House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled with a congressional delegation to Taiwan this week, where she met with President Tsai Ing-wen and national lawmakers despite aggressive rhetoric and threats from the Chinese Communist Party.
Pelosi, D-Calif., the first current U.S. leader to visit Taiwan since former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., did so in 1997, tweeted about her trip: “Our discussions with Taiwan leadership reaffirm our support for our partner & promote our shared interests, including advancing a free & open Indo-Pacific region.”
Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, has kept an eye on the Pelosi trip to Taiwan since the House speaker’s plans were leaked last month.
“It was really important that she do it—a speaker of the House going to Taiwan, demonstrating American support for Taiwan. It’s doubly important to do it once the Chinese called her out for it,” Lohman says.
Lohman joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, whether the United States should change its policy toward Taiwan, and whether the visit could spark a dangerous confrontation with Communist China.
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Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Samantha Renck: Joining the podcast today is Walter Lohman, who has been the director of the Asian Studies Center here at The Heritage Foundation for over 15 years. He is in studio to discuss House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan this week. Walter, thank you so much for joining us.
Walter Lohman: Sure. Thanks for having me.
Renck: Speaker Pelosi landed in Taipei on Tuesday night. She met with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, as well as Taiwanese lawmakers. First and foremost, what do you think of Speaker Pelosi’s following through with her trip given the fierce rhetoric coming out of China and the opposition from President [Joe] Biden and the Pentagon?
Lohman: Well, actually, it doesn’t surprise me at all. She first mentioned this back in April, she was planning on going, and she got COVID. And at the time a lot of people speculated, “Well, OK. Yeah, sure. Really, COVID? You’re not going because the Chinese weren’t happy.” But in fact, I never doubted she would reschedule and be back on. And once it was scheduled, I didn’t doubt that she would follow through on the trip.
It’s really important that she do it, a speaker of the House going to Taiwan, demonstrating American support for Taiwan. It’s doubly important to do it once the Chinese called her out for it. Because at that point, they’re dictating to us who may and may not visit Taiwan or after Taiwan, maybe it’s someplace else, they’re not happy about where we go or maybe somebody else in our government that they’re not pleased visit Taiwan. So it was really important that she go.
Renck: Definitely. And what was your assessment of Pelosi and what she had to say while she was in Taiwan, and her messaging on social media, as well as her op-ed that she wrote for The Washington Post?
Lohman: I thought it was pretty tight messaging. I think she’s trying to be firm about U.S. commitment to Taiwan, at the same time portraying it as nothing out of keeping with traditional U.S. policy in the region. And I think she’s right about that, as has been advertised all over now.
Speaker [Newt] Gingrich went to Taiwan 25 years ago. Congressional delegations go all the time. It’s a regular occurrence for congressional delegations to go to Taiwan. Members, senators, and Cabinet-level officials go from time to time. So there is really nothing unprecedented by what she did. I think there was a bigger problem, though, with the administration’s response.
I think Biden was wrong for trying to call her back on it. I don’t know if that was advised by a staff or what, it seemed sort of an impromptu thing, but it was wrong for him to try to hold her back.
They later tried to make up for that by deferring to her, etc., which, really, they have no choice. She’s the speaker of the House. She can go if she wants to. It’s our divided government, our sort of separation of powers, but he should not have done that. He made this situation much worse.
As far as the Pentagon’s concerned, I’m not really sure what the Pentagon thought, to tell you the truth.
The administration, Biden himself, said something about the military “doesn’t think it’s a good idea.” We don’t know what that meant. We don’t know who it was, what he was talking about exactly. And at the end of the day, there was no danger to Pelosi’s safety or whatever.
There’s some bigger issues maybe we can talk about there, but the sort of hyperbolic concerns at the moment that they were going to invade Taiwan over this and all the rest did prove to be that hyperbolic.
Renck: Yeah. I want to talk a little bit more about President Biden and these military leaders that were opposed to the speaker’s trip, advising that it wasn’t a good idea at this time.
As you mentioned earlier, Speaker Pelosi was set to visit Taiwan back in April, got COVID, visited this week. Now that Pelosi has visited Taiwan, does this make Biden look bad or weak? What message does her visit send to China?
Lohman: I think Biden’s reaction does look bad and that’s why he tried to turn it around and approach it a little bit differently later.
Again, like I say, I’m not sure that the military had a concern. I know that Biden said the military had a concern. Who knows what that means? But yeah, it makes him look bad. It makes him look bad in the face of the Chinese that he’s buckling to their pressure.
