In defiance of China’s repeated warnings, an airplane carrying US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a congressional delegation, landed in Songshan Airport, in Taipei, Taiwan, as part of a tour in the Indo-Pacific region that started on 31 July. The tour also includes Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan.
In her comments, Pelosi reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to support democracy in Taiwan, without contradicting with the US policy in the region. The visit has sparked a state of concern about China’s reaction. Beijing has described the visit as “provocative”, which has opened doors for queries about possible reactions from China, especially in this escalation stimulus atmosphere.
The visit takes place in tense atmosphere, which may lead its consequences to become unpredictable. This can be explained through a number of points:
- Agitating Chinese Nationalism Sentiment:
The visit unveils the importance of Taiwan to China, as it considers it a part of its lands. This has been reaffirmed by the Chinese President Xi Jinping, during the Chinese Communist Party 100th anniversary. He mentioned that Taiwan’s annexation to China is an “inevitable” issue to flourish China’s spirit, which creates a national collective sentiment required to prepare the people to deal with any consequences when annexation does take place.
The visit also coincides with President Xi’s attempts to secure a third term in power for the first time after the constitutional amendment, to become the second Chinese leader – after Mao Zedong – that rules for three terms, that’s during the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th convention at the end of this year. Hence, stimulating such a crucial national issue may strengthen Xi’s image and opportunity to remain in power. This makes Taiwan –according to this perspective – a major source of legitimacy for the country’s leadership.
- Current Interactions in the region:
The region has recently witnessed a number of multi-component interactions between powers led by both Washington and Beijing. The Indo-Pacific region became a top priority for the US to limit China’s hegemony as one of its biggest rivals. That was seen in the AUKUS agreement with the United Kingdom and Australia in September 2021, as well as the resume of the Quad security dialogue, in addition to The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) which has been proposed by President Biden, during his recent Asian tour.
On the Chinese side, Beijing too is relentlessly working on building alliances to confront the US activities. That appeared in the inclusive regional partnership with 15 countries around the world, and in proposing development initiatives with the Pacific island countries, in addition to preparing a sanctions law, getting ready to confront any future potential sanctions to be imposed on it in case of any aggression against Taiwan.
As for Pelosi’s visit-related interactions, there have been measures on both sides on ministries of defense level, a continuous US observation to any Chinese activity, in order to provide security for Pelosi, while the Chinese military continued its drills in Taiwan strait within the frame of celebrating the 95th anniversary of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, in addition to some drills planned on the 4th of August confirming readiness for a limited operation.
- The American Administration Attempts to Crystallize an Issue of Domestic Consensus:
Ever since President Biden came to power, the American inside is witnessing a case of severe division which the administration tried hard to mend through confirming over and over on the American global supremacy. The administration tried to picture the world stage as a conflict between democracy and authoritarianism in which China is in the front.
On the other hand, the internal sophisticated problems in America have greatly affected the popularity of the Democrats, and aroused lots of speculations about the Democratic Party resounding defeat in the “midterm” elections, and a possible Republican Party victory in the presidential elections.
Hence, Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan may appear as an issue of domestic consistency between the Democrats and the Republicans, being an event that reassures the American global hegemony and a support for America’s allies in the world’s democratic bloc. It is also an action that confronts China’s aggressive behavior, and may benefit the Democrats and strengthen their opportunities in the midterm elections.
- A Battle of Debates on the Visit:
Amid statements and counterstatements between the US and China, the latest had threatened to take escalating actions in case Pelosi goes on with her visit. Biden had previously threatened to intervene in case China invades Taiwan. In turn, China said it will not hesitate to go to war in order to keep Taiwan under its control. The Chinese President Xi warned –in a phone call with Biden on July 28- that “those who play with fire will perish by it”.
Moreover, Chinese spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that the visit will be such a “gross interference” in China’s internal affairs, and may lead to seriously dangerous developments and consequences, he also said that China is completely ready for it, and that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army will not sit idly by, and that China will take resolute responses and strong countermeasures to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
After Pelosi has accomplished her visit to Taiwan, leaving rising tensions by all parties, it can be said that a number of scenarios are expected, the most important three of which are:
- First: A Rigorous Chinese Reaction: Taking Chinese statements into consideration, it can be seen that China will not hesitate to respond strictly to the visit, to show that it is capable of putting its verbal threats into action, and if its response is not stringent enough, the Taiwan independence sentiment will get stronger, especially that President Xi is looking at a third Communist Party Leadership term.
Analysts say that the concept of “Don’t say you haven’t been warned”, which was used to pave way to the Indian-Chinese war in 1979, is an indication of what China is able to do after the visit. On Saturday, 30 July, the Chinese Maritime Security Authority announced the launching of military drills in the Chinese adjacent water boundaries, using live-fire in Fujian province, the nearest part of the Chinese mainland to Taiwan, which is considered a message against any external interference regarding Taiwan.
