Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recently made world headlines arriving in Taiwan amid strong rebukes from the Chinese government. Pelosi is the highest-ranking U.S. government official to visit Taiwan since then-Speaker Newt Gingrich visited in 1997.
Pelosis visit was meant to send an unmistakable signal: Taiwan is so important to the U.S. government that top officials are willing to visit despite stern warnings from Beijing. The logic behind the move is a straightforward case of diplomatic deterrenceby signaling strength, Pelosi aimed to deter China from exercising its influence over Taiwan. Her fear is that inaction would signal weakness, emboldening Beijing to act aggressively. But this is only part of the story.
Deterrence by the U.S. government might increase the chance of confrontation, which could be immediate and obvious. For instance, China responded to Pelosis visit by carrying out military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. Fortunately, these drills did not result in an unintentional escalation, a real risk with demonstrations of force.
But perhaps more important, Pelosis deterrence-driven visit might contribute to a longer-term perceptual dilemma. A perceptual dilemma exists when parties to a potential conflict would prefer to cooperate but believe the other side will take advantage of their mollifying actions. So, each side avoids appearing weak.
The problem with deterrence is that it reinforces the other sides fear that actions aimed at cooperation will be met with opportunism. The result is that conflict and confrontation are more likely as both sides display their might. Whether deterrence works or contributes to a conflict spiral is an open question. But it is something that must at least be considered in the case of Taiwan and beyond.
The U.S. government has no legal obligation to defend Taiwan. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter annulled the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, which had required the United States to defend Taiwan and the Pescadores Islands. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 delineates U.S.-Taiwan relations but does not guarantee U.S. military protection against invasion.
Perceptions are especially important because the U.S. government has long held a one China policy, which recognizes the Peoples Republic of China as the sole government of China, while also engaging in strategic ambiguity regarding its commitment to defend Taiwan. Actions by Washington to signal strengtheven if driven by benevolencemight increase the chance of conflict not just between China and Taiwan but also between China and the United States, both nuclear powers.
This also matters beyond Taiwan. The U.S. government maintains a global network of military bases, deploys special operations around the world and is the worlds largest arms dealer. It spends more on its military than the next nine countries combined, including China and Russia. The logic behind these expansive forces and activities is the supposed need for a global hegemon to create and maintain order and freedom around the world. Perhaps. But another outcome could be disorder and a greater chance of conflict by elevating force over peaceful cooperation. By signaling that force is the default strategy, the projection of power can make it harder for others to offer cooperative gestures.
None of this is to deny that there are real challenges in the world, as there always have been and always will be. Instead, it is to emphasize that the nature and magnitude of those challenges can be exacerbated by policies based on a negative sum view of the world akin to a global game of musical chairs. From this perspective, each nation gains only at the expense of others and therefore possible adversaries must be checked through deterrence.
An alternative view is that many opportunities exist to work together to find solutions with other nations. Instead of signaling weakness, working towards nonviolent solutions to pressing challenges shows significant strength through self-control and a determination consistent with Americas purported values. That is a perception worth cultivating.