Pelosi Wraps Asia Trip Leaving Biden, Taiwan, Allies, China in Tougher Spot

As Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi spends the final hours of her high-profile Asia tour, she prepares to leave behind a region on the verge of crisis with President Joe Biden, Taiwan, U.S. allies and China all in a more difficult position than when she first arrived, according to former U.S. officials.

Pelosi's trip made headlines and stirred international tensions for nearly a month before it began, as media leaks revealed she was planning to make a stop in Taiwan, a self-ruling island claimed by China. The White House declined to endorse the trip, and Beijing repeatedly promised a severe reaction, which is now playing out in the form of live-fire exercises by the People's Liberation Army surrounding Taiwan, as Pelosi makes her exit from the region.

Max Baucus, who served as U.S. ambassador to China under former President Barack Obama from 2014 to 2017, told Newsweek that Pelosi's trip "was a mistake" and "ill-advised."

"Bottom line, the U.S. foreign policy with respect to China should be to lower tensions, not increase tensions," Baucus said. "And Pelosi's visit clearly increased tension between the U.S and China."

He argued that the trip also "puts Taiwan in a tougher spot" as it deals with the fallout, not just in the security realm, but also in the economic sphere. Beijing's military maneuvers have been accompanied by a series of trade restrictions against Taipei, which counts the mainland as its largest trading partner.

As Baucus warned the People's Liberation Army was conducting a "trial run to potentially take stronger military action against Taiwan" in the future, he said the island increasingly found itself caught between the rival whims of the world's two most powerful nations.

"It has to just put the Taiwanese in a tenuous position, a nervous position," Baucus said. "Taiwan's caught in a vice, I think, with pressure from China, clearly, and now more potential pressure from the United States after the Pelosi visit."

A television in an electrical repair store in Taipei, Taiwan, shows a news broadcast about China conducting a live-fire drill being conducted around the island after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's visit, on August 4. Taiwan remained tense after Speaker of the U.S. House Of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited earlier this week, as part of a tour of Asia aimed at reassuring allies in the region yet risking having the opposite effect. Annabelle Chih/Getty Images

U.S. policy toward China took a hawkish turn under former President Donald Trump, who encouraged closer relations with Taipei and took a hard line against Beijing on trade, human rights and various territorial disputes in the region. Biden largely continued this streak when he took office a year and a half ago, though he also emphasized a need for the two nations to cooperate in certain areas, including climate change and the world economy.

The Biden administration has also stressed the necessity of maintaining open lines of communication, and has held a series of high-level contacts with Chinese counterparts in recent months, including a call last week with President Xi Jinping just days before Pelosi set out for her four-nation Asia tour, which included an unannounced yet widely anticipated trip to Taiwan.

Following a conversation that was said to have spanned various issues of mutual concern, a senior Biden administration official told reporters that "the two leaders very specifically tasked their teams to follow up on a number of these areas" as part of a "clear, affirmative agenda" that also included plans to meet face-to-face for the first time since Biden took office.

Now, these follow-up contacts are likely in jeopardy, as the resolve of both Beijing and Washington are tested by Pelosi's trip. It's not just Biden who had to contend with a bipartisan push for tougher measures. Xi also faced a nationalist fervor, and Baucus said "the anger toward the United States is real" among the country's 1.4 billion people.

Baucus pointed out another risk, saying that the visit "creates an opportunity for China to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Europe," which, though increasingly wary of Beijing, has also sought to maintain robust economic relations.

And while the G7 has released a joint statement condemning China's military moves in response to Pelosi's visit, no U.S. ally has stood up to defend her traveling to Taiwan. The trip also may have particularly put Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan in an awkward position, as Pelosi's tour to these nations was overshadowed by a burgeoning Taiwan crisis that may have long-lasting ramifications for an already complex and delicate architecture of regional relations.

"This is not what I think Southeast Asian countries would like to see," Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Newsweek. "It doesn't help them when the U.S. and China are coming close to blows in their backyard."

