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How Biden and Putin made it harder for Pelosi to visit Taiwan


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Welcome to The Daily 202! Tell your friends to sign up here. On this day in 1972, the Associated Press revealed that the federal government had withheld treatment for syphilis from hundreds of Black men in Alabama in a decades-long study of the disease’s effects on the human body. 

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s potential visit next month to Taiwan — not formally announced but still the subject of major controversy in Washington and Beijing — would be the capstone to her decades as a hawkish critic of China in Congress.

If, and it’s a big “if,” it happens.

President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have made it harder for Pelosi to travel to the democratically governed island, which Beijing considers a renegade province to be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary.

Officially, Washington does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taipei and agrees on a policy of “one China” under Beijing’s rule — while selling arms to bolster Taiwan’s self-defense and nurturing a strong trade relationship. A Pelosi visit would send yet another high-level signal of U.S. support. Beijing has threatened unspecified but forceful retaliation.

Biden made the trip harder in two ways. First, he seemingly confirmed the unannounced voyage was in the works while making it clear the Pentagon was against it.

The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now, but I don’t know what the status of it is,” he told reporters last Wednesday.

Second, Biden has changed the public face of U.S. policy toward Taiwan by saying — not once, not twice, but three times since August 2021 — that the U.S. military would come to the island’s rescue if it were under attack from Beijing.

In doing so, the president removed some of the ambiguity from the traditional U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” — an effort to leave purposefully vague whether, and how, and under what circumstances America would help defend Taiwan from an attack by Beijing.

  • “We made a sacred commitment to Article Five that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with — Taiwan,” he told ABC News last August.

That comment seemed to elevate Taiwan, with which the United States does not have a formal mutual-defense treaty, to the same status as NATO allies bound by the alliance’s pact that an attack on one is an attack on all.

Two months later, at a CNN town hall, Biden was asked whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked. “Yes,” he said, “we have a commitment to do that.”

Finally, in late May 2022, Biden was asked during a news conference in Tokyo whether he was willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if China invaded. “Yes,” he said again, “that’s the commitment we made.”

That rhetoric has raised the stakes for a visit by America’s third-ranking elected official.

As for Putin, he made things harder in late February by expanding Russia’s war in Ukraine, triggering the largest military conflict in Europe since World War II, and effectively daring the United States and its allies to try to thwart his designs on a former Soviet republic.

A month earlier, the Biden administration had acknowledged the world was watching both the former KGB officer’s actions and the U.S.-led reaction — including officials in Beijing pondering what to do about Taiwan, and when, and how to do it. But nothing that raises the stakes over Taiwan makes the speaker’s travel there easier.

  • To be clear, Beijing was always going to object strenuously to Pelosi’s visit, which would make her the most senior American official to set foot on Taiwan since House Speaker Newt Gingrich went there in 1997. Her unrelenting criticisms of Beijing’s human rights record has made her a figure of particular loathing among Chinese leaders and in state-run media.

And the Chinese political calendar adds another layer of complication. The annual celebration of the People’s Liberation Army happens Aug. 1. Top officials from China’s Communist Party traditionally meet in the resort of Beidaihe in August. And Chinese President Xi Jinping is looking to minimize disruptions ahead of a twice-per-decade party Congress this fall that is expected to give him another term in office.

Biden has denied that his remarks changed U.S. policy. But they certainly have highlighted his personal evolution on the issue.

In April 2001, President George W. Bush told ABC News the U.S. had an obligation to defend Taiwan, including militarily, and promised to do “whatever it took” to help fend off a Chinese invasion. (He quickly softened his position.)

That drew a rebuke from the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one Joseph R. Biden, Jr. “Words matter, in diplomacy and in law,” he scolded the new president.

  • “The president should not cede to Taiwan, much less to China, the ability automatically to draw us into a war across the Taiwan Strait.” Biden wrote in The Washington Post.

Biden said last week he’d speak to Xi before July is out. Pelosi’s possible travel and Taiwan may feature prominently in their discussion.

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