Much Ado About Nancy Pelosi and China

by | Aug 13, 2022


China policy seems to be made by, and written about by, adults who were often beaten up on the school playground. They retain the language of bullying, and weaknesses, and standing up, and the fantasy that something would sweep in and save them from losing another days’ lunch money (maybe an aircraft carrier group?) That these people are now in control of the media, if not the House, does nothing good for anyone, especially anyone located on either side of the Taiwan Strait. American seems dumb enough to play at this game; is Beijing also?

By now we all know Nancy Pelosi, likely with only a couple of months left as Speaker of the House, decided to spend her summer vacation stirring up the entire Pacific theater for what appears to be largely her own ego. Just days after RIMPAC 2022 concluded (China sure knew the US just wrapped up the largest live fire exercise of the year in the Pacific, involved a dozen nations and hundreds of ships and planes all aimed at the “Blue” team defeating the “Red” team across thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean. While the NYT editorial team was putting ice on their fat lips over in the Ron Burgundy Lounge, Beijing sure saw RIMPAC and Pelosi as part of the same) bully Pelosi shoved Joe Biden into a mud puddle and said she was going to Taipei. For those worried about “showing weakness,” mark this: Biden was too weak to tell a member of his own party to stay out of trouble when he was sick with Covid, sick with inflation, and digging an ever deeper hole in Ukraine, another war with no endgame but wait for the other side to win.

There was no great need for anyone to visit Taiwan this week. There was no crisis brewing, no event requiring anyone to stand with Taipei, support its democracy, or start wearing colored masks, not that the arrival of a lame duck Speaker would accomplish that or anything else in an quick show and tell. Nope, this mess was created by a Nancy Pelosi who wanted to show off, made worse by Joe Biden being too weak to stop her, and then exacerbated all to heck by China infusing much meaning into something that could have been shrugged off as having very little to say for itself.

Remember the advice your mom gave you on bullies? Ignore them and they’d go away? Imagine China listening to their mom on this one and announcing “We heard Nancy was going to Taipei. Neither Nancy nor Taipei are particularly important to the soon-to-be greatest economy in the world, so we’ll ignore them both.” If pressed for comment Beijing could add “But we hope Nancy chokes on her dinner” and leave it at that.

But while Nancy the Bully imagined she was standing up to Beijing the Bully, pretty soon everyone had to stand with, show up, not back down. So you have the New York Times, no stranger to losing its lunch money while being pantsed on the playground, saying “Bullies often seek tests of strengths to probe for signs of weakness. And they always read efforts at conciliation as evidence of capitulation.” The Times even quotes Sun Tzu (note to China watchers: if a pundit who does not read Chinese quotes Sun Tzu, duck, some b.s. is coming your way.) “If Beijing,” the Times continued, “had gotten its way over something as seemingly minor as Pelosi’s visit, it would not have been merely a symbolic victory in a diplomatic sideshow. It would have changed the rules of the game. Rather than avert a diplomatic crisis, it would have hastened a strategic disaster: the further isolation of a democratic US ally and key economic partner as a prelude to surrender, war or both.”

So there you have it. We just barely avoided a strategic disaster, a game changer, a mere preclude to surrender or war… or both! Good golly, lucky for us Nancy landed the plane safely in Taipei.

It is time for some seriousness. China is not going to war with Taiwan. After all the smoke clears and overflights are tallied, China did only one substantive thing to punish Taiwan: China halted Taiwanese snack imports (including biscuits and pastries ahead of moon cake season) just before Pelosi’s arrival. That seems, Sun Tzu’s admonishment to try small steps before large ones aside, not something akin to war or surrender, and something unlikely to lead to violence. It actually really does not matter. Like Nancy.

Need we walk through the other 99 percent of what is going on between Taiwan and China? Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. China applied in September to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. “One country, two systems” has not only kept the peace for decades, it has proven darn profitable for both sides. As Deng Xiao Ping said of this type of modus vivendi, “who cares what color a cat is as long as it catches mice.” China might one day seek to buy Taiwan, but until then what incentive would it have to drop bombs on one of its best customers? Heck, they even invited Taiwan to the Beijing Olympics Nancy Pelosi protested.

An attack on Taiwan would likely see a frightened Japan and South Korea step over the nuclear threshold and China would thus face more powerful enemies. In addition, a serious attack on Taiwan would severely damage the economy there Xi would no doubt see as part of the prize. Lastly, an attack on Taiwan would see Chinese killing Chinese, people who speak the same language and share several thousand years of culture. Pre-Covid, travelers from China made 2.68 million visits a year to Taiwan, many of which were to visit relatives. Student exchanges between Taiwan and China began in 2011, with some 25,000 Mainland kids studying on Taiwan pre-Covid. Even a “successful” attack would be near-political suicide for Xi. An invasion of Taiwan would leave the China politically isolated, economically damaged, and reputationally crippled. A failed attack could lead to a Taiwanese declaration of independence China would be incapable of stopping.

Caution is not appeasement. Every diplomatic move is not a full-spectrum weighing out of strength. Tiananmen was 33 years and a major change or two of governments ago (you still talking about that Kent State thing, bro?) Hong Kong was taken from China and colonized and exploited by the British before being returned to much the same status under Beijing. Same for Macao and the Portuguese. The US fought China directly in Vietnam and Korea and that did not bleed over into Taiwan. China went nuclear and did not invade Taiwan.

Strength and weakness do not rest on a single visit by someone as close to the end of her tenure as Nancy Pelosi. Bullies are gonna bully but China and Taiwan are not in that sort of relationship; they exist in a complex diplomatic dance overshadowed by massive amounts of cross-straits commerce, investment, and travel. In every sphere outside the political and martial they grow closer together, not further apart, and much of the differences are promoted by the US and an industry of “China experts” who thrive like dung beetles off the potential for conflict.

Reprinted with permission from


  • Peter van Buren

    Peter Van Buren spent a year in Iraq as a State Department Foreign Service Officer serving as Team Leader for two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Now in Washington, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog, We Meant Well.

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