President Biden has a habit of creating trouble when he pops off to the press, and this week’s entry in the canon concerned a mooted visit by Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. He didn’t make the trip easier for anyone, least of all the House Speaker.
Mrs. Pelosi hasn’t confirmed if she’s going to Taiwan next month, but news of the trip leaked earlier this week and we know she has invited other Members of Congress to travel with her. China reacted with its usual fury at the news, and a reporter asked Mr. Biden on Wednesday what he thought about it. He replied that “the military” thinks Mrs. Pelosi’s Taiwan trip is “not a good idea right now.” He didn’t elaborate, so the ominous implications were left hanging.
Naturally Mrs. Pelosi was asked about Mr. Biden’s remarks at her weekly presser. “I think what the President is saying,” she replied, is that “maybe the military was afraid our plane would get shot down or something like that by the Chinese. I don’t know exactly. I didn’t see it. I didn’t hear it. You’re telling me, and I’ve heard it anecdotally, but I haven’t heard it from the President.”
Yikes. The Pentagon fears China might shoot down a U.S. aircraft carrying the person third in line to the Presidency?
All of this followed a warning Tuesday from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian that Mrs. Pelosi’s Taiwan trip would “have a severe negative impact” on U.S.-China relations and that China would “take strong and resolute measures to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Perhaps sensing U.S. weakness after Mr. Biden’s remark, on Thursday Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin escalated: “Should the U.S. side insist on making the visit, China will act strongly to resolutely respond to it and take countermeasures. We mean what we say.”
Mrs. Pelosi’s trip would have symbolic significance as she would be the first House Speaker to visit Taiwan in 25 years. It would send a useful message of solidarity with the island democracy. And now that both she and Mr. Biden have raised the prospect of a military threat, any decision to stay home would look like a retreat under Chinese pressure.
China would notice that its bullying threats succeeded, and so would U.S. allies in Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and others in the Asia-Pacific region that worry about U.S. staying power. The walk-back would be felt most acutely in Taiwan, where the issue of U.S. support in the case of invasion is existential. If China can stop a senior U.S. official from visiting Taiwan, how resolute is America going to be in a shooting war?
China isn’t likely to interdict Mrs. Pelosi’s aircraft, which would amount to an act of war with risks of escalation. But the public babbling about the possibility raises the chance that her visit becomes a matter of saving face for China. This increases the risk that China could take some other action against the U.S. or Taiwan in response.
Mrs. Pelosi almost has to take the trip now, and we hope it is uneventful. But maybe the White House staff is on to something when it confines Mr. Biden to a teleprompter.
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