A phone call Thursday between Presidents Xi and Biden may have avoided adding tensions to U.S.-China relations, but now all attention will be back on the question of whether Nancy Pelosi lands in Taipei next month for a meeting that Beijing has been warning against and the Chinese media stirs the pot.
It's not quite "Nixon goes to China," but the question of whether U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will visit Taiwan is already stirring geopolitical tensions, and sparking rhetorical bluster from Beijing's official channels, as well as media and social networks.
Following The Financial Times' report on July 19 of a planned trip, Pelosi herself has still not confirmed whether she will be the most senior Congressional figure to make an official visit to Taiwan in 25 years. But that hasn't stopped continuous speculation and threats, and even insults, coming from mainland China.
The possibility of a visit also further complicated an already highly charged call Thursday between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first since March.
Neither Beijing nor Washington made explicit reference to Pelosi in debriefing the call, which lasted two hours Thursday, and observers note that the two leaders managed to avoid escalating the conflict over Taiwan.
Still the conflict has by no means gone away. The possibility of such a high-profile American visit to Taiwan could ignite a new phase in U.S.-China relations, and geopolitics more generally. Pelosi, considered the second most powerful U.S. official and a longtime Taiwan supporter, would be sending a clear message to Xi and others in mainland China if she meets with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who they don't recognize as a legitimate ruler and a threat to Chinese sovereignty.
Threats to U.S. aircraft carriers
Since news of Pelosi’s potential visit broke, Beijing’s outrage could not be clearer, with media across the country echoing the stance from the top of the Communist Party. Some on WeMedia social channels circulated references to Pelosi as an “old witch,” others described the potential visit as a “farce.”
China wants to secure its hegemony in the region.
Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of China’s state-affiliated tabloid Global Times, preferred to take the scenario seriously. Hu warned that “China’s planes would fly over Taiwan…if there would be a conflict between the U.S. and China at sea, the U.S. aircraft carrier fleet will be wiped out by the People’s Liberation Army.”
Pelosi reportedly intended to visit Taiwan back in April, but postponed the plan when she tested positive for COVID. If the trip takes place next month as reported, it would be the first since Speaker Newt Gingrich went to Taiwan in 1997.
The topic of China-Taiwan has a complicated history in Washington, particularly ever since President Richard Nixon made his historic trip to China in 1972 to meet with Chairman Mao. Seven years later, the U.S. officially established its diplomatic relation with Beijing, as Washington acknowledged that Taiwan is a part of China, and that there's only "One China."
Still, the U.S. has maintained unofficial relations with Taiwan ever since. In 2018, Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act, which allows high-level officials to visit Taiwan and vice-versa. Now as relations chill across the Strait of Taiwan and China looks to cement its hegemony in the region, Pelosi's visit would be of great significance.
Nancy Pelosi speaking in Washington on July 21
Beijing's bold backlash
It is a sensitive point for Beijing, as it firmly believes that Washington is shifting its stance on the “One China” principle. It also comes just three months ahead of the Chinese Communist Party's national Congress, where Xi is aiming to secure his third five-year term as president — unprecedented in the People’s Republic.
Xi is also facing domestic resentments over his “Zero-COVID” policy, China’s economic recession and, internationally, the tensions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Raw nationalism has been Xi’s tool to keep his country united, and anything that concerns Taiwan is an opportunity for him to secure support.
The Economic Observer, a business weekly based in Beijing, commented that “China's should provide a strong counter-attack to the U.S. and give a sharp shock to the 'Taiwan independence' forces in the island.” While still calling for “peaceful unification,” Beijing is determined to demonstrate its strength and leave no room for negotiation on the issue of Taiwan.
Taipei: maintaining its own security
For Taipei, President Tsai, welcoming guests from the U.S., Europe and Japan is hardly unprecedented, with high-profile politicians including former U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Vice President of the European Parliament Nicola Beer, and currently a parliamentary delegation from Japan led by former defense ministers. In the meantime, the Han Kuang Exercise is taking place this week, the annual civil defense drill that simulates a potential enemy attack, which takes on more urgency this year after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not yet commented on Pelosi's potential visit, and claimed that they have not received concrete information. Experts and scholars from the island had predicted that there is a high chance for the trip to take place, while mixed opinions were provoked as some feared “punishments" from the mainland. Alexander Huang, an expert on cross-Strait relations, raised concern about the "chilling effect from Beijing" if Pelosi was forced to cancel the trip.
The importance of strategic ambiguity.
Eric Chu Li-luan, chairman of Taiwan's opposition Kuomintang, commented that he would "welcome any visits of U.S. officials to Taiwan, as long as it is helpful for Taiwan's democracy and national security."
Domestic security experts also have suppositions over Beijing's possible reactions, claiming that imposing a no-fly zone as some have suggested would amount to a declaration of war, while military exercises and flights of military aircraft from Beijing would be possible.
Within the current geopolitical context, Pelosi's potential visit is just one piece of Washington's position on Sino-U.S. relations, and its determination on supporting Taiwan. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan signaled last week that it was in Washington's interest to maintain the policy of "strategic ambiguity" when it comes to Taiwan. By all accounts, Pelosi's much talked-about, yet utterly unconfirmed visit is the perfect new piece of that strategy. For however long that can last.