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China Raises Stakes Over Pelosi Trip to Taiwan

FILE - Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 13, 2022.
FILE - Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 13, 2022.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's potential plan to visit Taiwan during her trip to Asia in August has prompted a belligerent response from China, with the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry warning that Beijing would "act strongly to resolutely respond" and "take countermeasures" if Pelosi traveled to the island.

In a news conference on Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian confirmed a report in the Financial Times over the weekend that said China's warnings were "significantly stronger" over the House speaker's potential visit than during the previous times it had been unhappy with U.S. policy toward Taiwan.

"The Chinese side has repeatedly made clear to the U.S. side our serious concern over Speaker Pelosi's potential visit to Taiwan and our firm opposition to the visit," he said. "We are fully prepared for any eventuality. If the U.S. side insists on making the visit, the Chinese side will take firm and strong measures to safeguard our sovereignty and territorial integrity. The U.S. must assume full responsibility for any serious consequence arising thereof."

In statements to different news outlets on Monday, Joanne Ou, the spokesperson for Taiwan's Foreign Ministry, said that while Taiwan always welcomes visits from U.S. lawmakers, the government had not yet received any "definite information" about a visit from Pelosi.

Tense relationship

Taiwan has long been a point of tension in the U.S.-China relationship. China claims the island democracy as part of its territory. While the U.S. nominally has a "one China" policy that recognizes both Taiwan and China as part of the same country, it maintains "strategic ambiguity" in its relations with them.

The U.S. has official diplomatic relations with mainland China only; however, it maintains unofficial relations with the government in Taipei, to which it supplies military aid and weapons.

Since taking office, President Joe Biden has on several occasions suggested that the U.S. would defend Taiwan militarily if China attempted to retake the island by force, appearing to deviate from the U.S. tradition not stating definitively how it would respond to Chinese aggression against Taiwan.

On China's part, its incursions into the Taiwan's airspace and waters have become significantly more aggressive in recent years, raising concerns about Beijing's intentions.

History of contention

While Pelosi’s national and international profile is tied to her leadership of the broader Democratic Party in the House of Representatives, the district in San Francisco that has sent her to Congress every two years since 1986 is nearly one-third Asian American.

Pelosi has been a critic of China’s social policies for many years. When asked about her upcoming Asia trip last week, she said, “It’s important for us to show support for Taiwan. None of us has ever said we’re for independence when it comes to Taiwan. That’s up to Taiwan to decide.”

China’s Foreign Ministry has criticized Pelosi for her complaints about the country’s treatment of minority groups such as the Muslim Uyghurs of the Xinjiang region, accusing her of “smearing” Beijing.

Timing sensitive

Pelosi's trip to Asia comes at a politically sensitive time for the Beijing regime. Chinese Communist Party senior leaders are about to gather for their annual summer retreat, which comes just months before the National Party Congress. At that meeting, which happens once every five years, President Xi Jinping is expected to seek an unprecedented third term in office.

David Sacks, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VOA in an email exchange that the timing of Pelosi's visit likely has much to do with the vehemence of China's reaction.

"Xi likely fears that Pelosi's high-profile visit to Taiwan could cause him to look weak in the eyes of other Party members and appear as someone who does not have a firm handle on one of the most important issues for the Chinese leadership," Sacks said.

He added, "Facing significant economic headwinds and pushback to his zero-COVID policies and tough lockdowns at home, Xi will at the very least try to avoid another blow on Taiwan and could even find a crisis useful as a way to distract the public or rally public opinion."

Options unclear

Having raised expectations that its response would be more powerful than any in the past, the Chinese government has raised concerns about exactly what it will do if Pelosi visits Taiwan.

In China, political commentator Hu Xijin, the former editor in chief of the state-run Global Times, suggested that Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) jets might intercept Pelosi's plane and "escort" it to Taiwan.

This would escalate tensions because while Chinese planes regularly enter Taiwan's air defense identification zone, they have not violated its territorial airspace.

Other experts doubt that Xi would be willing to risk open conflict.

"I don't think that Xi Jinping will let PLA fighter jets fly with her if Pelosi really goes (to Taiwan)," Arthur Ding, a professor emeritus of National Chengchi University in Taiwan, told VOA.

More likely, he said, are major economic moves, such as a repudiation of the Phase 1 agreement, reached during the Trump administration, to move toward a relaxation of the tariffs that the U.S. and China have imposed on each other's exports.

"I think China may (respond) in this regard, instead of suddenly raising this tension through the PLA fighter jets accompanying Pelosi's aircraft, because that is tantamount to direct provocation by China to the United States," Ding said.

Biden cautious

Although the Biden administration has no authority to tell Pelosi not to go to Taiwan, the administration has apparently been trying to dissuade her from the journey. Last week, Biden told reporters, "I think that the military thinks it's not a good idea right now."

"I think what the president was saying is that maybe the military was afraid of my plane getting shot down or something like that," Pelosi said Thursday.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said that the NSC had briefed Pelosi on the security situation. However, members of the administration have made it clear that the choice is Pelosi's to make, not the president's.

Pelosi urged to go

Numerous current and former U.S. government officials have urged Pelosi to make the trip to Taiwan over Beijing's objections.

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, during an appearance in Taipei last week, said, "I don't think we should allow China to dictate the travel schedules of American officials." He also urged the U.S. to reconsider its "One China" policy, saying that the stance had outlived its usefulness.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday tweeted an offer to accompany her, writing, "Nancy, I'll go with you. I'm banned in China, but not freedom-loving Taiwan. See you there!"

Crisis may be inevitable

The discussion of China possibly using military aircraft to intimidate Pelosi speaks to the level of stress in the relationship among China, the U.S. and Taiwan.

There have been three major "Taiwan Strait Crises," named for the body of water separating the island from the mainland. The first two, in the 1950s, involved armed conflict centered around small islands claimed by Taiwan but located close to the Chinese mainland. The third, in 1995 and 1996, involved China's firing missiles into waters surrounding Taiwan.

Sacks, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said current tensions over the status of Taiwan seem to be moving toward a breaking point.

"If China were to try to prevent Pelosi's plane from landing, we would be in a full-blown Taiwan Strait crisis, which would be far more dangerous than previous crises given the political contexts in Washington and Beijing," he said.

However, he added, "Even if we are able to navigate this trip and it does not cause a crisis, I believe a Taiwan Strait crisis is on the horizon."