Officials from both countries have separately expressed to Newsweek their hopes for "peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait" as tensions mount, as well as for peaceful cross-strait relations between Beijing and Taipei.

Tokyo was particularly concerned, however, as Japanese officials said People's Liberation Army missiles rained down in waters considered by Japan to be part of its Exclusive Economic Zone. Chinese officials do not recognize this delineation, as no agreement regarding them has ever been reached between the two sides.

But it is Taiwan that was particularly feeling the heat, as Pelosi was soon set to fly thousands of miles away.

"China usually punishes Taiwan, and this instance is no exception," said Glaser, who previously served as a consultant for various U.S. government agencies, including the Pentagon and the State Department.

She argued that China may refrain from taking on the U.S. directly, but was already going further to drive its message home to Taiwan, with repercussions for Pelosi as well as the Speaker was targeted by Chinese sanctions on Friday.

"Beijing has already imposed sanctions on some Taiwanese enterprises and individuals, as well as over 100 products, and is conducting military exercises to warn Taiwan not to cross its redlines," Glaser said. "China has said that it wants to keep channels of dialogue with the U.S. open. There may be retaliatory measures taken against Speaker Pelosi and her delegation, but probably not against the United States overall."

A U.S. government plane carrying Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi takes off from Taipei Songshan Airport on August 3, in Taipei, Taiwan. The People's Liberation Army launched sweeping exercises hours after Pelosi left, prompting Taiwanese forces to go on high alert in the worst crisis the disputed strait has witnessed in more than a quarter of a century.Annabelle Chih/Getty Images

The situation remains fluid, however, and China's fiery response has already exceeded the measures pursued during the third and most recent Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995 and 1996, one year before Newt Gingrich became the first House Speaker to visit the island since Washington cut official ties with Taipei and established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979.

Although there were no imminent signs that frictions would escalate to the level of the first two Taiwan Strait crises, which spilled blood and even pushed Washington to consider a nuclear option in the 1950s, this largest-ever showing of the People's Liberation Army encircling Taiwan by air and sea indicates the latest flare-up could already be entering uncharted waters.

Paul Heer, who served for three decades as an analyst for the U.S. government in positions such as a member of the CIA Senior Analytic Service and Defense Intelligence Agency National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, said Pelosi's visit is having an immediate, and negative, effect on Taiwan.

"The fact that there's missiles raining down around them right now, I think, would support the notion that they're in a more precarious position than they were a week ago," he told Newsweek.

"I frankly don't think that there was any strategic security benefits in the trip," Heer said. "I'd like somebody to tell me what benefit has accrued to either Taipei or Washington from this in terms of the relationships in the region."

Now a distinguished fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a senior fellow at the Chicago Council for Global Affairs, Heer argues that the Pelosi's trip was the latest blow to already failing U.S.-China relations mired by myriad issues, at the center of which is "the substantial erosion of the substance and credibility of our One China policy."

Both Baucus and Heer said it was clear from their firsthand experience that Taiwan has long been a red line for Beijing, one that would be enforced beyond mere rhetoric.

Though the White House has repeatedly stated it does not support independence for Taiwan, Baucus said the increasing military aid and political ties allowing Taipei "to move as close to the line as possible" was a "reckless" endeavor pushing the situation closer to a "flashpoint."

To avoid such an outcome, Baucus said it was imperative that Washington begins to engage with Beijing's quest to be "a major power recognized as such, treated as such." And while the U.S. should continue "to stand up for ourselves, stand up for out interests, protect our national security," he argued that the U.S. should also "recognize that China is not going away — China has to do the same."

Heer too argued in favor of Beijing and Washington both taking potentially unpopular initiatives toward finding real ways to communicate beyond simply sharing grievances.

"The leadership on both sides has to be prepared to assume the domestic political risks of getting into real substantive engagement with the other side," Heer said, "because avoiding that I think only increases the chances of it becoming more conflictual."

"I think that because of the way our system operates, it's going to be a harder thing for Biden to do than it is for Xi Jinping," he added. "But I think he just has to bite the bullet if we're going to have a productive relationship with the most consequential competing great power in the world."