July 27, 2022
NEW DELHI – The announcement of a visit to Taiwan by the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, has resulted in discomfort in both America and China. Lu Xiang, a US-China scholar commented, “All efforts to (maintain bilateral ties) will be in ruins if Pelosi goes ahead with her trip. The risk and cost would be huge, and it could possibly be a game changer.” The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, mentioned, “If the US insists on going its own way, China will take forceful measures to resolutely respond and counter it, and we will do what we say.” Within the US, the military feels that this visit would enhance tensions between the two. There have been no comments from the US State Department. Pelosi was earlier scheduled to visit Taiwan in April but was compelled to postpone because she contracted Covid.
Even in April, China had protested. Its spokesperson had stated, “If the US insists on getting its way, China will take strong measures in response to defending its national sovereignty and territorial integrity. All possible consequences arising from this will be fully borne by the US side.” On the current visit, the Global Times commented that China considers her visit as “not only an escalation of US support for Taiwan independence, but a major incident.” Pelosi and her delegation are visiting Japan, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. She is scheduled to fly into Taipei from Tokyo. Talks between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping are expected end July.
To ensure these talks are not impacted, Biden stated that the US “military thinks it’s not a good idea (for Pelosi to travel to Taiwan) right now.” He suggested that she cancel her trip. He is aware that the visit could impact bilateral talks. Pelosi responded, “maybe the military was afraid our plane would get shot down”. She added, “I think it is time for us to show support to Taiwan.” As per protocol, Pelosi would be flying on a military aircraft. This, by itself, would provoke China. Many US lawmakers are backing Pelosi on her decision. Mike Gallagher, an influential Republican lawmaker stated, “I urge speaker Pelosi not to back down.” The CIA director mentioned at the Aspen Security Forum last week, “(I) wouldn’t underestimate President Xi’s determination to assert Chinese control?over Taiwan.” This implied that China may act offensively to send a message that Taiwan is a part of it. Many western leaders have visited Taiwan. European Parliament Vice President Nicola Beer along with a delegation, visited Taipei a fortnight ago. She stated, “We won’t have a blind eye on China’s threat to Taiwan. Europe was late for Hong Kong. We won’t be late for Taiwan. There is no room for Chinese aggression in democratic Taiwan.”
China protested, as was expected, but never acted offensively. Display of offensive manoeuvres is visible only when US delegations visit Taiwan in military aircraft. China also displays concern over US weapon supplies to Taiwan. A delegation, led by former Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, visited Taipei in March this year, followed by another led by Senator Tammy Duckworth in May. Both delegations were nominated by President Biden and met the Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen. China protested against these visits diplomatically as also by military actions. However, the visit by a US House Speaker, second in line for US President, is considered a serious provocation. Pelosi’s trip comes at a sensitive time for China. Xi is expected to spend August in discussions with his senior leadership ahead of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party wherein he would be seeking an unprecedented third term. There are already internal problems facing China including Covid and its contracting economy. In the diplomatic and military sphere, Xi cannot display weakness. It could be exploited by his adversaries. One miscalculation and his efforts to gain a third term may be in vain.
Not only is Xi being watched globally but also internally. Hence, China will be compelled to act. In earlier display of protests against US visitors, the Chinese have breached Taiwanese air space, conducted military exercises, fired missiles as also objected diplomatically. In this case, being a high-profile visit, Chinese actions could be far more provocative. The last US house speaker visited Taiwan and China in 1997. China did not take the visit seriously as the Speaker, Newt Gingrich, and then President Clinton, belonged to opposing camps. Pelosi and Biden are from the same camp. Amongst options available to China, apart from the above, are crossing the globally laid down meridian between the two nations, provoking the US to act, or even shadowing Pelosi’s aircraft employing its fighters. The worst that China could do is close the airspace around Taiwan for the duration of the visit, citing missile tests or exercises, placing impediments to her flight.
They would not risk any action which could be viewed as a military confrontation. At the same time, China has to act to prevent the US from gaining a moral victory. US naval vessels are likely to be sailing in the region during the visit, as a show of strength and deterrence. The Taiwanese government, neither confirming nor denying the visit, stated that it would continue to invite high-profile US lawmakers, as a projection of its democratic credentials and independent status. It added that it would announce details of Pelosi’s visit at an appropriate time. On Chinese threats, Taiwan refuses to comment.
In case Pelosi sticks to her plans, the US cannot back down, especially after multiple threats from China. Any backdown would provide a moral victory to Xi and boost his chances of obtaining a third term, neither of which is in the interests of the US. China could also attempt to blackmail the US by refusing Biden’s invitation for talks, unless the visit is cancelled or postponed, which if accepted, would provide China a moral victory. If Pelosi backs down, she could lose face as also display weak US resolve. The US military has limited options but to ensure her visit succeeds. Someone must back down. Who will it be? China or America?