House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, and the rising tensions with China that it’s fed, are fairly complicated issues.
After a series of careless statements by President Joe Biden and ramped up US military activity off China’s coast, Pelosi’s visit is the latest test of the long-standing US policy that’s underwritten stable US-China relations for decades. That is, that Washington officially views Taiwan not as an independent country but as part of China, supports the general concept of their eventual reunification, but reserves the option of defending it militarily if China uses force to retake the island.
China has always bristled at any US actions that seem to move the country away from this doctrine and closer to open recognition of Taiwanese sovereignty — given its firm belief that Taiwan is Chinese territory — but has historically been too weak to do much about it. But as an ascendant economic and military power today, China is more assertive in pushing back, and Pelosi made her visit in direct defiance of warnings from Chinese leadership. It also comes in the context of years of heated, bipartisan US rhetoric singling out China as a threat.
That’s broadly how we might summarize this enormously complex and dangerous situation the world finds itself in right now. And encouragingly, a few establishment voices have taken Pelosi to task for the recklessness and irresponsibility of what she’s done here, from Tom Friedman in the New York Times to the Washington Post editorial board. China is, after all, a nuclear power, and US military strategists once secretly planned to nuke the country if it invaded Taiwan.
Meanwhile, let’s have a look at what the largely Democratic-voting audience of the country’s leading “liberal” cable network was told about the crisis.
The “Liberal” View
MSNBC viewers didn’t need to burden themselves with grappling with the complexities of the history of the real-world risks of Pelosi’s trip and US policy more generally. The whole matter, it turns out, is a simple story of a liberal leader striking a righteous blow for democracy against an authoritarianism threatening to swallow the world.
“The people of Taiwan have been living under the threat of China for decades,” Biden campaign advisor and Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod explained to her host, former Biden campaign advisor and ex-Biden White House staffer Symone Sanders. “China’s constantly threatening them with, ‘Oh, if you become more democratic, if you align with more democratic countries, we’re going to come after you. So this is a huge step forward in not only, as Nancy Pelosi said, supporting democracy over autocracy, but it’s a huge sign of support.”
Elrod went on to explain that Pelosi’s trip wasn’t just a “sort of, ‘Ha ha, in your face China,’” but also about “put[ting] our money where our mouths is [sic] and stand[ing] with the people of Taiwan who, all they want is to have freedom and have a full-on democracy.”
“I think there are lots of people out there who agree with you,” Sanders told her, before moving on to the assassination of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
It didn’t get much more sophisticated over at Zerlina, where former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele filled in for the usual host, Democratic strategist Zerlina Maxwell. “I was like, yes, thank you Nancy!” Steele told his guest, author Gordon Chang, about his reaction to Pelosi’s trip.
The choice of Chang was an interesting one. An anti-China hawk who at least twice incorrectly predicted the collapse of the Chinese ruling establishment (“Instead of 2011, the mighty Communist Party of China will fall in 2012. Bet on it,” he wrote when his first didn’t pan out), Chang is a regular on Fox News, where he’s attacked Biden’s “extraordinarily weak posture” for inflaming the current crisis, and who had urged the president to not even engage in his diplomatic phone call with Xi Jinping, where the Chinese premier had directly brought up concerns over Pelosi’s visit. At other times, Chang has accused former pro-peace South Korean president Moon Jae-In of being a “North Korea agent,” and called Chinese students in the United States “the long arm of authoritarianism.”
For Chang, what was happening was purely the result of Xi’s “many problems at home,” and that “he actually needs some sort of, quote-unquote, provocation to divert people’s attention.” If Pelosi hadn’t gone and triggered this crisis, he elaborated, “she would’ve been emboldening the worst elements of the Chinese political system by showing everyone that intimidation of America works, and that would’ve been unacceptable.”
“Because of the debacle in Afghanistan, and the failure to deter Russia in Ukraine, Taiwan has become the test — the test — of American credibility, not just in the region, but worldwide,” he said, concluding that “defending Taiwan in my view is defending America.” Today, Chang made his return to Fox to hail Pelosi’s visit as a “great day for America.”
“Conservatives” for Catastrophe
Speaking of Fox, the network unsurprisingly took a similarly aggressive line on the matter.
One anchor framed the crisis as a matter of China “saber-rattling” and threatening the United States without giving any further context to the crisis, and hit Biden for undermining the long-standing US policy of “strategic ambiguity” around Taiwan — not because of his repeated statements that the US would come to Taiwan’s military aid, but because, in her view, “he was very clear, we don’t support Taiwan independence.” (No presidential administration has supported Taiwanese independence since the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979).
When faced on the network with Friedman’s Times op-ed warning about the United States being plunged into conflict with both a nuclear-armed Russia and China at the same time, Hudson Institute senior fellow Michael Pillsbury laughed. “Well he’s totally wrong,” he said.
“From the Democratic Party point of view, whether it’s primaries or the midterm elections, Nancy Pelosi has just stolen an issue away from Republicans,” Pillsbury explained, revealingly. “The other success that this trip means is we’ve shown a bipartisan support now for Taiwan.” It’s worth noting the Hudson Institute takes in funding from the Pentagon and various arms manufacturers and military contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman who stand to profit from rising tensions with China.
