What you need to know about Pelosi’s potential visit to Taiwan

US officials fear the reported visit could be met with a military response from China, potentially triggering the worst cross-Strait crisis in decades.

Here’s what you need to know about the potential high-stakes visit.

Why is Beijing angry at Pelosi’s potential visit?

China’s ruling Communist Party claims Taiwan’s self-governing democracy as its own territory – although it has never ruled it – and has not ruled out the use of force to ‘reunite’ the island with the mainland Chinese.

For decades, Beijing has sought to isolate Taipei on the world stage, ranging from reducing its diplomatic allies to preventing it from joining international organizations.

Any move that appears to give Taiwan a sense of international legitimacy is strongly opposed by China. And in Beijing’s eyes, high-level overseas visits by Taiwanese officials, or visits by foreign officials to Taiwan, will do just that.

In 1995, a visit by then Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to the United States sparked a major crisis in the Taiwan Strait. Enraged by the trip, China fired missiles into the waters around Taiwan, and the crisis only ended after the United States sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region in a show of strong support for Taipei.

In recent years, Taiwan has received a wave of visits from US delegations, made up of serving and retired officials and lawmakers. This drew angry responses from China, including sending fighter jets into Taiwan’s self-declared air defense identification zone.

But Pelosi’s political stature makes her potential visit to Beijing all the more provocative.

« Pelosi is the third official in line after the president and vice president. I think the Chinese take that very seriously, » said Susan L. Shirk, president of the 21st Century China Center at UC. San Diego.

« So he’s a very important figure in American politics. That’s different from your regular member of Congress. »

Pelosi is a longtime critic of the Chinese Communist Party. She denounced Beijing’s human rights record and met with pro-democracy dissidents and the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader who remains a thorn in the side of the Chinese government.
In 1991, Pelosi unfurled a banner in Tiananmen Square in Beijing to commemorate the victims of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters. More recently, she voiced her support for the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Why is the potential trip fueling US-China tensions?

Beijing has warned that Pelosi’s trip, if it materializes, would have « a serious negative impact on the political foundations of China-US relations ».

The United States formally transferred diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 – but has long taken a tricky middle road. Washington recognizes the People’s Republic of China as China’s only legitimate government, but maintains close unofficial ties with Taiwan.

The United States also supplies Taiwan with defensive weapons under the decades-old Taiwan Relations Act, but it remains deliberately vague on whether it would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion – a policy known as « strategic ambiguity ».

Biden talks to Chinese Xi as tension mounts over Taiwan

China’s authoritarian turn under Xi and the fall in relations with Washington have brought Taiwan closer to the orbit of the United States. This infuriated Beijing, which accused Washington of « playing the Taiwan card » to contain China’s rise.

The United States, meanwhile, has stepped up its engagement with Taiwan, approving arms sales and sending delegations to the island.

Since the Taiwan Travel Act was signed into law by then-US President Donald Trump in March 2018, US officials and lawmakers have undertaken more than 20 trips to the island, according to a CNN tally. The 2018 law encourages visits between U.S. and Taiwanese officials at all levels.

Taiwan featured prominently in Xi and Biden’s two-hour, 17-minute phone call, with the Chinese leader urging Washington to honor existing agreements with Beijing « in word and deed », according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry reading. . The statement added that China would « resolutely safeguard » its national sovereignty.

For his part, Biden reiterated that US policy “has not changed,” according to a reading of the White House appeal.

« The United States strongly opposes unilateral efforts to alter the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, » Biden said, according to the statement.

Has a Speaker of the United States House ever visited Taiwan?

Pelosi’s reported trip would not be the first time a Speaker of the United States House has visited Taiwan.

In 1997, Newt Gingrich visited Taipei just days after his trip to Beijing and Shanghai. The Chinese Foreign Ministry criticized Gingrich after his visit to Taiwan, but the response was limited to rhetoric.

Former United States House Speaker Newt Gingrich meets Taiwanese Vice President and Prime Minister Lien Chan during a brief visit to Taiwan in April 1997.

