US and China on knife edge over Taiwan ahead of Xi Biden phone call

America’s latest clash with China was fueled by leaked plans for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s possible visit to Taiwan, and it’s especially dangerous because it’s driven by domestic politics on both sides of the Pacific.
The spat worsens the already bad relationship between the United States and China as their 21st-century superpower struggle takes shape. It also complicates an expected Thursday phone call between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Taiwan has long looked like the most likely cause of a military escalation between the US and China.

In a complex web of agreements governing relations with Beijing, Washington grants official diplomatic recognition only to the People’s Republic of China, but maintains close ties with Taiwan, a self-governing democracy over which China claims sovereignty.

The US’s policy of strategic uncertainty leaves it vague about what it will do if China ever invades Taiwan, in part to discourage the Taipei government from formally declaring independence. But the US is required by law to offer Taiwan the means to defend itself.

China has strongly warned that it will take “strong and decisive” action in the event of Pelosi’s visit. An attack on her aircraft is unthinkable. But there are rumors in Washington that China could hide its US warplane with fighter jets or even send planes flying over Taiwan itself, a highly volatile scenario fraught with the possibility of miscalculation.

Given such rhetoric, it would be difficult for China not to take unprecedented action in the event of a Pelosi visit. Xi has little room to de-escalate ahead of a nationwide party convention later this year that is expected to confirm his unusual third term.

Biden, perhaps imprudently, has shown that the US military is not thrilled about Pelosi’s visit. Now, if he convinces the speaker not to go, he’ll be accused of giving in to the Chinese, a charge that no US president can stand, especially one whose approval rating has fallen below 40%.

Pelosi, the third most powerful figure in the US government, has been debating human rights with China for 30 years and is not the type to bully. With the Democrats likely to lose in the House of Representatives in November’s midterm elections, she won’t want to turn what could be one of her last big international games into a rally in Beijing.

Seeking not to offend the Democratic icon and aware of the political sensitivities of trying to force the other branch of government, the White House spoke backstage with Pelosi about the risks of her trip, according to a CNN report.

On Capitol Hill, hawk tips come from both sides of the aisle.

“We must not let them bluff and dictate to America, the greatest nation in the world, where our Speaker of the House of Representatives should go,” Progressive Democratic Rep. Ro Hanna of California told CNN’s “The Situation Room” on Tuesday. “I mean, who are they to say Speaker Pelosi shouldn’t go to Taiwan?”

Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy spoke out, saying Pelosi “shouldn’t back down now.” He also said he would lead a congressional delegation to Taiwan if he became speaker next year, though such a visit would potentially be less explosive than Pelosi’s because Biden could tell the Chinese that rival Republicans do not represent his policies.

With political tensions on both sides, it’s hard to see how Biden and Xi can ease the situation.

The situation could get dicey if Xi asks Biden to stop Pelosi from visiting. Biden does not have the power to make this happen. But the Chinese leader might take offense if the speaker travels, further damaging confidence.

An increasingly combat-ready China is also watching loud bipartisan calls on Capitol Hill to shed strategic ambiguity and simply say that the US will defend Taiwan. Biden didn’t exactly help, repeatedly making statements that go against policy, only to have aides refute them.

Bonnie Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the best thing that could come out of the call is perhaps some understanding of what exactly China would do if Pelosi left.

“Hopefully the Chinese can give us something in terms of understanding how China can respond so that the US and Taiwan can plan a way that doesn’t escalate further in this dynamic,” Lin said.

But China may not yet know how it will react, she added. And may not be interested in steps to de-escalate the situation.

A lot depends on what Pelosi decides to do.

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