Pelosi arrives in Taiwan, increasing US-China tension

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan on Tuesday for an unannounced purpose long-awaited and controversial visit is sure to deepen US-China tensions and fears of a military conflict between the two superpowers.

Pelosi (D-San Francisco), an outspoken critic of Beijing, is the highest American elected official to visit Taiwan in 25 years. Even before his arrival during an official tour in Asia, the prospect of a stopover in Taiwan aroused the ire of Beijing, which sees in this trip a questioning of its claim of sovereignty over the autonomous island.

“Our delegation’s visit to Taiwan honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant democracy,” Pelosi tweeted minutes after landing at Taipei airport.

When asked about China, she added that supporting Taiwan “is more important now than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy”, but she also insisted on the fact that his visit “in no way contradicts” US policy toward China and Taiwan that has held for decades.

Chinese officials were quick to threaten retaliation, warning that the country’s military is ready to act and that “those who play with fire will perish.” The aggressive rhetoric has stoked concerns about military escalation, fueling debate over the wisdom of Pelosi’s trip and the potential backlash from it.

The democratically governed island of 23 million has become a central point of contention in the deterioration of US-China relations. With mistrust growing between the two countries, analysts said Pelosi’s visit could lead to miscommunication and a military clash, although neither side wants war.

“The risk of an unintended crisis following a large-scale military posture by China is uncomfortably high,” said Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank. “It is very possible that policymakers on both sides will have a radical misunderstanding of the other’s intentions.”

A long call between President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week over issues such as Taiwan’s failure to defuse tensions during the visit. Given the heightened animosity, the United States, China and Taiwan will have to exercise caution to avoid escalating the situation, Hsiao said.

China’s global power and influence have grown since the last such visit by a US official of the rank of Pelosi, when then-President Newt Gingrich, a Republican, traveled to Taiwan in 1997 to meet then-president Lee Teng-hui. Although some experts in the United States have warned that Pelosi’s trip, while offering little material benefit, could trigger a heavy-handed response from Beijing that would escalate into a wider crisis, others feared a cancellation could be seen as yielding to Chinese pressure and undermining faith in US support for Taiwan.

While the Biden administration is reluctant to appear soft on China, it also has little interest in antagonizing the country’s leaders, especially with the war raging between Russia and Ukraine. The United States has warned China against supplying support material to Russia, and would find it difficult to face the challenges of both countries at the same time.

Before Pelosi’s trip, Biden said the Pentagon had advised against it but was taking steps to ensure his safety. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the visit did not violate long-standing American policy and should not be a reason for China to increase its military activities.

Meanwhile, analysts said Beijing would be under pressure to follow through on its warnings while refraining from actions that could drag it into a war with the United States, which is bound by federal law to ensure that Taiwan can defend itself. Biden has previously said the United States would intervene militarily if China attacks Taiwan, although the administration has backtracked on his comments each time. China’s response could include missile tests, more aggressive excursions by warplanes and ships, and larger-scale military exercises around Taiwan.

More serious possibilities could include a naval blockade directed against the key southwestern port city of Kaohsiung, no-fly zones over the Taiwan Strait and military exercises targeting the north near the capital, Taipei, and east, cutting the conduit from Taiwan to the outside. world. These scenarios would present a serious danger for the Taiwanese armywhich should react by jamming warplanes and naval assets.

“The Chinese military will not target the United States,” said Yujen Kuo, director of the National Policy Research Institute at National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan. “China will punish Taiwan.”

Prior to Pelosi’s arrival, the People’s Liberation Army of China conducted military exercises, including live-fire drills off the coast opposite Taiwan. Tuesday, Reuters reported as Chinese fighter jets and ships moved closer to the unofficial “middle line” of the Taiwan Strait, signaling a more provocative military posture.

China has also suspended food imports from more than 100 companies in Taiwan, local media reported Tuesday. China has previously banned Taiwanese products such as pineapple and grouper, seen as an attempt to exert economic pressure on the island.

Concerns over the military conflict in the Taiwan Strait have grown as Beijing has stepped up calls for unification and being a record number of warplanes in the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone. Growing tensions and China’s growing military capabilities have led some officials to warn an attack is possible within the next few years.

Xi, who is expected to breach Chinese political norms by securing a third five-year term as president later this year, considers unification with Taiwan of utmost importance as part of his broader goal of “national rejuvenation”. . The Chinese leader juggles national challenges ahead of the planned term extension, including a real estate crisis and the economic impact of COVID-19 closures. A weak response to Pelosi’s visit could undermine his leadership at a politically sensitive time.

How aggressively China chooses to push is entirely up to Xi, Kuo said. But if he “does not react strongly to Pelosi’s visit, he will face enormous challenges from other factions within the Communist Party.”

Here in Taiwan, few seem to pay as much attention to Pelosi’s visit as those overseas.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sensitized of the potential for conflict with mainland China, spurring initiatives to strengthen the defenses of the Taiwanese military and among civilians. However, many locals are skeptical that Pelosi’s visit will lead to a substantial change in China’s military approach to Taiwan.

“The visit should not be interpreted as a provocation but rather as support for maintaining the status quo across the strait,” said Wen Lii, director of the Matsu Islands chapter of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party. “I think it’s important that Taiwan continues to receive public gestures of support from other democracies.”

Yang reported from Taipei and Pierson from Singapore.