One figure on the network who, surprisingly, seems to have broken from this view is fake populist Tucker Carlson, who has highlighted the threat of nuclear war over Pelosi’s needless provocation. Before you give him too much credit, though, bear in mind Carlson has spent years now vilifying China, claiming it controls US politicians and institutions, inviting guests who daydream about “sit[ting] on a throne of Chinese skulls,” and, most recently, charging it was turning Brazil into its “colony” and so “establishing a threatening new beachhead in our hemisphere.” In other words, Carlson has played a leading role in creating the kind of toxic, paranoid discourse in the United States that’s led precisely to this moment; the fact that he now has buyer’s remorse shouldn’t let him off the hook.
The Center No Better
Even centrist TV press outlets got in on the act. CNBC invited on Republican uber-hawk Senator Tom Cotton, who claimed that the crisis was merely a matter of Xi “trying to see what he can get away with,” and called for the government “to make it clear to Xi Jinping that we will not back down.”
“That’s the best way to avoid what no one wants, which is a war with China in the western Pacific,” Cotton told viewers.
Just as with MSNBC and Fox, this was a common talking point at these outlets: that the crisis over Pelosi’s visit was purely a result of Chinese domestic politics, had no connection to US actions which were not that big a deal, that Chinese officials were merely using it as an excuse to saber-rattle, and that Pelosi had every right to do what she did — and in fact, that Washington should keep up the pressure.
“I would hope that we don’t and no one give Xi Jinping a relief valve, if you will, or a life ring as he’s having so many difficult issues internally over the course of the last year or two,” former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen told CNN.
“The United States is not going to be intimidated by the threats,” National Security Council official John Kirby told the network, denying that the trip was a violation of sovereignty, and insisting Pelosi’s sojourn was “absolutely consistent” with the One China policy.
On PBS, national security advisor Jake Sullivan similarly insisted that Pelosi’s trip was “a decision she had every right to make, and in fact, a speaker of the House has previously traveled to Taiwan without incident, and members of Congress travel to Taiwan all the time,” and that “it doesn’t signal a change in US policy, it doesn’t threaten China in anyway.”
“For China to turn around and turn this into some kind of crisis, or use it as a pretext to take aggressive action against Taiwan, that’s on China,” Sullivan added, before vowing to “not be deterred from operating as we have operated,” and so “continue to assert freedom of navigation,” and “continue to take steps to support Taiwan’s self-defense.”
For the most part, viewers were kept blissfully unaware of the potential risks of Pelosi’s decision. That’s both in terms of nuclear escalation and embroiling already struggling Americans in another disastrous, far-off conflict, and in terms of Taiwan itself, which would bear the brunt of any Chinese aggression these moves provoke. As the lead-up to Pelosi’s visit showed, among the Washington establishment, this was the consensus view among its narrow spectrum of political opinion.
“I think China should not have any say over where American officials travel,” Donald Trump’s former defense secretary, Mark Esper, had told CNN, likewise pointing to previous Congressional visits to Taiwan. “I think if the Speaker wants to go, she should go. . . . I believe that our One China policy has outlived its usefulness.”
“We’re not going to let the Chinese Communist Party dictate where the Speaker of the House should go,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a Bernie Sanders supporter in 2020 who is currently maneuvering himself into place as the progressive flag-bearer in a future presidential election. “She should absolutely go,” he went on, waving away concerns about military escalation. “We shouldn’t allow them to bluff and dictate to America, the greatest nation in the world, where our Speaker of the House should travel.”
You could hear this kind of rhetoric even in progressive spaces — for example Democracy Now!, where the Quincy Institute’s Michael Swaine was browbeaten by Taiwanese-American journalist Brian Hioe, merely for attempting to explain the political and historical context of the One China policy and its role in preventing US-Chinese conflict.
“Why we are talking about a fifty-year-old agreement without talking about the wishes of the Taiwanese people in the slightest, justifying that the present actions China takes are somehow justified towards Taiwan?” Hioe interrupted to ask.
“Well, the point here is not so much what the Taiwanese themselves are saying in this regard. What I was just saying was about the United States,” Swaine replied.
“So, then, it doesn’t matter, huh?” Hioe cut in.
In reality, Taiwan’s status as a democracy means that its citizens don’t speak with one voice on foreign policy, and the One China policy has long been a matter of contention in Taiwanese politics. A representative of the opposition Kuomintang party commented that “the entire episode is not constructive for either party,” referring to Taiwan and the United States.
Repeating Recent History
Although not uniform across all coverage of the crisis, we are seeing some of the worst aspects of the foreign policy discourse surrounding war in Ukraine reappear in discussion of the rising tensions over Taiwan: the compulsory embrace of a cartoon version of international relations in which China has no legitimate interests, de-escalation is weakness, and anyone who disagrees is accused of sinister motives.
And right now, this is the case just about across the political spectrum, where progressive lawmakers and liberal cable news hosts sound indistinguishable from hard-right military officials who served under Donald Trump and George W. Bush. This is exactly the sort of jingoistic atmosphere that leads countries to sleepwalk into disaster.