Why does a possible trip by Pelosi to Taiwan worry China… and the US?

Hong Kong/Beijing/Taipei (CNN) — US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s possible visit to Taiwan has resulted in stern warnings from Beijing and growing concern in Washington.

Although the California Democrat has so far refused to publicly confirm the trip, she has invited both Democrats and Republicans to join her.

China has lashed out at the possible visit, vowing to take “firm and forceful measures” if the trip goes ahead. This week, China’s Defense Ministry reiterated the threat, warning: “If the United States insists on pursuing its own course, the Chinese military will never sit idly by.”

US officials are concerned that the possible visit will be met with a military response from China, which could trigger the worst bilateral crisis in decades.

The tensions were the backdrop for a lengthy phone call between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Thursday, in which Xi warned the United States not to “play with fire” on the issue of Taiwan, although neither side confirmed whether Pelosi’s plans were discussed. Preparations for the call preceded reports of the possible trip.

Here’s what you need to know about the potential high-risk visit.

Why is Beijing bothered by Pelosi’s possible visit?

China’s ruling Communist Party claims Taiwan’s self-ruled democracy as its own territory, even though it has never ruled it, and has not ruled out using force to “reunify” the island with mainland China.

For decades, Beijing has sought to isolate Taipei on the world stage, from undermining its diplomatic allies to preventing it from joining international organizations.

China strongly opposes any move that appears to give Taiwan a sense of international legitimacy. And in the eyes of Beijing, high-profile visits abroad by Taiwanese officials, or visits by foreign officials to Taiwan, would do just that.

In 1995, a visit by then-Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui to the United States triggered a major crisis across the Taiwan Strait. Angered by the trip, China fired missiles into the waters around Taiwan, and the crisis ended only after the United States sent two carrier battle groups to the area in a resounding show of support for Taipei.

In recent years, Taiwan has received a flurry of visits from US delegations, made up of current and retired officials and legislators. That has prompted angry responses from China, including sending fighter jets into Taiwan’s self-declared air defense identification zone.

But Pelosi’s political stature makes her possible visit to Beijing all the more provocative.

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

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

Pelosi is a longtime critic of the Chinese Communist Party. She has denounced Beijing’s human rights record 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 commemorate the victims of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters. More recently, she expressed support for the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

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

Beijing has warned that Pelosi’s trip, if it materializes, will have “a severe negative impact on the political foundations of China-US relations.”

The United States formally switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, but has long walked a delicate middle ground. Washington recognizes the PRC as China’s sole legitimate government, but maintains close unofficial ties with Taiwan.

The United States also provides Taiwan with defensive weaponry under the decades-old Taiwan Relations Act, but remains deliberately vague about whether it would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, a policy known as “strategic ambiguity.” .

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

The US, for its part, has intensified its commitment to Taiwan, approving arms sales and sending delegations to the island.

Since then-US President Donald Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act into law in March 2018, US officials and lawmakers have embarked on more than 20 trips to the island, according to a CNN tally. The 2018 law encourages visits between US and Taiwan officials at all levels.

Taiwan featured prominently in the two-hour, 17-minute phone call between Xi and Biden, with the Chinese leader urging Washington to honor existing agreements with Beijing “both in word and deed,” according to a Foreign Ministry reading. Chinese Foreign. The statement added that China would “resolutely safeguard” its national sovereignty.

For his part, Biden reiterated that US policy “hadn’t changed,” according to a White House readout of the call.

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

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

Former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich meets with Taiwan’s Vice President and Prime Minister Lien Chan during a brief visit to Taiwan in April 1997.

Pelosi’s eventual trip would not be the first time a US House Speaker has visited Taiwan.

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

Beijing has indicated that things would be different this time.

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 disregard or challenge to its interests.

“China is in a position to be more assertive, to impose costs and consequences on countries that do not take China’s interests into account in their actions or policy making,” said Drew Thompson, a visiting senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy from the National University of Singapore.

What about the timing of the possible trip?

Pelosi’s possible visit would also come at a sensitive time for China.

The House Speaker had 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 celebrates its founding anniversary on Aug. 1 as Xi, the country’s most powerful leader in decades, prepares to break convention and seek a third term at the 20th Communist Party congress this fall.

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

“It is a very tense moment in Chinese domestic politics,” Shirk said. “(Xi) himself and many other elites in China would see 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 shows strength.” of the”.

While the politically sensitive moment could trigger a stronger response from Beijing, some experts believe it could also mean the Communist Party would want to ensure stability and prevent things from getting out of hand.

“Honestly, this is not a good time for Xi Jinping to provoke a military conflict just before the 20th party congress. It is in Xi Jinping’s interest to handle this rationally and not instigate a crisis on top of all the other crises he has to deal with.” Thompson said, citing China’s slowing economy, deepening housing crisis, rising unemployment and ongoing struggle to curb sporadic outbreaks under its zero-Covid policy.

How will China react?

China has not specified what “forceful measures” it plans to take, but some Chinese analysts say Beijing’s reaction could involve a military component.

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

Privately, Biden administration officials have raised concerns that China might try to declare a no-fly zone over Taiwan to change the potential trip, a US official told CNN.

National security officials are quietly working to convince 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 go ahead.

But the constant concern among US officials is that miscalculations or unintentional incidents or accidents could occur if China and the US significantly increase their air and sea operations in the region.

The United States does not expect direct hostile action from Beijing during a possible visit by Pelosi. At least five defense officials have described this as a long shot and said the Pentagon wants the public rhetoric reduced.

What has Taiwan said about Pelosi’s possible trip?

Taiwan has made little comment on the situation. When the Financial Times newspaper first reported on Pelosi’s possible visit last week, Taiwan’s foreign ministry said it had “received no information” about the visit.

During a regular news conference on Thursday, a ministry spokeswoman reiterated that she had not received any definitive information on 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 Foreign Ministry 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 has issued a statement about Pelosi’s possible trip.

On Wednesday, Taiwanese Prime Minister Su Tseng-chang said the island welcomes any friendly guests from abroad. “We are very grateful to Speaker Pelosi for her strong support and kindness toward Taiwan over the years,” he said.

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

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