Speaker Pelosi’s visit and its consequences on Japan

The visit to Taiwan by the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, is a major event that has shaken the international order in East Asia and in Japan.

Speaker Pelosi’s visit and its consequences on Japan
Image Courtesy: AP

By Kazuto Suzuki, University of Tokyo

The visit to Taiwan by the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, is a major event that has shaken the international order in East Asia and in Japan. However, the excessive Chinese reaction that began with her visit appears to be coming to a relatively peaceful end, thanks to the calm response of Taiwan, Japan, and the United States.

Pelosi’s ambitions and objectives

Speaker Pelosi was originally scheduled to visit Taiwan in April, but she had to postpone her visit as she tested positive for Covid-19. She will now visit in August, when Congress is on summer break. As the Democrats may be outnumbered in the mid-term elections in November and Speaker Pelosi will likely be stepping down from her seat, and given her age (82), this will certainly be her last chance to visit Taiwan as Speaker of the House. Pelosi, who has always had a strong interest in human rights issues and has taken a tough stance against China’s human rights abuses, has been actively supporting Taiwan. At the same time, since both the Democratic and Republican parties in the current US Congress support a hardline policy toward China and are active in supporting Taiwan, this visit is not personal but to show that the U.S. supports Taiwan as a representative of Congress.

At the same time, however, it was also clear that Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan would infuriate China. Pelosi would still have been confident that China would not directly attack or force to land the plane with Pelosi on board, and she would have assumed that China would not attack Taiwan during her stay. In fact, China declared that it would conduct military exercises after she left Taiwan and, as such, began military training. Pelosi, while understanding that the visit would increase tensions in U.S.-China relations, visited Taiwan with a conviction that it would not lead to an eventual military conflict.

Chinese reaction

From China’s perspective, a visit to Taiwan by the Speaker of the House, the second in the presidential line of succession, would be seen as a sign of US national will, a betrayal of the “one China” policy and a move to support independence for Taiwan, which is considered part of China. However, a visit by Speaker Pelosi to Taiwan does not immediately imply Taiwanese independence nor does it mean that China will launch an all-out military operation against the US-backed Taiwan, which would also be a loss for President Xi Jinping. With the Party Congress coming up in the fall, President Xi has to navigate through this major political event with an unusual third term at stake, and starting a war involving the United States would be too risky. Already, the zero-Covid policy pursued by President Xi has increased public dissatisfaction and the rising inflation has increased popular discontent. Under these circumstances, it is unlikely that he would initiate further military actions that are unpopular with the people.

However, if China does nothing, President Xi will be seen as weak and could lose political influence at home, and with the Beidaihe meeting in August with key members of the Chinese Communist Party that will set the direction of the Party Congress, President Xi must show that he has responded well to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. To this end, China must conduct full-scale military exercises to show the US that it will cause considerable damage if it sends US troops to support Taiwan, and that it is also capable of attacking Japan, where US military bases are located. More than that, it must perform well enough to make Taiwan believe that if it ever declares independence. Of course, this would raise tensions, but the response would be to show that China has reacted swiftly and aggressively, while not to cause a conflict that would lead to specific US military intervention.

Implications for Japan

Although Japan is not a direct party to Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Chinahas targeted and strongly criticized Japan. The military exercises conducted by China around Taiwan also targeted Japan’s EEZ, and in fact, five of the 11 missiles landed in Japan’s EEZ. China is intentionally aiming to put pressure on Japan because it hosts US forces in Okinawa which may be the base for sending US troops to support Taiwan’s military operations. In addition, China has been harsh in its condemnation of Japan, summoning its ambassador to Japan, in response to the G7’s adoption of a resolution condemning China’s military exercises.

The major problem for Japan, however, is that China has closed its hotline with the US and refused to communicate militarily with the US. Until now, stability in the East China Sea has been thought to be managed to some extent by the existence of a crisis management mechanism between the US and China, but the possibility of accidental clashes around Japan, especially regarding the issue of the Senkaku Islands, is undeniable because such a crisis management mechanism will not function in the future.

China may also take further economic coercive measures in the future. For Japan, which is dependent on the Chinese economy, a blockade of trade with China would have a significant impact on the Japanese economy.

Thus, while Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is an issue that does not directly concern Japan, it is still an issue that will have a significant impact on Japan. In this sense, while Speaker Pelosi’s actions have many negative implications for Japan, it is still a positive factor that the U.S. will show strong support for Taiwan, thereby making it harder for China to invade Taiwan. Japan will continue to be influenced by the US-China relationship, but in this context, the event made it clear that Japan must also be prepared to respond in the event of a Taiwan contingency.

The author is Professor of Science and Technology Policy, Graduate School of Public Policy, The University of Tokyo. Email: 

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