US expert: “Nancy Pelosi's rhetoric does not help Taiwan”

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Nancy Pelosi's Asian tour heightens tensions between China and the US. Because the US Democrat has not ruled out a visit to Taiwan. A DW expert interview on the risks of the trip.

The US guided missile destroyer USS Sampson on a routine operation in the Taiwan Straits in April

Deutsche Welle: Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi has left open whether she will also visit Taiwan as part of her Asia trip. Do you have an explanation for that?

Zack Cooper: My guess is that she wants to keep her options open, but I think it's pretty clear at this point that she's going to Taiwan. I would be very surprised if she didn't.

What are the risks of such a trip from the US perspective?

First of all, I would like to emphasize that Nancy Pelosi has every right to go to Taiwan. There is no doubt about that. There is nothing in US policy or US law that could prevent them from doing so.

But there are a number of risks. In my opinion, it's about Beijing's feeling that the US could cut elements of its previous policy towards Taiwan in a kind of salami tactic. For example, Joe Biden made three major misstatements about US policy toward Taiwan. And two senior Republicans, Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper, recently traveled to Taipei and proposed abandoning the US stance on the “One China” policy. Also, legislation is under consideration in the US Congress that would change some aspects of US-Taiwan relations.

Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, has embarked on a trip to Asia to Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan

From the Chinese point of view, it is a series of measures. And now Pelosi's visit is or would be added. I assume that Beijing must do something to express its serious displeasure with this visit. I don't know exactly what that will be. The fear is that the Chinese could start some kind of escalation.

What are the goals that Nancy Pelosi wants to achieve? And what do you think is achievable for them?

The reason I question the wisdom of this visit is that I don't think it will do much. And I think the visit undermines political unity. Joe Biden now has, to some degree, a different position from Nancy Pelosi on an important political issue, which is not healthy. I suspect Pelosi wants to visit Taiwan because she has long been a critic of the Chinese Communist Party. She was in Tiananmen Square in 1989 speaking out for the protesters. So this is not a new approach.

But it's not clear exactly how this is supposed to help Taiwan. And that's the problem with this kind of visit. Taiwan needs a lot of help when it comes to economic relations with the US or military cooperation. But visits and rhetoric don't really help. So for me, this is a high-risk, low-reward journey.

Watch Video 02:05

Biden and Xi Jinping: Meeting via video conference

In the phone conversation between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping a few days ago, there were threats from the Chinese side, while Joe Biden tried to make it clear that there was no change in the US policy towards China, and in particular towards Taiwan. What about the outlook for this trip?

I feel better than I did two or three days ago. The virtual meeting between Biden and Xi went as well as it could have gone. Because there is no world where Xi Jinping would say: The Pelosi trip is fine, we will not react. But there is a world where the Chinese could have been a lot more direct and angry than I think they were at the meeting. So I'm cautiously optimistic that there are some ways out of this crisis. The day or two surrounding Pelosi's visit could be very tense. But I am confident that a crisis in the Taiwan Strait could be avoided – the last one was in 1995-96. The trip might be a minor annoyance and not something we will look back on as a big event.

How close are we to a military confrontation if Nancy Pelosi sets foot on Taiwanese soil?

I put the risk at 10-20 percent. And it is possible that Beijing will set in motion a significant escalation. And one more brief note: There are three parties involved in a conflict here – China, the USA and Taiwan – which must find their way out of this crisis.

The interviewer was Michaela Küfner.

Zack Cooper is Associate Director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. The alliance is a project of the “German Marshall Fund of the United States” foundation, which is committed to promoting transatlantic relations.