United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is reportedly weighing a trip to Taiwan, after cancelling a planned visit to the self-governing island China claims as its own territory in April.
The potential visit, which was first reported by the Financial Times and has not been confirmed, would make Pelosi – who is third in line to the US presidency after Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris – the highest ranking US official to travel to the island since 1997.
Reports of the planned trip have earned a forceful rebuke from Beijing, with foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying on Wednesday the US “will bear all the consequences” if the visit goes ahead.
The spokesman for China’s defence ministry, meanwhile, said the trip would lead to “further escalation of tensions across the Taiwan Straits”, adding China’s “military will never sit idle by, and will certainly take strong and resolute measures to thwart any interference by external forces and secessionist attempts for ‘Taiwan independence’”.
For its part, the Biden administration has also reportedly sought to discourage the trip amid concerns it would come at a time particularly ripe for escalation. On Thursday, Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping were set to hold their fifth call amid the heightened tensions.
Meanwhile, US military officials have told The Associated Press news agency that they are creating contingency plans if the reported trip goes ahead, which could include increasing the movement of US forces and assets – including fighter jets, ships, and surveillance resources – already stationed in the Indo-Pacific region – to create a buffer zone for Pelosi’s plane.
What’s at the core of the tensions?
The US has long walked a careful tightrope when it comes to Taiwan, maintaining a policy of “strategic ambiguity” – established in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 – in which Washington maintains close ties with Taipei, including providing military assistance, without officially recognising the island, which is a democracy that has a separate government and military from mainland China.
Beijing considers Taiwan to be its own territory, and has repeatedly suggested retaking control of the island by force.
The Chinese government categorically objects to all official contacts between Taipei and Washington, and has routinely threatened retaliation. It has increasingly built up its military posture and increased manoeuvres in the area.
The Biden administration and the preceding administration of former President Donald Trump have also prioritised countering what Washington has called China’s increasingly assertive and coercive behaviour across the Indo-Pacific region as it seeks to broaden its influence.
In May, President Biden suggested the US would defend Taiwan with force in the event of a Chinese incursion.
Beijing responded with anger, with the White House walking back the statement and reasserting US policy towards the island had not changed.
What is Pelosi’s history with China?
Pelosi has been a legislator in the US Congress for three decades and has remained highly critical of China.
While in China in 1991, she joined colleagues in unfurling a banner in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square memorialising victims of the government’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989.
She was also a strong supporter of the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, making her a target of caustic criticism from Beijing.
Support for Taiwan also maintains strong bipartisan support, with several members of the Republican Party saying they would support Pelosi’s Taiwan trip.
She postponed a planned visit to Asia in April, which reportedly included a stop in Taiwan, after testing positive for COVID-19.
Pelosi has been mum on reports of the plans, but said last week it was “important for us to show support for Taiwan”.
Why is the timing concerning?
US media have reported that White House officials are concerned over the timing of Pelosi’s possible visit, which could coincide with China’s celebrations of the August 1 anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the ruling Communist Party.
It would also come weeks before Communist Party leaders are set to meet for the 20th congress, with President Xi Jinping believed to be setting the groundwork to secure a norm-busting third term. That makes the prospect of extreme action towards Taiwan to boost his nationalist credentials more appealing, analysts have said.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also raised concerns an emboldened Beijing could seek swift military action against Taiwan.
Meanwhile, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said this week that the number of intercepts by Chinese aircraft and ships in the Pacific region with US and other partner forces has increased significantly over the past five years, adding that Beijing’s military has become far more aggressive and dangerous, and that the number of unsafe interactions has risen by similar proportions.
The incidents include reports of Chinese fighter jets flying so close to a Canadian air security patrol last month that the Canadian pilot had to swerve to avoid a collision, and another close call with an Australian surveillance flight in late May in which the Chinese crew released a flurry of metal scraps that were sucked into the other plane’s engine.
The possible trip would also put Biden in a difficult position as he seeks to portray a tough-on-China stance ahead of legislative elections in November, where he and his Democratic Party are at risk of losing their control of the US House of Representatives and Senate.
What could happen?
Analysts and US officials have raised doubts that China would take direct action against Pelosi, but have warned that the trip, and any resulting shows of force by China, could lead to consequential missteps or accidents in the region.
Still, visits by US officials to Taiwan have been relatively common in recent years, with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Under-Secretary of State Keith Krach visiting the island in 2020 under former President Trump, becoming the highest ranking officials to make the trip since then-Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 1997 visit.
In April, a bipartisan group of US legislators, including ranking Senators Bob Menendez and Lindsey Graham, also visited the island defying rebukes from Beijing.
For their part, Taiwanese officials have not publicly addressed the possibility of Pelosi’s visit, although President Tsai Ing-wen has historically ignored protestations from Beijing to host foreign dignitaries. During military exercises on Tuesday, Taiwan Defence Ministry spokesman Sun Li-fang said the island’s forces were monitoring the movement of Chinese ships, telling reporters “we have the confidence and ability to ensure the security of our country”.
Writing on Twitter on Wednesday, analyst Wen-Ti Sung noted that Beijing’s rhetoric to date has been “below the threshold of the kinds of words and phrases that China historically used for signaling impending war/brinkmanship”.
“In short, China’s current language is tough but far from its toughest,” he added. “It can mean either… China is still deciding what to do, so they keep harsher words in reserve for now. Or … China is trying [not too successfully] to make it less costly for Pelosi and US to back down.”