Taiwan: What you need to know about a potential Nancy Pelosi visit

US officials are concerned that the reported visit will be met with a military response from China, which could spark the worst cross-strait crisis in decades.

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

Why is Beijing outraged by Pelosi’s possible visit?

The ruling Communist Party of China considers Taiwan’s self-ruled democracy to be its own territory, despite never ruling it, and does not rule out using force to “reunite” the island with the Chinese mainland.

For decades, Beijing has sought to isolate Taipei on the world stage, from cutting back on its diplomatic allies to blocking its entry into international organizations.

Any move that appears to give Taiwan a sense of international legitimacy is met with strong opposition from China. And in Beijing’s eyes, high-profile overseas visits by Taiwanese officials or visits by foreign officials to Taiwan will do just that.

In 1995, then-Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui’s visit 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 ended only after the US sent two carrier battle groups to the area to show strong support for Taipei.

In recent years, Taiwan has received numerous visits from US delegations of current and retired officials and legislators. This prompted an angry reaction from China, including sending warplanes to Taiwan’s self-proclaimed air defense identification zone.

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

“Pelosi is the third public official in the line of succession after the president and vice president, and I think the Chinese take that very seriously,” said Susan L. Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego.

“So she is a very important figure in American politics. She is different from the average member of Congress.”

Pelosi is a longtime critic of the Chinese Communist Party. She denounced Beijing’s reputation for human rights 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 Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to honor the victims of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters. Most recently, she expressed support for the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Why is the potential trip fueling tensions between the US and China?

Beijing warned that Pelosi’s trip, if it took place, would have a “serious negative impact on the political foundations of Sino-US relations.”

The US officially switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, but for a long time followed a delicate middle path. Washington recognizes the People’s Republic of China as China’s sole legitimate government, but maintains close unofficial ties with Taiwan.

The US also supplies defensive weapons to Taiwan under the decades-old Taiwan Relations Act, but deliberately does not disclose whether it will defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, a policy known as “strategic ambiguity.”

Biden speaks to Xi Jinping as tensions rise over Taiwan

China’s authoritarian turn under Xi and the sharp deterioration in relations with Washington have brought Taiwan closer to the US orbit. This infuriated Beijing, which accused Washington of “playing the Taiwan card” to contain China’s rise.

Meanwhile, the US has stepped up engagement with Taiwan, approving arms sales and sending delegations to the island.

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

Taiwan featured prominently in a two-hour and 17-minute phone call between Xi and Biden, and the Chinese leader urged Washington to uphold existing agreements with Beijing “in word and deed,” according to China’s foreign ministry. The statement added that China will “resolutely defend” its national sovereignty.

For his part, Biden confirmed that U.S. policy “has not changed,” according to a transcript of the White House phone call.

“The United States strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” Biden said in a statement.

Has the Speaker of the US House of Representatives ever visited Taiwan?

Pelosi’s reported trip will not be the first time a sitting speaker of the US House of Representatives has visited Taiwan.

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

Former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich meets Taiwanese Vice President and Premier Lian Chan during a brief visit to Taiwan in April 1997.

Beijing has signaled that 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 it clear that Beijing will no longer tolerate any slights or challenges to its interests.

“China is in a position to be more assertive, imposing costs and consequences on countries that do not take Chinese interests into account 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.

How about time?

Pelosi’s visit also reportedly comes at a challenging time for China.

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

The Chinese military is celebrating its founding anniversary on August 1 as Xi, the country’s most powerful leader in decades, prepares to break convention and run for a third term at the 20th Communist Party Congress this fall.

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

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

“This is a very busy time in China’s domestic politics,” Shirk said. “(Xi) himself and many other members of the Chinese elite will regard Pelosi’s visit as a humiliation of Xi Jinping (and) his leadership. And that means he will feel compelled to react in a way that demonstrates his strength.”

While a politically sensitive timeline could elicit a stronger reaction from Beijing, some experts believe it could also mean the Communist Party wants to ensure stability and keep the situation from spiraling out of control.

“Honestly, now is not the time for Xi Jinping to provoke a military conflict right before the 20th Party Congress. It is in Xi Jinping’s interest to manage this rationally and not provoke a crisis on top of all the other crises he has to face. c,” Thompson said, citing a slowdown in the Chinese economy, a deepening real estate crisis, rising unemployment and a constant struggle to contain sporadic outbreaks as part of his 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 may include a military component.

“China will respond with unprecedented countermeasures — the strongest it has ever taken since the Taiwan Strait crisis,” said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University of China.

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

Homeland security officials are working to reassure Pelosi of the risks her potential trip to Taiwan could pose, while the Pentagon is developing a security plan to use ships and planes to keep her safe if she decides to travel.

But US officials are constantly concerned that miscalculations or unintended incidents or accidents could occur if China and the US significantly increase their air and sea operations in the region.

The US does not expect direct hostilities from Beijing during a possible visit by Pelosi. At least five Defense Department officials described this as a very unlikely possibility and said the Pentagon wants public rhetoric to come down.

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

What did Taiwan say about Pelosi’s potential trip?

Taiwan made several comments on the situation. When the Financial Times first reported on Pelosi’s potential visit last week, Taiwan’s foreign ministry said it had “not received any information” about the visit.

During Thursday’s regular briefing, a ministry spokeswoman confirmed she had not received any definite information about whether Pelosi would visit the island and “had no further comment” on the matter.

“Inviting members of the US Congress to visit Taiwan has long been a focus of the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and our Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in the United States,” spokeswoman Joanne Ou said.

Neither President Tsai Ing-wen nor the presidential administration have made any announcements about Pelosi’s possible trip.

On Wednesday, Taiwan’s premier Su Tseng-chang said the island welcomes any friendly visitors from overseas. “We are very grateful to Speaker Pelosi for her strong support and kindness towards Taiwan over the years,” he said.

Although the international media is following the developments closely, this week the escalation of tensions has barely made headlines in Taiwan. The Taiwanese media is mainly focused on the upcoming local elections and Taiwanese military exercises.

Earlier, Taiwanese officials publicly welcomed visits by US delegations, viewing them as a sign of support from Washington.

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