The solo visit by Blackburn was the fourth US delegation to Taiwan since Pelosi’s landmark visit, coming a few days after Indiana governor Eric Holcomb and a cross-party Japanese delegation, and just weeks after an 11-member delegation from Lithuania … Shortly before his arrival, Keiji Furuya, a member of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic party, tweeted: “China’s military provocations and other erratic behaviour pose a risk to the peace and safety of not only Taiwan, but east Asia as a whole.” … “A lot of what’s happening is symbolic. I don’t want to suggest it’s not important – it can have substantive effect,” said Raymond Kuo, a political scientist at the Rand Corporation. … “But in terms of Taiwan’s ability to defend itself [and] diversify its economic ties away from China … those policies haven’t been put in place yet. They’re coming down the pipe which is positive, and I think China’s action has spurred on unity in Congress and support from other countries.”
If whoever from the Biden administration did not overreact and unwisely leaked Speaker Pelosi’s planned visit to Taiwan to selected press, and then tried to mobilize the chorus of talking heads generating weeks of ever more hysterical punditry against the visit. And if the Chinese communists did not respond to this routine, nothing out of the ordinary visit with their ballistic missile tantrum (and to deliberately choose to include the Japanese EEZ in this belligerent overreaction ….). Given what we know about the global news cycle, the fixation of the Euro-American centric English language press on domestic and Euro-American news, honestly, how many people would have noticed that Speaker Pelosi or any of these subsequent delegations visited Taiwan? So was this a “Pelosi effect”? Or, is it a “Deliberate and unwise White House leak, DC foreign policy establishment, and the Chinese Communist Party” effect?
It is fair to think of the Pelosi effect as having reframed how the many parties – democratic Taiwan, its neighbor Japan, US national interest in the region, and the Chinese communists are discussed and covered in the west.
The conceptual framing of ‘symbolic’ v ‘ substantive’ is fascinating. When journalists cover foreign dignitaries visiting the White House I don’t recall ever seeing this framing. On the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine when western leaders visited Moscow, were those trips symbolic or substantive (most likely, as with most visits, both ….) I agree with Dr. Kuo that given the scale and immediacy of Chinese communist belligerence, these important foreign visits must be matched with sustained, multidomain, concrete action. And while imperial powers often are slow in reflection, an honest appraisal is that the US has been decades late in understanding the threat posed by the Chinese communists, distracted and navel-gazing for decades – urgent changes from the US are required in ensuring its West Pacific alliance system will survive the Chinese communist challenge.
An important reason why foreign dignitaries visiting Taiwan Republic is critical is that for decades the China Communist Party and the China KMT have tried to frame the “Taiwan Problem” as a domestic, end of the most recent Chinese civil war issue. Once Taiwan started electing its presidents and national legislators in 1996, the Chinese civil war-domestic problem could no longer stand. This is why President Lee and President Tsai’s seemingly mild and intuitive focus on democratic sovereignty bothers both China parties so much. The Chinese communist’s recent claim that the Taiwan Strait is “domestic, territorial water” is just another facet of this line of thinking. Speaker Pelosi and others, flying official aircraft, using their official titles, landing in a dual-use civilian/military air base in Taipei, visiting democratically elected national leaders in the Taiwanese executive and legislative branches, all without receiving permission (visas, flight clearance ….) from Beijing, punctures the positions held by the Chinese parties.
There is also much to be said for expanding the level of official contact between Taiwan and its democratic allies, including higher officials and military leaders. Given the gravity of the geostrategic threats posed by Beijing, isn’t it odd that the US Secretary of State doesn’t speak with the Taiwanese Foreign Minister on the phone, the Secretary of Defense, or the Joint Chief of Staff? Why shouldn’t the elected presidents of both nations speak regularly – to coordinate, clarify, to understand one another’s priorities and preferences? Such a breakthrough would be symbolic but also address glaring substantive problems. And given the innovations in online communications brought about because of the pandemic, one hope for greater creativity between DC, Taipei, and Tokyo. If it is too much still for President Tsai to fly to DC and visit the White House, why should she be prevented from attending Congressional and Executive branch-hosted online forums and meetings? And vice versa.
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