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Pelosi’s Planned Taiwan Visit Leaves China Angry, Washington on Edge

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After weeks of mounting speculation, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is set to visit Taiwan this week during her trip through Asia, prompting a caustic response from officials in Beijing amid fears that it could spark the worst cross-straits political crisis in decades.

As second in line in the presidential order of succession, Pelosi will be the most senior U.S. official to visit the self-governing island—which Beijing considers part of its sovereign territory—since then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited in 1997. China has since grown more assertive with regards to Taiwan, particularly under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has vowed to bring the independently governed island back under Beijing’s control.

The trip underscores fears in some circles in Washington that the “One China” policy—started in 1972 under then-President Richard Nixon, in which the United States recognizes only one government in China but maintains unofficial ties to Taiwan—is slowly being chipped away and that this risks sparking a new political crisis with Beijing. Yet others in Washington, particularly vocal China hawks in the Republican Party, have cheered on Pelosi’s travel plans, arguing that U.S. leaders shouldn’t give in to Chinese threats as they work to strengthen ties with Taiwan.

After weeks of mounting speculation, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is set to visit Taiwan this week during her trip through Asia, prompting a caustic response from officials in Beijing amid fears that it could spark the worst cross-straits political crisis in decades.

As second in line in the presidential order of succession, Pelosi will be the most senior U.S. official to visit the self-governing island—which Beijing considers part of its sovereign territory—since then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited in 1997. China has since grown more assertive with regards to Taiwan, particularly under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has vowed to bring the independently governed island back under Beijing’s control.

The trip underscores fears in some circles in Washington that the “One China” policy—started in 1972 under then-President Richard Nixon, in which the United States recognizes only one government in China but maintains unofficial ties to Taiwan—is slowly being chipped away and that this risks sparking a new political crisis with Beijing. Yet others in Washington, particularly vocal China hawks in the Republican Party, have cheered on Pelosi’s travel plans, arguing that U.S. leaders shouldn’t give in to Chinese threats as they work to strengthen ties with Taiwan.

“Broadly speaking, China believes the United States is hollowing out its One China policy,” said Jacob Stokes, an expert at the Center for a New American Security. “At the same time, Taiwan is really looking for signals of international support.”

Reports of a potential visit by the speaker have circulated for weeks, prompting nervous hand-wringing in Washington, which finds itself caught between a desire to support the democratic and pro-American government in Taiwan and not wanting to risk a conflagration with China while war rages in Ukraine.

Biden administration officials have in recent days warned Pelosi of possible diplomatic fallouts from the trip, with an internal interagency battle blowing up in public. U.S. President Joe Biden said in July that U.S. military officials believed it was “not a good idea” for Pelosi to travel to Taiwan. Inside the Defense Department, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley led the charge in communicating concerns about the trip. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said during a visit to Brazil last month that he had spoken to Pelosi personally and provided the House speaker with his views on the security situation.

Still, administration officials made clear they cannot stop Pelosi from going to Taiwan. “[T]he national security team has engaged her and her team and gave her thorough briefings—but were clear from the beginning that she will make her own decision because Congress is an independent branch of government,” wrote a spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council, speaking on background under ground rules set by the White House.

Pelosi’s visit comes at a particularly sensitive time for China, coinciding with the 95th anniversary of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army founding on Aug. 1 and ahead of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, to be held in November, when Xi is expected to extend his time in office by an unprecedented third term.

At a briefing on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian warned that the Chinese military would “never sit idly by” and “take strong countermeasures to uphold China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” China sent out a notice to airmen on Monday that it would conduct snap military drills in the South China Sea, near where the USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group is in place. It also flew four J-16 fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on Monday.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Monday that China could respond to the visit with increased provocations, such as firing missiles into the Taiwan Strait, as it did during an eight-month crisis in the region more than a quarter century ago, or a large-scale air incursion into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.

Senior U.S. military officials have said they have not sent additional ships and planes near Taiwan in recent days. The White House has insisted that China’s brouhaha is far out of scope for a relatively common visit. “There is no reason for the Chinese rhetoric,” Kirby told CNN on Monday. Kirby added, “It is not uncommon for congressional leaders to travel to Taiwan.”

For eight years, the pace of U.S. visits has been increasing, starting with then-Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy making the trip to the island in 2014, followed by a slew of Trump administration plans to travel there, headlined by then-Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar’s trip in August 2020. During the Biden administration, congressional delegations and former senior U.S. officials have been making routine visits to the island.

Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund think tank, said China is becoming increasingly concerned that its red lines on Taiwan are not being taken seriously by the United States. Nonetheless, Glaser thought it was unlikely Pelosi’s visit would spark any sort of military crisis.

“Both sides want to prevent a crisis, but if there is a crisis, it is a crisis of China’s choosing,” she said. “There is no reason from the perspective of this administration why China needs to react so strongly to a member of Congress visiting Taiwan.”

Despite the fears of stepped-up military exercises, experts don’t believe that China is ready for a cross-strait invasion—at least, not yet. “They’re not interested in initiating an amphibious invasion,” said Lyle Morris, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation and former Defense Department official. “They’re just more interested in showing force and some resolve.”

From Beijing’s perspective, Xi faces domestic pressure to show resolve without escalating to the point that it stokes further international sympathy and support for Taiwan, said Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s actually not a simple problem for China to deal with.” Although Lin was also skeptical that Beijing would look to launch an all-out attack on Taiwan, she speculated that a response could entail military activities “near or above” the island. “It’s likely that Taipei will bear the brunt of any countermeasures,” she said.

Both sides are wary of disrupting the increasingly precarious status quo over Taiwan. In recent months, the White House has, on multiple occasions, been forced to walk back Biden’s spur-of-the-moment assertions that the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. (Officially, U.S. policy leaves room for “strategic ambiguity” in the event of an attack.)

“This administration needs to be more clear, more consistent, more disciplined in its articulation of the One China policy and in ensuring its actions match with its words, though in my view, this visit does not go beyond our One China policy,” said Glaser.

Democrats have become increasingly hawkish on China as Beijing has upped its military activities in the region, with near-daily incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone over the past two years. Others within Pelosi’s party expressed doubts that a visit could be needlessly escalatory. “One of the key things here is, let’s not make Taiwan a football,” a Democratic congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy. “Let’s do things that de-escalate tension as much as possible because Taiwan will be the primary victims of any kind of escalatory cycle.”

Some experts believe Pelosi has no other choice than to go, lest she be seen as cowing to threats from Chinese officials. “It would be humiliating for her personally and it would be humiliating for the U.S. Congress and government” if Pelosi did not make the trip, said Ian Easton, a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, a Virginia-based think tank. Easton believes it is an important gesture. “When she goes, I think it will be an instance of the United States showing solidarity and support for a fellow democracy that faces a very profound and very dangerous campaign of coercion.”



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