Maybe he has some other things he’s trying to do with the Chinese. Clearly he had this telephone call with [Chinese President] Xi Jinping last week. Maybe that was his concern. His people worked to put this thing together. He seems very eager for a conversation with Xi Jinping and he didn’t want to jeopardize that. And he was afraid that was going to be jeopardized.
Could be that, could be climate change cooperation, health care cooperation. Matter of fact, they came out of the call between Xi and Biden and talking about the ability to cooperate on things, environmental issues and health care issues, pandemics, and that sort of thing. So maybe he has some idea.
He’s generally trying to calm things with China, I think, over the last year. And I guess he saw this as getting in the way of that.
In terms of the message that her trip sends to China, it’s that you can’t bully the United States. It’s also an important point to make about the way our government works.
Their government works one way, OK? Whatever. We can talk about that in another podcast, how their government works. But the way our government works is that Congress is separate from the executive branch and Congress determines whether the speaker goes, whether the majority leader goes, what kind of delegations they send, what kind of statements they make, what kind of laws and resolutions and things like that they pass.
They could pass a resolution tomorrow that says, “We reject the whole ‘One China’ policy. We want independence for Taiwan.” They could do that. And there’s nothing that the president can do about it.
Had this trip been canceled, Biden would’ve sent just the opposite message. He would’ve sent the message that, “Actually, our system doesn’t work like that. You can press me and I’ll make my people fall in line.” And that would’ve been terrible. So it’s so important that she followed through with this.
Renck: And in terms of Pelosi’s trip itself, do you have any thoughts on the speculation over who might have leaked the trip in the first place, whether it was the Biden administration or someone from Pelosi’s own office? Do you think it matters?
Lohman: Yeah. I don’t know. It’s one of those things where you just have to think who had the motive to do it, right? Total speculation, but I don’t see how Pelosi would have the motive to do it. Look at all that happened once it came out, right? Closer she could get without anyone noticing, the better.
And I don’t think the Taiwanese would leak it for the same reason. They don’t want pressure to build so that she has to cancel. They wanted her to go. They were never going to tell her, “Forget about it. We didn’t know it was going to be so much trouble,” because of course they did know it was going to be trouble. They’re not going to tell her. …
Again, I’m speculating, but I could imagine there are people within the administration who thought you could leak this out and you could raise enough noise that the pressure would build and you’d have to cancel it.
Renck: I want to talk a little bit about Taiwan itself now and what impact Pelosi’s trip might have on the island itself. According to some reports on Wednesday, the Chinese military is planning to launch joint military operations around Taiwan. What do you make of this?
Lohman: Well, we had a crisis, they call it the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis, back in ’95, ’96. And at that time, the Chinese were doing a similar thing, protesting some moves in the United States, they were launching missiles in the streets. And the U.S. responded with two carrier battle groups deployed to the region just to show them that we had enough to protect Taiwan if it came to that.
I think that the Chinese are doing this sort of mirror image of that this time. So they’re proving to us that they have what it takes to blockade Taiwan, to take Taiwan if they had to. I don’t think it’s a prelude to them invading anytime soon. Anytime soon being like this week, next week, this year. But it’s to show us that they can do it.
That incident back in ’95, ’96 shaped the Chinese military basically for the next 25 years. Everything they were doing has been focused on Taiwan, focused on the ability to deal with U.S. aircraft carriers, shaping their doctorate and their personnel training and all that around that possibility. So they’re trying to give us the same thing, the same sort of cathartic experience that they had in ’95, ’96.
Renck: Now, the Chinese also banned imports of Taiwanese pastries, baked goods, fish, sand, which is used for building. Is this more hurtful or harmful to Taiwan than it sounds?
Lohman: It’s harmful. It’s not as harmful as some other things that they’ve done in the past along those lines.
The fish, as I understand it, they’ve targeted is not the most popular fish that they export, but they’ve targeted more popular fish in the past, the fish that’s very important to Taiwanese economy.
It’ll hurt, it’s designed to hurt, but it’s something the Chinese do all the time and they do not just to Taiwan, they did to Australia, they do to the Europeans. This is their retaliation.
They always do it with a sort of plausible deniability where they say, “Well, we have to inspect this and we inspected, it has pests in it.” And so they don’t say it’s because of what you did, but coincidentally, the ban comes just after they objected to something that you did.
Renck: And then what about the cyberattacks against Taiwanese government websites? Is that kind of the same idea as what we were just talking about or is that a little bit more severe?
Lohman: I think that goes back to this warning idea, that what they can do. I still wouldn’t rule out them doing something like that to us just to give us a hint that if they really want to shut down cyber, they can shut it down. If we ever fight a war with China, a lot of the preparation for the war is going to be in cyberspace.
