Nancy Pelosi's Taiwan visit opens another hot front for conflict

US House Speaker has been a known critic of Communist China even early in her career

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By Chidanand Rajghatta

Published: Wed 3 Aug 2022, 9:40 PM

In one of her many interviews, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi once told a reporter that when she goes to work on Capitol Hill, seat of the US Congress, she puts on a suit of armour and eats nails for breakfast. “I know how to take a punch,” she told the interviewer in a CNN profile of what was called Badass Women of Washington.

They don't come badder than her. She tactfully avoided mentioning that she also knows how to deliver punches -- and worse. Ask Donald Trump: illustrations that highlighted their clashes show him being walked all over by Pelosi, even getting impaled on her stilettos. Or ask Xi Jinping, or even the pugilistic Joe Biden, both of whom have just been kayoed by the 82-year-old grandmother of nine children and mother of five.

Pelosi is an extraordinary figure in American politics. Although hailing from a political family on the East Coast -- her father was a Congressman from Maryland and later the Mayor of Baltimore, as was her brother -- she did not overtly enter politics till she was in her 40s, with motherhood taking precedence. When she did enter Congress, it was from distant California, her husband's Paul Pelosi's home. And once she did, there was no stopping her as she rose to become the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives in US history - a powerful position not only because she is second in line of succession to the Presidency but also because the Speaker drives the legislative agenda of the ruling party.

Even early in her career, she was a known critic of Communist China. In fact, a video clip that has surfaced on social media shows her unfurling a pro-democracy banner on Tiananmen Square -- before she and her colleagues are hustled away by police -- during a visit there in the early 90s. There is background to her activism: Her legislative district in San Francisco includes a huge Asian population (32 per cent compared to 44 per cent White), including many Chinese dissidents, Taiwanese and Tibetan nationalists. It is also a solidly liberal district (Pelosi usually wins 80 per cent of the votes without even campaigning) in a state that is home to Hollywood and a myriad liberal political causes. She has been poking China in the eye for a long time, particularly with her closeness to the Dalai Lama, a frequent guest at her home -- including her political home, the US Congress, which she has ensured has honored him multiple times. Beijing blowing a gasket at her visiting Taiwan was hardly a surprise. She has been a red rag to China for a long time.

President Biden, three years younger than her in age but older in legislative experience (he became a Senator at 29), tried to caution her against visiting in keeping with the strategic ambiguity Washington practices vis-a-vis China and Taiwan. On the one hand, the US professes adherence to a one-China policy that virtually delegitimizes Taiwan's existence as a sovereign independent nation. On the other hand, there is the Taiwan Relations Act that underwrites the defense of Taiwan by pledging that "the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capabilities." The act further asserts that the United States will "consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States."

The one-China policy is an executive decision. The Taiwan Relations Act is a legislative commitment. US lawmakers like to assert their independence, particularly when the President is construed as weak. Note how Joe Manchin, a Democratic Senator, is virtually holding the whole party hostage on a range of issues. Biden appeared to suggest initially that Pelosi should not risk going to Taiwan in the face of China's threat because "the US military thinks it is not a good idea" – implicitly hinting that it could have military consequences. But once Beijing threw down the gauntlet, implicitly threatening a military response to any visit, there was no stopping Pelosi. She is not the kind to be intimidated -- and backing down would have sent a wrong geo-political signal globally from the US. Once she decided to go, Washington -- and the US military -- were obliged to protect her.

What the trip has done is shredded the strategic ambiguity Washington practised for so long. Once in Taipei, Pelosi pledged America’s “unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant Democracy” virtually dragging Washington out to the fight. In vain did Biden aides point out to the fact that the US House Speaker visiting Taiwan was not unusual, that there was a precedent in Newt Gingrich going there in 1997. But that was a different era, and a different China. Beijing has now said it will not take this diplomatic slight lying down. And it now has the capacity. As if the world was not dealing with enough geo-political and economic tensions, another hot front has opened up. - The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington

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