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Tensions between the United States and China are ramping up as Beijing is ominously threatening to respond aggressively to Speaker Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, arguing that such an event would be a direct affront against the territorial integrity of China. The Chinese reaction to the potential trip by Pelosi to the democratically ruled island might cause an international incident in a region of great geopolitical importance at a time of great convulsion abroad and at home.
Although the Speaker of the House trip has not been officially announced yet, the tensions are already mounting significantly between both powers. A few days ago, Chinese officials warned that a potential trip to the island would have a “severe negative impact” on the relations between both countries, and officials from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) said they would take strong measures if the trip proceeds, to thwart what they call “external interference.”
This Thursday, the warnings notched up significantly during a phone call between presidents Biden and Xi Jinping. The latter warned the U.S. that those who “play with fire will perish by it” about the Speaker’s possible travel. American officials have also grown more worried that China might take aggressive action against Taiwan and have accused the Chinese of “aggressive and irresponsible behavior” that could risk a major confrontation in the region. On Friday, a commentator for the Global Times (the CCP’s global outlet) increased its belligerent tone and called for the PLA to do all within its power to stop Pelosi’s plane from landing in Taiwan, including shooting it down if necessary.
Biden officials have tried to dissuade Speaker Pelosi from making her trip quietly, and the President has publicly said the military doesn’t think the journey is a good idea. The Speaker has yet to announce her decision to travel or not formally.
Background on the Taiwan geopolitical dispute
Relations between the United States and China have been steadily worsening over the last six years, as American officials and politicians have clashed with China over trade, cybersecurity, human rights, and geopolitical issues. Although the competition between both countries encompasses countries around the world, the point that could be the center of a conflict between the two powers is the democratic self-governing island of Taiwan.
The retiring nationalist forces established the government on the island during the end of the Chinese civil war in 1948. Since then, both governments have officially claimed sovereignty over the other, the Chinese communist saying that Taiwan is an integral part of China. In contrast, the Taipei government claimed they were China’s legitimate government.
For a couple of decades, the United States officially recognized Taiwan as the legitimate government of China. However, the Nixon administration started to get closer to the Chinese communists, and the U.S decided to formally recognize Communist Beijing as the true government of China in 1979. America has recognized continental China as the only official Chinese government ever since, a doctrine is known as the “one China” policy.
Despite the U.S-China rapprochement, Washington has never completely cut relations with Taiwan. While not having a formal defense treaty with the island, Congress passed the “Taiwan relations Act” in 1979, which maintains diplomatic relations with the island’s authorities and states that the U.S shall make available equipment necessary for the island’s defense. This doctrine of the U.S of officially not recognizing Taiwan but also a vague commitment to its defense is known as “strategic ambiguity.”
This status of affairs, while always unstable, worked while U.S and China relations remained stable and the American military retained its superiority over the Chinese. However, this balance has been under strain over the last years; China has grown bolder in its aspirations to retake Taiwan, the military gap between both armed forces has reduced significantly, and China’s de facto annexation of Hong Kong has dashed the hopes of a “one country-two system” solution to Taiwan.
The CCP has now made more militant moves against the island, sending dozens of fighter jets to fly near Taiwan’s airspace, strengthening Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation, and making saber-rattling statements threatening the annexation of the island by force.
The annexation of Taiwan would significantly alter the geopolitical balance of the region in China’s favor, and it would be a crowning achievement for the CCP’s pitch that China has finally become a power to be reckoned with.
Why is china worried about Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan?
Besides the historical and geopolitical tensions between the U.S and China over Taiwan, Xi Jinping is facing some domestic threats that might force him to take decisive action against Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan as a way to shore up his grip on power domestically.
China has been suffering economically over the last couple of years due to the combination of the fall of the real estate giant Evergreen and the economic effects of the draconian approach against COVID that the CCP has taken since the pandemic started. In this context, Xi Jinping will attend the 20th congress of the Chinese Communist Party in November, where the Chinese leader is expected to secure a third term in office. A Pelosi trip to Taiwan would give ammunition to Xi’s internal rivals, which is why a hardline is so beneficial to him politically.
Moreover, some fear that the Russian invasion of Ukraine might have accelerated the CCP’s timeline on Taiwan. Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) said to the New York Times that the struggles of the Russian army in Ukraine might have convinced Beijing to move on to Taiwan before the island strengthened its defenses even more.
The combination of internal political and economic pressures could push Mr. Xi to take a rash decision and use its military to prevent Mrs. Pelosi, the third-highest ranking American elected official, from landing on the democratically ruled island. Of course, such an action would spark a hazardous international incident between nuclear powers.
What can the US do?
Beijing’s threats leave the United States in a difficult position. If Speaker Pelosi backs down, this will encourage China and alarm Taiwan and other U.S allies in the region, as it would be seen as if the CCP had adequate veto power on America’s policy towards the island. After all, if China can effectively threaten a high-ranking American politician to submission, what stops them from doing the same with American arms sales to Taiwan or military cooperation with other regional allies?
However, if Pelosi goes ahead with her planned travel to Taiwan, Biden would have its second major international crisis this year. Since China has already made public its vehement opposition to the crisis, Pelosi’s trip to the island (which would probably be escorted by U.S fighter jets) will most likely trigger a strong show of force by the PLA, whether that is accompanying the planes out of Taiwanese airspace or something else is yet to be known.
A showdown between PLA and U.S Air Force fighter jets is dangerous by definition; having the Speaker of the House caught in the middle makes it ten times worse. Any miscalculation by either side or an unforeseen scenario risks creating a major crisis between both powers in the Pacific or could start a chain of events that forces a confrontation in Taiwan.
The United States and China could still try to find a diplomatic solution that allows both sides to save face domestically while preventing a full-blown geopolitical crisis in the Taiwan Straits. However, the clock is ticking, and both governments must make a decision quickly.
Daniel is a Political Science and Economics student from the University of South Florida. He worked as a congressional intern to Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) from January to May 2020. He also is the head of international analysis at Politiks // Daniel es un estudiante de Cs Políticas y Economía en la Universidad del Sur de la Florida. Trabajo como pasante legislativo para el Representate Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) desde enero hasta mayo del 2020. Daniel también es el jefe de análisis internacional de Politiks.