In the days leading up to the expected arrival of Nancy Pelosi, the US House Speaker, in Taipei today (2 August), the Chinese military held live-fire drills off its eastern coast, opposite Taiwan. The Chinese foreign ministry had warned Pelosi not to travel to the self-governing island, which Beijing claims as its own territory, vowing “strong countermeasures” if the visit went ahead. John Kirby, the White House national security spokesman, said on 1 August that China appeared to be “positioning itself to potentially take further steps in the coming days”, which could include “firing missiles in the Taiwan Strait or around Taiwan” and large air or naval exercises.
“We are closely following the itinerary of Speaker Pelosi,” Zhao Lijian, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said on the same day, warning that the People’s Liberation Army would not “sit idly by” if she travelled to the island. Zhao threatened “grave consequences” to follow and repeated the warning of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, to Joe Biden that “those who play with fire will perish by it”.
Strongly worded statements on Taiwan from the Chinese government are not unusual, but this time senior US officials are reported to be concerned that they could be accompanied by a show of military force. When Joe Biden, the US president, was asked about the proposed visit on 20 July he told reporters that “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now”.
Biden’s own comments in recent months have compounded a complex situation. Washington does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taipei, having switched recognition to Beijing in 1979. Under the “one China” policy, the US acknowledges Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China, without endorsing that claim. While the Taiwan Relations Act requires the US to provide Taiwan with the arms it needs to defend itself, past American presidents have generally maintained an approach of “strategic ambiguity” as to whether US troops would be involved. In short, words and nuance matter on Taiwan, as then-senator Biden reminded George W Bush in an op-ed in the Washington Post after the president made careless comments on the subject in 2001. Yet three times in the last 12 months, most recently in May, Biden has stated clearly that the US military would come to Taiwan’s defence, prompting hurried denials from his aides that he is changing US policy.
“It has been proven that the US will not be reasonable on the Taiwan question,” wrote Hu Xijin, the former editor of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, which is published by the CCP, on 19 July, after the reports of Pelosi’s trip. He called for Beijing to draw a line at the Speaker’s visit and declare a “no-fly zone” over Taiwan to prevent her plane (likely to be a US military aircraft) from landing, or to send fighter jets to “accompany” her, risking a dangerous aerial encounter.
Hu has a long history of attention-seeking, provocative commentary, and it is unlikely his ideas will be taken seriously, but if the visit does go ahead in August, it will come at a particularly sensitive time for the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping. He is due to convene the senior party leadership for an annual conclave before a party congress this autumn at which he is expected to break with decades of precedent and seek a third five-year term in power. August also marks the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army and a celebration of China’s military strength.
Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC who served on the US National Security Council from 2013 to 2017, has urged the Speaker to consider moving the visit to later in the year, cautioning that Chinese leaders would likely “err on the side of overreaction” if it took place in August. “To do otherwise would be to risk being labelled weak at a sensitive moment,” he said.
On the other hand, prominent Republicans have insisted that it is the US that will look weak if the trip does not go ahead. Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, offered to accompany Pelosi to Taiwan, while Newt Gingrich, who travelled there when he was Speaker in 1997, cautioned against “timidity”. The Republican senator Ben Sasse said: “Speaker Pelosi should go to Taiwan and President Biden should make it abundantly clear to Chairman Xi that there’s not a damn thing the Chinese Communist Party can do about it. No more feebleness and self-deterrence.”
The proposed visit has become a “Rorschach test for US policy on China”, said Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at the Rand Corporation, a think tank, with “hawks” and “doves” in the US China-watching community viewing it differently. “If you are a China hawk, you will say that of course this is the right thing to do, it’s in line with strengthening our partnership with Taiwan, and will ultimately serve as a deterrent to Beijing,” he told me. “But then, on the other hand, the China doves will say, ‘Well, is it really necessary to do this? We have a ‘one China policy’ and it seems like we’re just poking and prodding Beijing for no real geostrategic gain.’”
There was precedent for Pelosi’s trip, Grossman stressed, noting Gingrich’s visit 25 years ago, but the difference then was that US-China relations had been on a positive trajectory. “My understanding is that in the run-up to that visit, the message from the Chinese was along the lines that, ‘Well this will be a cloudy day, but then the sun will shine after the clouds pass,’” he said. This time, the two countries’ relationship is at its lowest point in decades. “Now it’s going to be a stormy day, followed by even stormier weather.”
The China experts Bonnie Glaser and Zack Cooper went further, warning in an article in the New York Times on 28 July that the United States and China were on “a collision course in the Taiwan Strait”, with their leaders “sleepwalking into a crisis”. Glaser, who directs the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said the situation had become extremely dangerous. “A single spark could ignite this combustible situation into a crisis that escalates to military conflict,” they wrote. “Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan could provide it.”
This piece was updated on 2 August to reflect reports that Nancy Pelosi planned to go ahead with her visit to Taiwan. The Speaker’s office has not confirmed her itinerary.
[See also: How Nixon’s visit to China shaped the world]