In early August, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a Democratic delegation commanded headlines when they traveled to Taiwan, an independently governed East Asian country made up of 168 islands on which about 24 million people live, and which China claims.

Since 1979 the U.S. has helped to maintain the defensive capabilities of the democratically governed area, although it has been vague about whether it would intervene if China attacks Taiwan.

Pelosi’s visit made her the highest-ranking U.S. politician to visit Taiwan since 1997, when Republican speaker Newt Gingrich visited the self-ruled island. Pelosi and a delegation of House Democrats who lead committees relevant to U.S. foreign relations — Gregory Meeks (NY), Mark Takano (CA), Suzan DelBene (WA), Raja Krishnamoorthi (IL), and Andy Kim (NJ) — visited Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan. Taiwan was added quietly.

Since then, another, bipartisan, congressional delegation has visited Taiwan. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA); Representatives John Garamendi (D-CA), Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), and Don Beyer (D-VA); and Delegate Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen (R–American Samoa) visited Taiwan earlier this week. Markey chairs the Senate Foreign Relations East Asia, Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Subcommittee, and Beyer is chair of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee (JEC); the rest of the delegation represents people in or near the Pacific Ocean.

Before visiting Taiwan, Markey was in South Korea to talk about trade and technology, including the green technologies the U.S. is now funding through the Inflation Reduction Act, as well as “shared values and interests.”

There is a larger story behind these visits to Taiwan. Early this year, the Biden administration launched a new, comprehensive initiative in the Indo-Pacific. Beginning with the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004, the U.S. began to work informally with the “Quad,” the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, consisting of the U.S., Australia, India, and Japan. In 2016, Japan introduced the concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

When former president Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he left the participants to continue without the U.S., which they did as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). He also left open the way for a free trade deal in the region dominated by China, called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, or RCEP, which went into effect on January 1, 2022.

This left the Biden administration with two politically poor choices: try to reestablish U.S. participation in the region through the CPTPP, which would have been hotly contested at home and thus unlikely to get through Congress, or let China dominate the region, with damaging long-term effects. So the administration found a third way.

After some complaints that the administration had focused its attention too closely on the Middle East and Europe, in February the Biden administration released a document outlining its “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” claiming that the U.S. is part of the Indo-Pacific region, which stretches from our Pacific coastline to the Indian Ocean. The area, the report says, “is home to more than half of the world’s people, nearly two-thirds of the world’s economy, and seven of the world’s largest militaries.

More members of the U.S. military are based in the region than in any other outside the United States. It supports more than three million American jobs and is the source of nearly $900 billion in foreign direct investment in the United States. In the years ahead, as the region drives as much as two-thirds of global economic growth, its influence will only grow — as will its importance to the United States.”

The document noted the long history of the U.S. and the countries in the region, and it warns against the rising power of the People’s Republic of China there. The document promises to compete responsibly with China by balancing influence in the world, creating an environment in the region “that is maximally favorable to the United States, our allies and partners, and the interests and values we share.”

Crucially, the document focuses not on the trade deals that made the TPP so unpopular, but on ideological ones, promoting “a free and open Indo-Pacific,” where countries “can make independent political choices free from coercion.” The U.S. will contribute to that atmosphere, the document says, “through investments in democratic institutions, a free press, and a vibrant civil society,” by strengthening partnerships within the region and outside it, such as the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The plan promises that the U.S. will invest in the region through diplomacy, education, and security.

In May, President Joe Biden hosted the U.S.–Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Special Summit in the U.S. for the first time “to re-affirm the United States’ enduring commitment to Southeast Asia and underscore the importance of U.S.-ASEAN cooperation in ensuring security, prosperity, and respect for human rights.” And the State Department announced that “[t]he United States has provided over $12.1 billion in development, economic, health, and security assistance to Southeast Asian allies and partners since 2002, as well as over $1.4 billion in humanitarian assistance.”

Also in May, in Japan, Biden and a dozen Indo-Pacific nations announced a new, loose economic bloc, one that Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo has called “by any account the most significant international economic engagement that the United States has ever had in this region.” The bloc includes the U.S., India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, but not Taiwan. These countries represent about 40% of the global economy.

The new plan promised to streamline supply chains, back clean energy, fight corruption, and expand technology transfers. But with no guaranteed access to U.S. markets, there was uncertainty about how effective the administration’s calls for better labor and environmental standards would be.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to the region in early August, making stops in Cambodia, where he attended the U.S.-ASEAN ministerial meeting, the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, and the ASEAN Regional Forum, and in the Philippines. Before leaving, he promised to “emphasize the United States’ commitment to ASEAN centrality and successful implementation of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” and to “address the COVID-19 pandemic, economic cooperation, the fight against climate change, the crisis in Burma, and Russia’s war in Ukraine.”

Chinese leaders warned the U.S. there would be “serious consequences” if Pelosi visited, and pundits suggested that she was reckless for going. But both Biden and Blinken made it clear that any potential visit would not mean any change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan, and 26 Republican lawmakers made a public statement praising the visit and noting that it has precedent.

Pelosi’s visit seemed to echo Biden and Blinken’s focus on world democracy. She championed Taiwan as a leading democracy, “a leader in peace, security and economic dynamism: with an entrepreneurial spirit, culture of innovation and technological prowess that are envies of the world.” She explicitly said her visit was intended to reaffirm “our shared interests [in]…advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” “By traveling to Taiwan, we honor our commitment to democracy: reaffirming that the freedoms of Taiwan — and all democracies — must be respected.”

When Pelosi’s plane landed, China immediately announced live fire operations nearby and cut certain diplomatic communications with the United States. But Director of the Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies Theresa Fallon noted that the Chinese blockade/live fire exercise “is likely to boomerang on Xi. This will … scare just about every other country in Asia,” she wrote on Twitter.

On August 20, U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns – six months into the job – did his first television interview. Emphasizing that Pelosi’s visit was in keeping with longstanding history, he said, “We do not believe there should be a crisis in US-China relations over the visit — the peaceful visit — of the Speaker of the House of Representatives to Taiwan … it was a manufactured crisis by the government in Beijing. It was an overreaction.”

Burns added that it is now “incumbent upon the government here in Beijing to convince the rest of the world that it will act peacefully in the future” and observed that “there’s a lot of concern around the world that China has now become an agent of instability in the Taiwan Strait and that’s not in anyone’s interest.”

As drought, coronavirus lockdowns, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine hamstring the Chinese economy, China’s domination of the region seems wobbly. Apple is currently talking to Vietnam about making Apple Watches and MacBooks, moving production away from China. Vietnam already builds Apple products, but these new contracts would upgrade the Vietnamese technical sector in advance of what are expected to be more contracts.

In late August, the EU and Indonesia launched their first ever joint naval exercise in the Arabian Sea, with an announcement that “[t]he EU and Indonesia are committed to a free, open, inclusive and rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region, underpinned by respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, democracy, rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded lawful commerce, and peaceful resolution of disputes. They reaffirm the primacy of international law, including the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”

The U.S. and Taiwan, which was not included in the earlier economic organization, will start formal trade talks in the fall.

The White House

Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics