US urges China not to stir up crisis over expected Taiwan visit by Nancy Pelosi

Analysts say Beijing is unlikely to escalate to outright conflict ahead of a key political meeting in the fall.
By Hwang Chun-mei, Gu Ting and Mia Ping-chieh Chen for RFA Mandarin and by Chen Zifei for RFA Cantonese
2022.08.01
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US urges China not to stir up crisis over expected Taiwan visit by Nancy Pelosi U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi (R) leaves the Shangri-La Hotel after a reception organized by the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore, Aug. 1, 2022.
AFP

UPDATED at 6:50 p.m. EDT on 2022-08-01

Top U.S. officials said Monday China should not use a visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a pretext for saber rattling or aggressive military actions in the region, after Beijing issued fresh threats on the eve of the expected trip.

RFA sources and sources cited by local media and CNN said Pelosi would make an unofficial trip late on Tuesday to the island, which is not on her official four-nation itinerary.

China warned on Monday that any visit by Pelosi would lead to "very serious developments and consequences" in remarks that said the Communist country's powerful military would not stand by in such an event.

In Washington, the White House and the top U.S. diplomat said Pelosi's travel plans were up to her, but urged China not to turn any such visit to Taiwan into a diplomatic crisis.

"The speaker has the right to visit Taiwan, and a speaker of the House has visited Taiwan before, without incident, as have many members of Congress, including this year," said national security spokesman John Kirby.

"There is no reason for Beijing to turn a potential visit consistent with long-standing U.S. policy into some sort of crisis or conflict, or use it as a pretext to increase aggressive military activity in or around the Taiwan Strait," he told reporters.

Kirby said Washington would not be moved by any Chinese effort to raise tensions over Pelosi.

"We will not take the bait or engage in saber rattling. At the same time, we will not be intimidated," he said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there were precedents for Pelosi's visit and urged China not to overreact.

"Many members of Congress go to Taiwan, including this year. And so if the Speaker does decide to visit, and China tries to create some kind of crisis or otherwise escalate tensions, that would be entirely on Beijing. We are looking for them, in the event she decides to visit, to act responsibly and not to engage in any escalation going forward," said Blinken.

The remarks came after Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing that even an unofficial stopover in Taiwan would be regarded by Beijing as "a gross interference in China's internal affairs," 

"We would like to tell the United States once again that China is standing by, the Chinese People's Liberation Army will never sit idly by, and China will take resolute responses and strong countermeasures to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity," Zhao said.

"If she dares to go, wait and see what happens," he told a regular news briefing in Beijing.

The United States does not recognize Taiwan diplomatically, but retains close unofficial ties with Taipei and is obligated by law to provide it with defense capabilities. Beijing considers the self-ruling, democratic island a breakaway province, to be united with the mainland by force if necessary, and objects strongly to high-level U.S. visits.

The Trump administration announced in January 2021 that the U.S. was lifting curbs that had been in place since Washington cut ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing in 1979, saying Washington would no longer "appease" Beijing.

President Joe Biden has previously said China is 'flirting with danger' with its ongoing threat to annex Taiwan, saying the U.S. is committed to defending the island in the event of a Chinese invasion, a statement U.S. officials later framed as an interpretation of the existing terms of the Taiwan Relations Act requiring Washington to ensure the island has the means to defend itself.

But Biden struck a more conciliatory note in a phone call last Friday with CCP leader Xi Jinping, saying U.S. policy hadn't changed, and that Washington doesn't support full international recognition for Taiwan's sovereignty. Xi warned Biden that "those who play with fire get burnt."

Taiwan's presidential office and foreign ministry have both declined to comment on any visit by Pelosi, although premier Su Chen-chang has said the island's government, which still uses the name of the 1911 Republic of China, will welcome any foreign VIP guests.

"We extend a warm welcome to foreign VIPs who come to visit our country; we will make the best possible arrangements for their visit, and also respect their plans when arranging the schedule," Su told reporters.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (R) shakes hands with U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at the Istana Presidential Palace in Singapore during a visit to the Asia-Pacific region, Aug. 1, 2022. Credit: Singapore's Ministry of Communications and Information / AFP
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (R) shakes hands with U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at the Istana Presidential Palace in Singapore during a visit to the Asia-Pacific region, Aug. 1, 2022. Credit: Singapore's Ministry of Communications and Information / AFP
More saber-rattling

Drew Thompson, a former U.S. defense official and senior visiting fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said via his Twitter account that he expects Pelosi to make an unofficial stop in Taiwan after her visit to Malaysia.

While Beijing privately considers this an acceptable outcome, Thompson said the PLA could launch high-profile reconnaissance flights around Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), a form of saber-rattling that has become commonplace in recent years.

Former Taiwanese civil aviation director Chang Kuo-cheng said Pelosi's aircraft won't be allowed to enter Taiwan's airspace, so must take a roundabout route via airspace controlled by the Philippines, the U.S. and Japan.

"She will not pass through our airspace," Chang said. "If she tries, China may take action; something they have long prepared."

Tao Yi-fen, an associate professor of politics at National Taiwan University, said Pelosi's visit could still prompt Xi to take action, regardless of the route Pelosi takes if she visits.

"The CCP is about to hold the 20th party congress, so if Xi Jinping does nothing after issuing all of those warnings, it could have a negative impact on his bid for a further term in office at the party congress," Tao said.

Taiwan resident Hsiao Wu said the war of words is largely being manufactured by Beijing, created by the CCP's insistence on annexing Taiwan, by force if necessary.

"Every now and then, I will get Chinese friends asking me if [Taiwan] really wants a war," Wu said. "But no, we don't. Our side is peaceful."

"If the PLA really scrambles to fly alongside [Pelosi's] flight or target-locks their missiles, then that would be an overreaction," he said.

"[Nonetheless], if a person of her rank comes to Taiwan, regardless of what they want to talk about, it will show support and a good attitude to Taiwan, and boost its [international] image," Wu said.



External distractions

Meanwhile, a Chinese student in Canada said the CCP needs an external distraction from an imploding real estate market and weak economic performance in the wake of Xi's zero-COVID policy.

"Social conflicts are more acute in China now ... it needs to engage in some provocations ... and strengthen domestic controls so as to shore up social stability," the student said. "The more conflicts at home intensify, the more they will project them outwards."

Current affairs commentator Fang Wenxiang agreed.

"I think that [China's] 'wolf-warrior' diplomacy has affected all areas of government now," Fang said. "Ministry of defense spokesmen used to be very cautious, but now they're coming out with unreasonable statements, from which it will be hard to back down."

Wu Qiang, independent researcher at Beijing's Tsinghua University, said the official response seems to be changing from day to day since the row over Pelosi's trip blew up.

"[The official line] is changing from day to day, and it colored by opportunism and ambiguity," Wu said. "It seems they have reached their rhetorical limit for the time being, because they don't want to cause political shocks or turmoil in China ahead of the 20th party congress."

"Nor do they want an expansion of popular nationalism off the back of Pelosi's visit to Taiwan ... the CCP is being cautious about nationalistic sentiment ahead of the 20th party congress," Wu said.

Wu said many in China see the current standoff as the starting point for a longer-term struggle over Taiwan.

International relations scholar Zong Tao agreed, saying immediate further deteriorate in Sino-U.S. ties is unlikely.

"Basically, China won't be making any big moves, because their main focus is still the 20th National Congress of the CCP," Zong said. "Taiwan is not: rather, it's just an outlet for them to channel as much popular support as possible."

Should Pelosi decide against her reported unofficial trip, that wouldn't play well in Japan, where many are keen to see broad international support for Taiwan, according to one political analyst. The official trip includes stops in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore.

"If she doesn't go to Taiwan, this will be seen in Japanese political circles as a case of the U.S. saying one thing and doing another ... and as an indication that the U.S. isn't strongly committed to defending Taiwan or Japan," Shizuoka University professor Yang Haiying told RFA.

UPDATED with comments by the White House.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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