You remember back in the day that both the first and second Gulf wars, the U.S. Air Force prepped to the ground, right? They bombed for days and days and weeks before the ground invasion started. Cyberspace is a little bit like that now. They’ve got to shut things down on cyberspace to get there. And so they’re showing that they can do it.
And by the way, they’re bombarding Taiwanese cyberspace all the time in their social media networks and that sort of thing, trying to prep them for a more peaceful unification, but just the same, bring them into China.
Renck: And you mentioned this a little bit in your last answer in terms of potentially going to war with China, do you think that this visit could start World War III or do you think they could use it as an excuse to attack the United States?
Lohman: I don’t think so, no. I think the fact that they’re doing these exercises over a very finite period of time—they start them on Thursday, the day after she leaves. And they’ve said they’re going to do it for three days. So I see that more as a warning, a preparation, a training sort of thing.
But the message is that, “We can invade, and if things don’t go our way, we will.” And they’ve been very clear for that for a long time, that unless there is some sort of peaceful unification, we reserve the right to do it in a unpeaceful way. And so the U.S. has to be prepared for that eventuality.
Every day, the Chinese military grows in strength and the U.S. military is actually getting weaker. And so they’re in a better position all the time.
The best-case scenario for Beijing is that just becomes obvious to everyone and that they never have to invade, but they get to what they want. They don’t really want a war. Nobody really wants a war. They want what they want, and they go to war to get it. If they can get it without going to war, they won’t.
And so the more they can prove this strategic advantage of the United States, this increased fire power and sort of discourage the United States from ever doing anything to respond, the closer they are to their goal.
Renck: I want to talk a little bit about some comments from the Pentagon press secretary, John Kirby, from earlier this week. He said on Monday that the United States does not support Taiwan independence. He also emphasized that the United States’ One China policy has not changed and is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act. Are Kirby’s remarks significant in any way?
Lohman: They’re just a restatement of standard U.S. policy for 40 years. That’s the catechism. TRA, the Three Communiques, and the Six Assurances, they stand as like the basis of our One China policy.
A lot of times you hear that Chinese talking about “One China” principle, that’s a different thing. That’s their way of looking at it. One China principle means that Taiwan and China are one country and don’t interfere with that. One China policy is our policy where we don’t acknowledge that. So he was just restating it.
I think any time a American official restates that, it’s usually to reassure either the Taiwanese or the Chinese that nothing has changed, that we still support this kind of ambiguous situation between the two, but we support Taiwan’s continued de facto independence and its ability to determine its own future.
Renck: And do you think, given the rise in aggression that we’ve seen coming out of Beijing, do you think it’s time for the United States to change its policy for Taiwan? What are the alternatives, if so?
Lohman: Personally, I don’t think so. I think it works fine like it does. What I think we need to have is a certain certainty on the capability of the U.S. military. So if you have a certainty that the U.S. can deal with whatever the Chinese might do, you don’t need to make the other statements about what we would definitely do. On the other hand, if you say what you will definitely do, but you don’t have the means to back it up, that’s no good either.
Actually, the person who stated this the best for a president was Donald Trump, who in 2020, in August 2020, he was asked the question. He said, “The Chinese know what I will do.” And the reporter pressed him and said, “Well, but can you be more specific in ways?” “No, I don’t want to be specific. I don’t need to be specific. The Chinese know.”
And that’s exactly what the policy is. We want to make sure they understand that we’re going to do this without saying it out loud, because that then sort of catalyzes the environment in the same way we were afraid that Nancy Pelosi’s visit might catalyze the environment.
Renck: Yes. Walter, thank you so much for joining me. Before we end, I just wanted to ask if there were any other important points that you wanted to talk about that you think might be missed in the media coverage of Speaker Pelosi’s visit this week to Taiwan.
Lohman: No, I think that’s it. This sort of thing should continue. I would hope that if [House Minority Leader] Kevin McCarthy is the next speaker next year, I hope he would go. He has said he will go. I think it’s important for him to do it now that he’s said it. I think as many congressmen senators as possible could go. I think the president should send a Cabinet-level official.
And we can debate over what the Cabinet-level official, who that is and how high a level official that is, etc. But there’s so much more we need to do with Taiwan to give them this assurance and then to back it up with real power to support those assurances.
Renck: Walter Lohman, thank you so much for joining me today to speak about Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan. I really appreciate it, and I hope you’ll join me again in the future.
Lohman: Absolutely. Thank you.
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