Taiwan is preparing for war; on Monday, sirens blared, streets were cleared and people moved into shelters as the island carried out military drills.
It is being reported that United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is on a multi-stop tour of Asia, will visit the self-governing democracy of 24 million people.
The reported visit, a first for a high-ranking US official in decades, has angered China, who warned that its military would never “sit idly by” if she visited the island claimed by Beijing.
In turn, the US told China not to respond to an expected trip to Taiwan by Pelosi with military provocations even as American officials sought to reassure Beijing that such a visit would not be the first of its kind nor represent any change in policy toward the region.
Here’s what we know about the potential high-stakes visit and the ramifications around it.
Pelosi’s travel plans
This isn’t the first time that there have been reports about the Californian Democrat visiting Taiwan. Earlier in April, Pelosi had cancelled a Taiwan journey after she tested positive for COVID-19 and rescheduled it for August, as reported by the Financial Times.
On Monday, the US House Speaker began her Asian tour with a visit to Singapore. She is also due to go to Malaysia, South Korea and Japan. Pelosi’s public itinerary has made no mention of Taiwan, but a senior Taiwanese government official and a US official told CNN on Monday that she is expected to visit Taiwan and stay overnight as part of her tour of Asia. It is unclear when exactly Pelosi will land in Taipei.
Hu Xijin, a commentator for the state-owned Global Times in China, said on Twitter that if Pelosi would enter Taiwan via air, China’s military might would shoot down the speaker’s plane.
#Editorial: If Pelosi's plane is found flying toward our airspace, the PLA fighter jets could warn, follow, intercept, electronically interfere, force a landing, or drive it back. https://t.co/iNXwwKYIhw pic.twitter.com/wOTLNqbSru
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) July 29, 2022
He later added in a sarcastic tweet: "Where is Pelosi now? Does anybody know? Some said she would be going to Taiwan by submarine instead, and others said she had sneaked into Taiwan disguised as someone else. Is that the case?”
Where is Pelosi now, does anybody know? Some said that she will be going to Taiwan by a submarine instead, and others said that she has sneaked into Taiwan disguised as someone else, is that the case? 😀
— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) July 31, 2022
US House Speakers and Taiwan
If Pelosi, in fact, does visit Taiwan, she will be the first US House Speaker in 25 years to visit the island nation.
Previously, Newt Gingrich in 1997 had visited Taipei only days after his trip to Beijing and Shanghai. China’s Foreign Ministry had criticised Gingrich after his Taiwan visit, but the response was limited to rhetoric.
Why is China seeing red over the visit?
Ever since reports surfaced of Pelosi’s potential trip to Taiwan, China has been very vocal in their opposition to it.
Beijing has warned that Pelosi’s trip, if it materialises, will have “a severe negative impact on the political foundations of China-US relations.”
On Monday, it reacted strongly warning that its military would never “sit idly by” if she were to visit the island.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian was quoted as saying that it would be “a gross interference in China's internal affairs” if Pelosi visits Taiwan, and warned that it would lead to “very serious developments and consequences.”
“We would like to tell the United States once again that China is standing by, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will never sit idly by, and China will take resolute responses and strong countermeasures to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Zhao told a regular daily briefing.
Asked what kind of measures the PLA might take, Zhao said: “If she dares to go, then let us wait and see.”
China views visits by US officials to Taiwan as sending an encouraging signal to the pro-independence camp in the island. Washington does not have official diplomatic ties with Taiwan but is bound by US law to provide the island with the means to defend itself.
Under Xi Jinping’s rule, Taiwan has come closer to the United States, which has only caused a further strain on US-China ties with Beijing accusing Washington of “playing the Taiwan card” to contain China’s rise.
During the recently-held two-hour-long phone call between US president Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader urging Washington to honour existing agreements with Beijing both “in word and in deed”.
Some geopolitical experts observe that Pelosi’s likely visit to Taiwan couldn’t come at a worst time. In fact, in late July, President Joe Biden had said of Pelosi’s going, “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now.”
Officials and experts state that the timing of the visit is off and hence, the disquiet.
A Vox report explains that the Chinese Communist Party will hold its 20th congress, a major gathering that occurs every five years and in which Xi Jinping is expected to take on an unprecedented third term as president. At the gathering, he will also likely discuss Taiwan at a time when experts see parallels between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the power that China wants to assert over Taiwan.
“There is bad timing and worse timing, and this is certainly worse timing,” Lev Nachman, a researcher at the Harvard Fairbank Center for China Studies, was quoted as telling Vox. “The worry is that Pelosi going could be a straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Susan L Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at UC San Diego told CNN: "Pelosi is the third public official in the line of succession after the president and vice president, I think the Chinese take that very seriously.
“It’s a very tense time in Chinese domestic politics. Xi himself and many other members of the elite in China would view the Pelosi visit as a humiliation of Xi Jinping (and) his leadership. And that means that he will feel compelled to react in a way to demonstrate his strength,” she added.
Thomas L Friedman, an internationally renowned author, reporter, and, columnist, wrote in The New York Times, “If she (Pelosi) does go ahead with a visit to Taiwan this week, against President Joe Biden’s wishes, she will be doing something that is utterly reckless, dangerous and irresponsible.
“Nothing good will come of it. Taiwan will not be more secure or more prosperous as a result of this purely symbolic visit, and a lot of bad things could happen. These include a Chinese military response that could result in the US being plunged into indirect conflicts with a nuclear-armed Russia and a nuclear-armed China at the same time.”
Taiwan has remained more or less mum on the situation. When asked about Pelosi’s potential visit, a Taiwan foreign ministry spokeswoman said it had not received any definite information on whether Pelosi would be visiting 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 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Taiwan 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 have issued statements on Pelosi’s potential trip.
With inputs from agencies