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The prospect of the third-most senior figure in U.S. government visiting the world’s only Chinese-speaking democracy had roiled Asia’s already choppy geopolitical waters. Ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, attention in Washington has also centered on the risk of war over Taiwan. China views the island as part of its sovereign territory and Chinese President Xi Jinping has cast reunification with the mainland as an inevitability, the crowning ambition of his rule.
The United States, meanwhile, has in practice shifted steadily away from its official policy of “strategic ambiguity” over whether it would come to Taiwan’s defense. President Biden and a host of lawmakers in Congress all explicitly believe the United States should help Taiwan fight off a Chinese attack. Amid growing bipartisan support for a tighter U.S. embrace of Taiwan, Pelosi’s arrival would mark the most significant visit of a U.S. official to Taiwan in a quarter-century. But in Beijing’s eyes, it’s a dangerous provocation and an infringement of its “territorial integrity.”
“We once again sternly warn the U.S. side that China stands at the ready and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army will never sit idly by,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, warned at a briefing Monday, adding that “China will take resolute and vigorous countermeasures.”
Experts have a rough sense of what those countermeasures may be. “The response will almost certainly include a military component, most likely with a show of force in the first instance — live fire exercises, a much greater military presence within the Taiwan Strait and … even missile tests,” tweeted M. Taylor Fravel, director of the Security Studies Program at MIT.
But the show of force will have to come with a demonstration of restraint.
“The goal will be to underscore resolve without sparking escalation, but the likely prominence to the military component will include the potential for miscalculation,” Fravel said. “There are also significant U.S. naval assets in the region at the moment.”
China’s state media organs have been careful in their warnings to the United States, a sign, perhaps, of Beijing’s own wariness of an unintended escalation.
“I don’t think that up to now there have been any signs that China will launch major military operations,” said Kuo Yujen, a political science professor at the National Sun Yat-sen University in southern Taiwan, to the New York Times. “If China overreacts, bringing countermeasures from the U.S. or Japan, for Xi Jinping, the losses would outweigh the gains.”
Ahead of a major Communist Party Congress later this year, and beset by myriad other problems, including lingering coronavirus lockdowns and a slowing economy, Xi and his allies may not want to rock the boat.
“There is little reason that China will want to shoot itself in the foot by initiating major military confrontation, and undermine the very stability that it craves,” Wen-Ti Sung, political scientist at Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies Program, told my colleague Karina Tsui.
It’s also unclear how much the United States gains with Pelosi showing up in Taiwan. Her presence will constitute a statement of support for Taiwan’s democracy and perhaps even its aspirations for formal independence, though the United States generally avoids commenting on the latter. The most enthusiastic U.S. supporters of a Pelosi visit to Taiwan include hawkish former Trump administration officials.
“A symbolic show of support by the head of U.S.’s legislative branch could give reassurance, while still retaining enough plausible deniability, and not overtly crossing Beijing’s red lines, as her decision does not represent U.S. policy,” Sung said.
But that’s not how China will interpret the occasion. White House officials, including Biden himself, suggested to reporters that they would rather Pelosi not visit, given the delicacy of the moment. Taiwan was at the heart of a testy phone call between Biden and Xi at the end of last week.
One reading of Pelosi’s determination to stop in Taipei may be that she is wary of the optics of backing out after it emerged she may go. That, skeptics contend, is not justification enough.
“Had Pelosi not said she was going to Taiwan in the first place, no one would be suggesting she needed to go in order bolster American credibility in Asia,” left-leaning commentator Peter Beinart wrote. “The argument that she can’t back down now resembles the argument that the U.S. couldn’t leave Vietnam because the war had become a test of U.S. resolve.”
On Monday, the White House changed tune, casting a possible Pelosi visit to Taiwan as a reflection of continuing U.S. commitments to the island nation.
“There is no reason,” a National Security Council spokesman told reporters, “for Beijing to turn a potential visit consistent with long-standing U.S. policy into some sort of crisis.”
Yet analysts on both sides see a crisis on the horizon. “Each of the main players — China, Taiwan, and the United States — believe it is acting prudently to protect its interests in the face of escalatory actions from the other side of the Strait,” wrote Ryan Hass, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in a preface to a new report on U.S.-Taiwan policy. “Officials and analysts increasingly are competing to forecast when conflict could break out, not whether it will occur.”
“The Biden administration has continued the Trump administration’s strategy of ‘using Taiwan to contain China,’ ” wrote Cao Qun, a researcher at the state-run China Institute of International Studies. “The chances of a clash between China and the United States in the Taiwan Strait are growing.”
This column has been updated.