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In 1979, the United States made a commitment in the China-U.S. Joint Communiqué --

"The United States of America recognizes the Government of the People's Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China. Within this context, the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan."

China therefore claim that US must refrain from having official exchanges with Taiwan. Pelosi is the leader of Congress, protected by the governmental flights, so her visit is "official" by default.

How did Pelosi and US justify her visit to Taiwan considering the promises made in the 1979? Is the visit an official or unofficial one?

From the quote alone I don't think US promised that there will be no official interaction between Taiwan and China.

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    She arrived on a plane that's clearly labelled "United States of America" to a reception -- i.e. it's an official visit.
    – Allure
    Aug 2 at 16:34
  • 3
    International relations and diplomacy is littered with countless weird rules where seemingly identical things (words, actions) are treated extremely differently.
    – eps
    Aug 2 at 17:48

3 Answers 3

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Seems official enough : (@ www.speaker.gov/newsroom/8222-2) Pelosi, Congressional Delegation Statement on Visit to Taiwan (note the url!):

Taipei, Taiwan – Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Members of a Congressional Delegation issued this statement upon arrival in Taiwan. This visit is the first official visit to Taiwan by a Speaker of the United States House of Representatives in 25 years.

“Our Congressional delegation’s visit to Taiwan honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant Democracy.

Further down, it claims there is no problem with US commitments. No idea if that is indeed the case or not.

“Our visit is one of several Congressional delegations to Taiwan – and it in no way contradicts longstanding United States policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, U.S.-China Joint Communiques and the Six Assurances. The United States continues to oppose unilateral efforts to change the status quo.”

At another level, the visit is not quite fully with the backing of the US foreign policy apparatus, or least the executive branch Biden: Military say a Pelosi Taiwan trip 'not a good idea' | AP News.

“Well, I think that the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now,” Biden said in response to a question about Pelosi’s reported trip. “But I don’t know what the status of it is.”

The president stopped short of suggesting that Pelosi not travel to Taiwan.

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    It is a play of words. The Chinese version of the communique says US recognizes there is only one China and its leader is PRC gov. The Eng version says US acknowledges that PRC believes there is only one China and its leader is PRC gov.
    – Faito Dayo
    Aug 3 at 0:03
  • Good point! In 1979 did US promise in 1979 that US won't officially visit Taiwan?
    – High GPA
    Aug 3 at 4:25
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    @FaitoDayo Interesting - I had noticed there was some creative wordsmithing claimed by the US back in the days - it would be funny if China pulled a fast one on the translation. Or vice versa. But really, I am only answering the first part - is the visit official or not? Not whether it breaks agreements. Which the wordplays do not address in any case. Note that in the past the US has been careful to keep things unofficial - a previous Taiwan head of state visited USA "unofficially" for example. Aug 3 at 6:41
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I think the key is that there are three types of official visits from the US:

  • President or Vice President

This is the top. Every detail is planned in advance and scrutinized by politicians, media, etc. Anything they say is taken (whether intended or not) as an official statement of the United States government.

  • State Department

Foreign relations are the responsibility of the State Department, which is an executive branch department, therefore connecting right back to POTUS. US ambassadors to other countries are also part of the State Department.

I would argue that any visit by the President, Vice President or the Secretary of State would qualify as an official visit in every sense of the word, unless somehow clearly stated otherwise.

  • Congress

Senators and Representatives frequently make visits to countries around the world, representing the US in various capacities. However, they are not the official representatives of the US. They make laws, and many of those laws do set foreign policy and/or pay for foreign policy (whether funding embassies or the military or direct aid to various countries where such aid is determined to be in the interest of the US). But the true representatives of the US, as a whole, to other countries are the President, Vice President and the State Department. A visit by Congress can be official if it is paid for by the US government, security provided by the US government, transportation provided by the US government, etc. But that does not mean - especially in our always split nearly in half Democrat/Republican congress - that it represents the US as a whole.

Or look at it another way:

The Speaker of the House can say whatever she wants, but it is meaningless in any practical way unless/until:

  • The House passes a bill
  • The Senate passes the same bill
  • The President signs the bill into law

or

  • The President or the State Department makes a public statement confirming the Speaker's statement
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    Well, Blinken visited Kosovo and a few days later, fighting broke out. Perhaps it is not a great idea to keep visiting and telling countries you've got their back in the event of a conflict? Aug 3 at 2:29
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Pelosi's reference to the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) is probably not coincidental here. The Act (which was also passed in 1979 with a "veto proof" majority) contains some changes relative to the communique. In particular 22 USC § 3301(a)(2) authorizes "the continuation of commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan". The substitution of "other relations" makes official visits not illegal by US law.

The TRA was adopted after president Carter unilaterally binned the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty that had provided defense guarantees to Taiwan.

There are other differences between the communiques and the TRA, in particular, the latter made the US diplomatic relations with the PRC rather conditional on China sticking to a policy of peaceful resolution of the Taiwan situation (at 3301(b)(3)).

These differences/points were reaffirmed over time by Congress, e.g. in a 1990s resolution that (according to Wikipedia) was countersigned by pres. Clinton, and which essentially complains that China hasn't abandoned their threat to use force:

Whereas April 10, 1999, will mark the 20th anniversary of the enactment of the Taiwan Relations Act, codifying in public law the basis for continued commercial, cultural, and other relations between the United States and Taiwan; [...] Whereas when the Taiwan Relations Act was enacted in 1979, it affirmed that the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China was based on the expectation that the future of Taiwan would be determined by peaceful means; Whereas officials of the People's Republic of China refuse to renounce the use of force against democratic Taiwan; [...]

Wikipedia cites a 2004 position of the PRC that the Taiwan Relations Act is "an unwarranted intrusion by the United States into the internal affairs of China". China was sticking to their viewpoint that the communiques were guiding posts, while the US [Congress & later presidents] has/have basically long abandoned the communique wording.

