over Taiwan. Absolutely not what anyone right now wants to see. Not the Americans dealing with a cold war with elements of hot war with the Russians over Ukraine. And more broadly, not the Chinese dealing with a significant economic challenge with zero-COVID and a plummeting demographics and all sorts of internal economic bubbles that's making it harder for them to manage their system.
Nobody really wants a crisis over Taiwan right now. And yet, that's exactly where we seem to be heading. It's still true, of course, Pelosi's not there yet. And while there has been reporting from the United States and from Taiwan and from China that she's intending to go, she could still decide not to make this trip at the last moment. Certainly, I personally hope that's the decision that she makes. The Biden administration certainly hopes that. The Chinese government certainly hopes that. We will see. But as they say, "Hope is not a policy," and everyone has to prepare for the worst potential outcomes here.
At the beginning of August, it's supposed to be quieter. And yet, we know frequently August doesn't give it what we want. That's it for me. And I hope everyone's doing well. Talk to you all real soon.
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