In politics and diplomacy, as in life, there is a time and a place for everything. Still, it’s hard to imagine any circumstances under which it would have been appropriate for President Biden to muse publicly about an issue as sensitive as whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) should visit Taiwan. That is just what Mr. Biden unwisely did on July 20. “The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now,” the president said in response to a reporter’s question, a formulation that created two problematic appearances: that the president has knowledge of possible Chinese threats to Ms. Pelosi or the official aircraft she might use and that the military, not its civilian leadership, determines policy. It also made it impossible for China to remain silent on the matter. On Tuesday, Beijing predictably responded, demanding the trip be canceled and noting that “the Chinese military will never sit idly by,” when faced with “any external force’s interference and secessionist attempts for ‘Taiwan independence.’”
Now, the United States faces a dilemma. Ms. Pelosi not only has a right but an obligation to express solidarity with democratic Taiwan as she sees fit, including by visiting the island, even if no speaker has done so since Republican Newt Gingrich 25 years ago. To cancel such a trip, which would have occurred as part of a broader swing through Asian nations, after Chinese threats would be to concede Beijing an implicit veto over U.S. relations with the island. That can never be allowed. And yet, China has been taking a more aggressive military posture in the Taiwan Strait. With war in Ukraine still raging — indeed, likely to escalate soon — the United States, and the world, can ill afford an avoidable military showdown with China, much less one that might begin with Chinese planes forcing down a U.S. plane carrying Ms. Pelosi.
Can the dilemma be resolved? The answer begins by repeating: There is a time and a place for everything. Realism requires acknowledging that, as Mr. Biden’s admittedly unfortunate remark implied, the short term is especially inopportune for Ms. Pelosi to visit Taiwan. The next couple of months will include such sensitive events as a phone call between Mr. Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping; a gathering in early Augustof top Chinese communists, at which they will prepare for Mr. Xi’s likely reelection to a third term at the fall party Congress; and the National Congress itself. Additionally, China’s internal situation is particularly tense because of coronavirus-related lockdowns and widespread financial distress. Given the temptation for Mr. Xi to divert attention and bolster his own political standing by targeting Taiwan and the United States, it’s smart not to give him any excuses.
All of the above argues for keeping Ms. Pelosi’s plans for a Taiwan trip flexible and discreet — which, to her credit, she has done — while waiting for the optimal moment to carry them out. That probably won’t be soon, but it should be eventually, when her presence will do the most to support Taiwan’s legitimate aspirations and the least to reinforce China’s illegitimate bullying.