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Pelosi was right to go to Taiwan — China's threats are hollow

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Taiwan Presidential Office via AP

In this photo released by the Taiwan Presidential Office, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), center left, and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen arrive for a meeting in Taipei on Aug. 3, 2022.

The White House seems to be making a habit of self-deterrence. It ordered the premature departure from the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan out of fear that the Taliban would interfere with the August 2021 withdrawal of American forces from that country. As a result, fleeing Afghans had but one option: to travel to Kabul Airport with its single runway, and far too many of them were left behind. 

Similarly, the administration held off for months before sending HIMARS rockets and other high-technology systems to Ukraine for fear of a Russian nuclear response. Had those systems been dispatched earlier, Ukraine might have given up far less territory to Moscow's invaders.

In the same vein, fear of escalating tensions with Beijing led the White House to oppose House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's brief trip to Taiwan. In this case, however, Pelosi (D-Calif.) defied both the Biden administration's opposition and China's militaristic bluster and went ahead with her visit. She was right to do so. As many observers pointed out, the United States could not allow China to determine which Americans would be permitted to visit the island democracy.

Now, however, there are those who assert that China will retaliate in the aftermath of Pelosi's visit, possibly by slowly choking off trade with Taiwan. The fearmongers may be overstating their case once again. China's Xi Jinping has much to risk if he were to threaten the viability of the island.

Xi certainly is aware that there is a rare and strong consensus in Congress in terms of both hostility toward China and support for Taiwan. The bipartisan majorities in both the Senate and House that supported the passage of the CHIPs Act, which seeks to maintain American hi-tech superiority and reduce reliance on overseas supply chains by funding domestic semiconductor manufacturing, was a reflection of congressional concern about China's growing aggressiveness. 

The similar bipartisan support for Pelosi's visit highlighted the reality that both Democrats and Republicans are equally opposed to any Chinese attempt to undermine Taiwanese democracy.

Xi surely knows that taking any military action in order to strangle the island could lead to not only an American military response but also an economic one. Washington could raise Trump-era tariffs to even higher levels. It could impose bans on a wider array of Chinese products. It could sanction Chinese manufacturers. Japan might follow suit, at least to some extent, as could Britain. Should the latter two countries do so, South Korea and Australia might join them.

China could retaliate, but it would not win a trade war. Xi recognizes that his country's economic position is not strong; it is getting weaker by the day. China has an $800 billion funding challenge that has resulted from a rickety real estate sector, reduced revenues for local governments, and overreliance on inefficient state-owned enterprises. The Chinese middle class is becoming increasingly uneasy and vocal as its economic position flounders. Even Prime Minister Li Keqiang has criticized the direction of his own government's economic policy, which has reversed decades of Beijing's emphasis on nurturing a semi-free enterprise system.

On the other hand, the American economy, despite inflation, is in a comparatively healthier state. Unemployment remains low, and while gross domestic product growth has been negative in the past two quarters, the Biden administration insists that the United States is not in recession and that the economy remains strong. Indeed, even non-government economists cannot agree whether the country is entering a recession. In any event, America is not beset by the self-inflicted structural problems that characterize China's economy.

Xi has no way of knowing whether the Biden administration would back away from taking steps to weaken the Chinese economy even further. Even if the White House were to revert to its pattern of self-deterrence, support for the Pelosi visit indicates that Congress may not be as shy about imposing new trade restrictions, or even sanctions on China, in the event of new military pressures on Taiwan. Xi cannot afford any more economic bad news as he anticipates being crowned president for life at the upcoming 20th Party Congress. A further blow to the Chinese economy could undermine his prospects for a coronation.

If for no other reason, Xi is unlikely to do more than huff and puff about Pelosi's visit, which included a meeting with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen. But Xi will be very careful not to attempt to blow the Taiwanese house down.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

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