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U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defied the Chinese government and its allies in Moscow on Tuesday when she went to Taiwan for a visit that was only confirmed when her plane landed in Taipei. Some see the move as a courageous show of solidarity with a liberal democracy threatened by Beijing’s growing belligerence; others see it as a reckless, ill-timed act of personal brinkmanship.

You can put this page in the latter camp.

Ms. Pelosi, second in line to the presidency after the vice-president, is the highest-ranking American official to visit Taiwan in 25 years.

Her decision to fly to the self-ruled island did not come at the behest of the White House. The Biden administration, out of fear of being portrayed as soft on China in an election year, didn’t try to prevent her trip, but it didn’t see it as timely or useful, and it has made a point of publicly stating that it doesn’t signal a change in a U.S. policy that has been deliberately ambiguous for decades.

Ambiguous out of diplomatic necessity, because it’s a complicated and fraught issue.

Beijing considers Taiwan to be an integral part of China, which is exactly what it was before the Communist Party of China defeated the Republic of China in a civil war in 1949, and the vanquished ROC government relocated to the island.

Taiwan has since been actively supported by the U.S., which has sold it billions of dollars worth of arms and, under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, says it should be treated under U.S. law like any other foreign country.

Members of the U.S. Congress have regularly visited Taiwan over the years without major incident, and the White House and Congress have made it clear that they don’t recognize China’s sovereignty over the island and would oppose its unilateral annexation.

At the same time, the U.S. doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, as it does with China and all other sovereign countries under normal circumstances. Under American policy, Taiwan is both a sovereign country, and not a sovereign country.

This ambiguity is seen by some as a lack of principle. Taiwan has become a healthy democracy, with a population of 23 million people, a strong economy, and its own constitution, currency and army. Many in the West believe it deserves full recognition, and to have a seat at the United Nations.

There is certainly a worthwhile ambition. What’s been lost in principle, though, has been gained in peace. The West’s relations with Taiwan, led by the U.S., have been a balancing act that has paid off when measured against the consequences of a war in the region.

Right now, we are closer to the possibility of that consequence than is comfortable. Beijing’s insistence on reabsorbing Taiwan has waxed and waned over the years, but it is at a high-water mark under Chinese President Xi Jinping. He pledged in 2021 to bring about the “complete reunification” of China and Taiwan; this year, China’s Foreign Ministry claimed “sovereign rights and jurisdiction” over the waters of the economically critical Taiwan Strait.

The threat level of this sabre-rattling is compounded by the fact that Mr. Xi’s standing at home has suffered because of his mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. A stronger-than-usual response to Ms. Pelosi’s visit might be a useful distraction as he seeks an unprecedented third term as president at a CPC congress later this year.

And then there is the matter of Russia, its illegal invasion of Ukraine, and its support for Beijing’s position that Ms. Pelosi’s visit is an extreme provocation on the part of the United States. At a time when the West should be preoccupied with Ukraine, Ms. Pelosi’s visit risks opening a new front in the antagonisms between the West and its two biggest adversaries, both of which have huge nuclear arsenals.

It would be nice to write off her visit as a needed show of strength. She is perfectly within her rights to visit Taiwan as she pleases, and to argue that it is not inconsistent with past American policy.

But the current moment in the world requires a smarter sensibility than Ms. Pelosi is demonstrating with her maverick diplomacy. That it happens to come the same week that United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that “humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation” makes it all the more difficult to accept.

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