Beijing has indicated things will be different this time around.

Twenty-five years later, China is stronger, more powerful and more confident, and its leader Xi has made clear that Beijing will no longer tolerate any perceived harm or challenge to its interests.

« China is in a position to be more assertive, to impose costs and consequences on countries that disregard China’s interest in their policies or actions, » said Drew Thompson, visiting senior fellow. at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

What about the calendar?

Pelosi’s reported visit would also come at a sensitive time for China.

The House Speaker had previously planned to lead a US congressional delegation to Taiwan in April, but postponed the trip after testing positive for Covid-19.

China’s military celebrates its founding anniversary on Aug. 1 as Xi, the country’s most powerful leader in decades, prepares to break convention and seek a third term at the Communist Party’s 20th Congress this fall.

In August, Chinese leaders are also expected to gather in the resort town of Beidaihe for their annual summer conclave, where they will discuss personnel moves and policy ideas behind closed doors.

The Pentagon is working on a security plan for Pelosi ahead of a possible trip to Taiwan

« It’s a very tense time in China’s domestic politics, » Shirk said. « (Xi) himself and many other members of China’s elite would view Pelosi’s visit as a humiliation of Xi Jinping (and) his leadership. And that means he will feel compelled to respond in a way that demonstrate his strength.”

While the politically sensitive moment could trigger a stronger response from Beijing, some experts believe it could also mean the Communist Party wants to provide stability and prevent things from spiraling out of control.

« Honestly, it’s not the right time for Xi Jinping to provoke a military conflict right before the 20th Party Congress. It’s in Xi Jinping’s interest to handle this rationally and not trigger another crisis. of all the other crises it has to deal with,” Thompson said, citing China’s slowing economy, worsening housing crisis, rising unemployment and the constant struggle to curb sporadic outbreaks in the as part of its zero-Covid policy.

How will China react?

China has not specified what « strong measures » it plans to take, but some Chinese analysts say Beijing’s response could involve a military component.

« China will respond with unprecedented countermeasures – the strongest it has ever taken since the Taiwan Strait crises, » said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China.

Privately, Biden administration officials have expressed concern that China may seek to declare a no-fly zone over Taiwan to cancel possible travel, a US official told CNN.

National security officials are working quietly to convince Pelosi of the risks her potential trip to Taiwan could pose, while the Pentagon draws up a security plan to use ships and planes to protect her if she decides to go. before.

But the constant concern of American officials is that miscalculations or unintended incidents or accidents could occur if China and the United States significantly increase their air and maritime operations in the region.

The United States does not expect direct hostile action from Beijing during a possible visit by Pelosi. At least five defense officials have described this as a very remote possibility and said the Pentagon wants to see public rhetoric depressed.

Pelosi speaks with reporters at the Capitol Visitor Center on June 24, 2022.

What has Taiwan said about Pelosi’s potential trip?

Taiwan has made few comments on the situation. When Pelosi’s potential visit was first reported by the Financial Times last week, Taiwan’s foreign ministry said it had « not received any information » about the visit.

During a regular press briefing on Thursday, a ministry spokeswoman reiterated that she had not received any specific information about Pelosi’s visit to the island and had « no further comment » on it.

« Inviting members of the United States Congress to visit Taiwan has long been a priority of the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and our Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States, » spokeswoman Joanne Ou said.

Neither President Tsai Ing-wen nor the presidential office has released any statements about Pelosi’s potential trip.

On Wednesday, Taiwanese Prime Minister Su Tseng-chang said the island welcomes all friendly guests from overseas. « We are very grateful to President Pelosi for her support and kindness to Taiwan over the years, » he said.

Although international media are following the events closely, the escalating tension barely made the headlines in Taiwan this week. Taiwanese media mainly focused on the upcoming local elections and Taiwanese military exercises.

Previously, Taiwanese officials had publicly welcomed visits by US delegations, seeing them as a sign of support from Washington.

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