Putting her chips on Taiwan
Edited by Tommy Craggs
Millions of people around the world watched Nancy Pelosi’s plane as it traced a long, winding path into Taiwan on Tuesday. Far fewer, I’d imagine, watched her flight off the island — once it had become clear that, despite the memes, her one-night stay at the Grand Hyatt Taipei did not come with a side of mushroom clouds.
That isn’t to say that China took the speaker’s visit well. Chinese military aircraft crossed the Taiwan Strait and the website of the Taiwanese president was attacked, both in apparent shows of force. The People’s Liberation Army moved up by two days an already extremely aggressive batch of live-fire exercises surrounding the island (a fancy way of saying target practice meant to scare the bejesus out of 24 million Taiwanese).
So, even though Pelosi’s trip did not immediately occasion a real-life reboot of Red Dawn, it’s still worth asking the question: What the hell was she trying to do?
Pelosi framed her trip in a prewritten Washington Post op-ed as an “unequivocal statement that America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, as it defends itself and its freedom” in the face of “the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) accelerating aggression.” Explicitly likening her visit to her meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in war-torn Kyiv in April, she declared: “America and our allies make clear that we never give in to autocrats.”
Those words ring a bit hollow barely two weeks after President Biden fist-bumped the mass-murdering Saudi autocrat Mohammed bin Salman in a trip to sell weapons to kill Yemenis and boost oil production (whoops). But even taken at face value: Was a one-day junket by the third in line for the presidency — a visit guaranteed if not calculated to piss off Beijing — really the best way to stand with a democratic ally? Russia was well into its invasion of Ukraine by the time Pelosi visited Kyiv, and she went at a time when every other leader west of Minsk was doing so as well (a photo with Zelenskyy in his olive-drab muscle T-shirt was the must-have political accessory of the spring).
Taiwan is a whole other kettle of conger eel. There is — despite 73 years of sometimes vicious saber-rattling since the Communists exiled the Nationalists to the island at the end Chinese Civil War — no war there at the moment. It is in everyone’s interests, especially those of the people of Taiwan, to keep it that way. An overtly provocative trip that rallies the ultranationalists on Weibo and prompts the PLA to rush into bombing practice in disputed territorial waters is a great way to trigger a conflict that, especially if combined with the ongoing conflagration in Europe through a Chinese-Russian alliance, could easily flare into World War III. That is why everyone from the Biden White House to Tom Friedman urged her not to go (in public at least).
Maybe Pelosi just didn’t want to back down. The New York Times observed that the speaker’s trip was “in keeping with her long history of poking China in the eye.” A screen capture of her and then–U.S. Reps. Ben Jones and John Miller holding a little memorial banner in Tiananmen Square in 1991, two years after the anti-democratic massacre, has been everywhere in U.S. media for the past few days. And Pelosi has remained outspoken over the decades since, often being among the first to (rightly, I should say) condemn the Chinese government’s persecution of Tibetans, Uyghurs, and now Hong Kongers.
I’m sure her convictions are sincere. She is also politically motivated to make sure they stay that way. Pelosi’s district, California’s 12th, is basically the city of San Francisco. It is in most ways the historic and current center of Chinese American culture, with people of Chinese and Taiwanese decent making up approximately one in five of the city’s residents. And while it is not even close to being a homogenous community, the wealthiest donors and those most politically active in her district are more likely than not to be either Taiwanese nationalists, critics of the Chinese Communist government, or indifferent to the question of Taiwan’s status entirely.
“In terms of her approval with Taiwanese American voters, this will do a lot,” Jonathan H.X. Lee, an Asian American studies professor at San Francisco State, told The Conversation this week. “For many Chinese Americans it is just not an issue that’s really on their radar.”
There was, separately, a flurry of reporting over the summer about Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, and his recent purchases of $5 million worth of stock in Nvidia, a U.S.-based semiconductor manufacturer with an office in Taiwan. He reportedly dumped the stock for a $341,000 loss last week, possibly to stave off accusations of insider trading ahead of the Senate’s passage of the CHIPS and Science Act — which throws $76 billion in investment and tax credits to U.S. semiconductor production.
Taiwan is critical to the U.S. (and global) semiconductor market. The island makes most of the world’s advanced chips, Barron’s reported ahead of Pelosi’s trip; and even if the CHIPS Act serves its purpose, it will seemingly be indispensable for bringing the apparently woefully undertrained U.S. workforce up to speed. On Wednesday, Pelosi lunched with top executives of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (one of Nvidia’s chief suppliers). They reportedly discussed the CHIPS Act and the company’s plans for a plant in Arizona, which puts it in line for the freshly passed congressional subsidies.
But if this was just a family portfolio stop, you’d think a Zoom would have sufficed. Whatever Pelosi had to discuss, it was worth doing in person, and at the risk of touching off the world’s second current territorial conflict involving a nuclear power. Looking at it that way, we might also note that Taiwan’s semiconductors, as The Diplomat reported last year, happen to “underwrite the U.S. Defense Industrial Complex.” TSMC’s chips in particular are currently needed to run the F-35 fighter jet, the Javelin missile, and a “wide range of ‘military-grade’ devices” for the U.S. military — all of which would be in high demand in the next world war.
Yet none of those explanations — not the venal stuff, nor the democratic principles, nor a lifetime of trolling China — seem wholly satisfying to me. It’s hard to see how the situation of anyone Pelosi might want to help was improved by this trip. A bit of arcane but at best forgettable China-bashing ahead of the midterms? Which seats in the House is that going to help the Democrats hold? (The “Nancy works for China” jokes were still flush on American-flag Twitter during the trip.)
Perhaps, at 82 years old, having promised to step down as speaker after the coming midterms, she’s just thinking about her legacy. And it is a legacy play, in a way: a bit of abstruse theater that does nothing to address any underlying crises and will possibly make everything worse. Maybe Speaker Pelosi just wanted to leave everyone with something to remember her by.
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Correction 8/4/22, 4:49 pm ET: In the initial version of this piece I referred to TSMC as Nvidia’s chief rival. In fact, as a commenter points out, they’re a major Nvidia supplier. Added a link to a story with more details.