China has been firmly opposed to the unilateral enactment of the Taiwan Relations Act by the United States in 1979, regarding it as openly violating China's sovereignty, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhang Qiyue said on July 18 [2004].

"We expressed strong dissatisfaction and opposition towards the US House of Representatives for its neglect of the principles of the three Sino-US communiques and the basic standards of international relations," said the spokeswoman.

The resolution fabricated the Chinese military threat and advocated selling weapons to Taiwan and raising the US-Taiwan relationship level, she said. [...]

It must be pointed that the three Sino-US communiques are the political foundation of Sino-US relations as well as the guiding direction for the two sides to deal with Taiwan issues, Zhang said.

I'm rather sure the more recent, Xi era declarations on the TRA are probably more acerbic than that.

And it's also not first visit that the PRC complains about, e.g. in 2000 they wrote:

Scarcely three months after the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States, the U.S. Congress went so far as to pass the so-called "Taiwan Relations Act", which was then subscribed by the President to become effective. A domestic legislation of the United States as it was, this Act contained many clauses that contravened the communiqué on the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States and the principles of international law, and seriously harmed the rights and interests of the Chinese people. [...]

In September 1994 the U.S. government adjusted its policy towards Taiwan and did many things in contravention of the three Sino-U.S. joint communiqués. What was particularly serious was that by going back on its word, the U.S. government permitted Lee Teng-hui to visit the United States in June 1995. This changed the policy of previous U.S. administrations on prohibiting Taiwan leaders from visiting the United States and seriously impaired the relations between China and the United States.

While visits by House Speakers to Taiwan have been rare, there was one by Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997. But no other visit of this caliber has happened in the intervening 25 years.

Pelosi, who is well-known critic of China when it comes to democracy (she protested in Tiananmen square!) certainly did her best to make the visit look as official as she could; this included travelling on an US Air Force passenger jet and including some other high-level congressional figures with her.

Pelosi said her delegation has "heft," including Gregory Meeks, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Raja Krishnamoorthi from the House Intelligence Committee.

On the other hand, the White House and in particular the defense establishment were not exactly pleased with this visit (according to the Washington Post):

Virtually all the senior members of President Biden’s national security team have privately expressed deep reservations about the trip and its timing, said a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, spoke with his Chinese counterpart to defend Pelosi’s right to visit — as did other high-ranking officials — but even so did not think the trip was a good idea, the White House official said. Sullivan expressed concerns about Pelosi’s trip to multiple administration officials and asked for suggestions on how to dissuade her from traveling to Taiwan.

Also from about a week ago:

The President let slip last week that the US military was opposed to Pelosi visiting Taiwan now, but the White House has refused to expand on his comments.

Finally, the White House raised the usual/obvious points about separation of powers:

Kirby confirmed moments later that Biden had specifically raised the topic of Pelosi’s unconfirmed trip with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week, during a video call that lasted more than two hours.

Biden “made clear that Congress is an independent branch of government and that Speaker Pelosi makes her own decisions, as other members of Congress do, about their overseas travel,” said Kirby. “That was made clear.”

Moments after saying Biden and Xi had personally discussed the trip, Kirby again sought to downplay its importance.

“I think we’ve laid out very clearly that if she goes — if she goes — it’s not without precedent. It’s not new. It doesn’t change anything,” he said. “We’ve not ramped up the rhetoric. We’ve not changed our behavior.”

On the other hand, some commentators (cited in that piece) said that this might not come across as particularly credible since Biden himself has been more explicit that other US presidents from the past few decades about defending Taiwan militarily (although that too was debated what he meant exactly).

One final issue is that the US Congress has more recently (2018) passed the Taiwan Travel Act and this (in CRS' summary)

states that it should be U.S. policy to: (1) allow U.S. officials at all levels to travel to Taiwan to meet their Taiwanese counterparts (2) Allow high-level Taiwanese officials to enter the United States under respectful conditions and to meet with U.S. officials [...]

Needless to say, China declared itself "strongly dissatisfied" with that bill as well, as Wikipedia quotes the Xinhua news state agency.

I suspect Pelosi didn't want to refer to this latter law (and referred to TRA instead) because it was passed during a (recent) Republican controlled Congress (Paul Ryan was Speaker then); she became Speaker again in 2019.

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  • Very interesting and thorough answer that solves all my questions with reliable references. So the US made a communique in Jan 1979 and then decided to forget about some clauses in the communique in April 1979, making the official visits legal. Then on August 17th of 1982 the US reaffirms the communique. Then in 1990s US reaffirms the TRA. Seems like the US is swinging between TW and the mainland.
    – High GPA
    Aug 3 at 9:46
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    @HighGPA: The 1982 communique doesn't seem to mention visits or "unofficial relations" anymore. (The texts for all 3 are here). The 1982 one was centered on the issue or arms shipments. (Or at least the negotiations were.) As for the 1990s, Tienanmen had happened in the meantime, as did the fall of the Berlin wall. The US didn't need to shmooze China apart from the USSR anymore. And China was applying for WTO etc.
    – Fizz
    Aug 3 at 9:58
  • And 1982 communique was also followed by some unilateral US declarations, the Six Assurances given in the same year.
    – Fizz
    Aug 3 at 10:08
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    Agree with every other parts. In the first paragraph of the third communique (page 4 of your link), it reaffirms: "Within that context, the two sides agreed that the people of the United States would continue to maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan. "
    – High GPA
    Aug 3 at 10:08
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    Ah, ok, apparently Taiwan was instructed to leak them six points right away... but not disclose that they came straight from Reagan ait.org.tw/…
    – Fizz
    Aug 3 at 10:34

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