Moreover, the eastern leadership of the People’s Liberation Army has broadcasted a video clip showing their weaponry and fighting tactics. Within the footage there was an army statement “We are completely ready to face any possibility -upon a command- , burry any trespasser, execute successful cooperative missions. We, the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, swear to defend our motherland until death”.
Reuters news agency mentioned that in addition to Chinese war planes flying close to the median line of the Taiwan strait, both Chinese warships and aircrafts “squeezed” the median line on Tuesday morning, in an unusual move.
This scenario relies on a potential military strike on Taiwan as a response to the visit. It may go to the extent that China legitimizes its formalities to annex the Taiwan Island in the shade of the US non-abiding by “One China” policy.
Also, the western reaction to the Russian aggression against Ukraine represents an incentive for China for a couple of reasons: The world is still busy containing its consequences, and the weakness of the reaction.
As for the timing of such a potential attack, it may take place during Pelosi’s visit, expressing a Chinese intention of a direct confrontation with the US (which did not actually happen), or just after she leaves Taiwan, which sends an escalation message to the US without a direct confrontation. However, any Chinese action against Taiwan will require a strong reaction from the US, which puts the world at the doorstep of a third world war.
- Second: Repetition of the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis: One of the potential scenarios is similar to Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-1996, when the then Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, visited the US. China responded by firing missiles in the waters surrounding Taiwan.
The US sent two aircraft carriers and battle groups to show support for Taiwan, which has put an end to the crisis. This scenario proposes the possibility of limited action from both sides, as they both know very well the seriousness and cost of escalation.
Some voices inside Taiwan underestimate the probability of China’s carrying out of its threats. In 1997, House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan, China’s reaction then was relatively moderate, which means that in the case of a Chinese reaction, it would not spark a wide military clash. It is not expected that China would jeopardize the safety of the US House speaker.
It should be mentioned here the tone-down by the Chinese UN Ambassador Zhang Jun, who mentioned that the visit will harm the American-Chinese relations, and that Washington should comprehend the consequences of such a step as Taiwan is a part of China, and the Chinese territorial integrity is a red line. However, not mentioning military action in that statement does not mean its impossibility.
This scenario is based mainly on a limited military strike on the stand-by Taiwanese defense forces, imposing a no-fly zone over Taiwan, blocking Taiwan Strait to stumble the technological supply from Taiwan to the world as it is the biggest supplier of electronic chips and semi-conductors, and finally, China may impose sanctions on Taiwan through isolating it economically.
This may make Washington strengthen its support to Taiwan and expand its economic sanctions on China, which may create a global critical economic situation especially that the world is still suffering from the impacts of the pandemic and the Russian war on Ukraine.
- Third: War of Words: The main idea of this scenario is keeping the conflict within a “war of words”, and avoiding escalation, together with some diplomatic activities. This assumption is based on long history of negative statements from both sides that have not been translated into actions on the ground.
The scenario is based on China’s understanding of not going into an open confrontation with the US, and avoiding any conflict that may have a heavy economic cost which may impede its economic long term objectives that will help it lead the world economy.
Moreover, the visit is –in fact- not more than an endorsement of the American values idea; hence, it does not involve any legal, political or strategic consequences that require a hard response from China. Not to mention that China already is facing huge economic challenges due to consecutive waves of the pandemic and the Russian Ukrainian war, which means that it is not in a position to bear any additional economic burdens. This has been reflected in the Chinese foreign ministry’s statement –following the visit- which reaffirmed the China – Taiwan unity, the necessity of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, avoiding confrontation, as well as mutual benefit and cooperation with Washington.
As for the US, it seems that it aimed –by the visit- to endorse its image as a world leader and the defender of the values of democracy and freedom. However, this does not negate its cautiousness about consequences of a direct confrontation with China, which has been reflected in a series of contradicting statements inside the US.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed his hopes that the US and China resolve their differences over Taiwan wisely as they have always did for over 40 years, while the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said: if Pelosi needed a military protection, we will do whatever necessary to allow her accomplish her mission perfectly.
This scenario looks the best for the world as it reduces the possibilities of additional costs of conflicts and wars, while China’s image will be downgraded as it did not keep its escalating attitude and its repeated confirmation not to allow any violation of its integrity.
In the shade of the state of confusion and haziness of the scene, and the complications of the political considerations, it is difficult to promote any of the previous scenarios. However, the second one seems to be the most probable based on current circumstances, as it is based on limited calculated reactions from all parties without recklessness or overpassing red lines.