Pelosi trip to Taiwan would test China’s appetite for confrontation

Shortly after the last major confrontation between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan, Xi Jinping, then a senior official in a Chinese province that faces the disputed island, joined a artillery reserve dividing, and later he had his picture taken in military greenscap turned backwards as he looked through the sights of an anti-aircraft gun.

Looking hard at the self-governing island, Mr. Xi learned long before becoming China’s top leader that he is essential for the political survival of the ruling Communist Party.

This lesson hangs over him as he wonders how to react if Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, visits Taiwan on a tour of Asian countries that started Monday in Singapore. She would be the highest-ranking US official to visit the island since 1997, when a previous speaker, Newt Gingrich, visited.

Mr. Xi has presented himself as the standard-bearer of a sacred cause – to unify Taiwan with China – and Beijing sees visits to the island by US officials as an affront to that assertion. China the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has warned Pelosi faces “serious consequences” if she travels to Taiwan as planned, and the Chinese military has issued vague warnings that it is prepared to defend national sovereignty.

But Mr. Xi also faces a fragile economic and political moment, and plunging into a crisis over Taiwan could hurt him, even if he rallies nationalist support.

He is focused on a Communist Party congress later this year, when he is very likely to win support for a third term as party general secretary, thwarting the two-term precedent set by his predecessor. He wants to orchestrate praise from officials to lock in this new five-year term and ensure he dominates decisions on the composition of the leadership.

His memory aroused whispered doubts, however, as Chinese growth has weakened under Covid outbreaks and lockdowns, and as Russia’s bitter war in Ukraine has questions asked about Mr. Xi’s closeness to President Vladimir V. Putin. Now Ms. Pelosi’s potential meeting with Taiwan leaders could further challenge Mr. Xi.

If Ms. Pelosi follows – she has not confirmed whether she will travel to Taiwan – Mr. Xi is likely to use displays of military might to vent Beijing’s anger while seeking to avoid a volatile standoff that would spook markets. and drag down the Chinese economy, experts said.

“There will be a very strong reaction, for sure, but it won’t be out of control,” said Chen Dingding, a professor of international relations at Jinan University in southern China.

Mr Xi appeared to voice his concerns last week, when he told President Biden in an appeal not to “play with fire” and risk self-immolation over Taiwan. It was ominous language, but the same wording Mr. Xi used during a call with the US President in November. Neither Mr. Xi nor Mr. Biden mentioned Ms. Pelosi in their public accounts of their conversation.

“This is really mid-level warning rhetoric, not high-level warning rhetoric signaling a war-level risk appetite,” said David Gitter, the chairman of the China Advanced Research Center, a non-profit research institute. “That doesn’t mean they’re about to do anything really crazy, like directly threaten the safety of the speaker.”

The Chinese government may have given a taste of how it would react if it went where the military live fire exercises announced in water 80 miles from the neighboring coast of Taiwan. On Monday, the 95th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, Chinese military media released new statements on defending sovereignty, as well as videos of China’s Dongfeng-17 ballistic missile. Chinese television also published a Ms. Pelosi’s unflattering video profile.

“We once again sternly warn the US side that China stands ready and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army will never stand idly by,” Zhao Lijian, a ministry spokesperson, told reporters in Beijing on Monday. Chinese Foreign Affairs, about Ms. Pelosi’s possible visit. “China will take resolute and vigorous countermeasures to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

But so far, at least, the major Communist Party newspapers have not published editorials about Ms. Pelosi’s possible visit that would signal further escalation; the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not published any such authoritative statement that deepened the stalemate over Taiwan in 1995.

While Mr. Xi doesn’t appear to want to court a crisis, said Bonnie S. Glaser, Asia program director at the US’s German Marshall Fund, “if PLA planes approach Taiwan in a different from the past, and if they enter Taiwan’s territorial airspace, an incident could occur whether Xi likes it or not.

In rolling Taiwan crisis of 1995-96, China held military exercises off Taiwan, and the United States sent warships to stop China. Beijing was furious after the Clinton administration allowed Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to visit the United States, and Chinese leaders conducted threatening missile tests in what appeared to be an effort to injure Mr. Lee during the 1996 presidential election in Taiwan. In place, he won.

At the time, Mr. Xi was an official in Fujian Province, facing Taiwan, and often courted investors on the island. He became the best politician officer of a People’s Liberation Army reserve anti-aircraft division in 1996, after becoming deputy party secretary of the province.

“We must clearly understand the stern leadership of the struggle in the Taiwan Strait,” Xi said. said to division officers in 2001, according to a China News Service report at the time. “It is only by truly preparing for battle that peace is possible.”

Even if Ms. Pelosi cancels her visit or passes without a crisis, many experts believe that rising tensions over the future of the island make conflict more and more likely in the years to come.

Xi has set eventual unification with Taiwan as one of his guiding goals for China’s “national rejuvenation” as a modern, unified superpower. He said he wanted to absorb Taiwan peacefully at some undetermined point in the future, but did not rule out force. China’s military modernization is approaching a point where an invasion of the island is conceivable, though still daunting and fraught with risk.

“The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will not be an easy task accomplished simply with fanfare of gongs and drums,” he told officials in Beijing last week in a theme speech for the party congress.

Mr Biden told reporters last month that “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now” for Ms. Pelosi to travel to Taiwan, and administration officials reportedly tried to persuade her not to go. After Mr. Biden’s phone call with Mr. Xi last week, the US account of the exchange “suggested that Biden has made it clear that he is not looking to fight with China over Taiwan at this time,” said Ryan Hass, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former director for China. to the National Security Council.

Nevertheless, Mr. Hass says in a new newspaperBeijing and Washington have grown increasingly suspicious of each other’s intentions towards Taiwan, and “communication channels to manage tensions have collapsed”.

Officials in Washington and many in Taiwan say China’s efforts to exclude the island from international forums have deepened Taiwanese frustration with Beijing. They also say that increased Chinese military activity around the island has only heightened locals’ apprehensions about Mr. Xi.

Policymakers in Beijing blame the United States. They say Washington is increasingly paying lip service to its “one China” policy and has expanded its military and political ties with Taipei far beyond what was agreed upon when Beijing and Washington established diplomatic relations in 1979.

“The Biden administration has continued the Trump administration’s strategy of ‘using Taiwan to contain China,'” said Cao Qun, a researcher at the state-run China Institute for International Studies. wrote in a recent review. “The chances of a clash between China and the United States in the Taiwan Strait are increasing.”

M. Xi’s options to retaliate include holding threatening military exercises, perhaps in the seas and skies closer to Taiwan. It could also send more planes and ships near Taiwan, including crossing the median line in the Taiwan Strait, an informal border that Chinese forces rarely cross.

After more US politicians and foreign delegations visited Taiwan, Beijing stepped up flights to Taiwan’s ‘Air Defense Identification Zone’, an area that goes well beyond sovereign airspace. from the island, said Gerald Brown, a military analyst in Washington who collects and analyzes data on such flights. In November, China being 27 military aircraft in the area shortly after US lawmakers visited Taipei.

At the extreme, China could also fire missiles near Taiwan, as in 1996. At the time, however, China’s military was too weak to pose a serious threat to US forces in the region. If Mr. Xi did the same now, the global shockwaves could be much greater.

“I don’t think there has been any sign so far that China will launch any major military operations,” he said. Kuo Yu-jen, professor of political science at National Sun Yat-sen University in southern Taiwan. “If China overreacts, bringing countermeasures from the United States or Japan, for Xi Jinping, the losses would outweigh the gains.”

Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.