Los Angeles Times
Roots of tension over Pelosi and Taiwan
The House speaker — who has provoked Beijing in the past — is expected to visit the disputed island soon.
BEIJING — China is warning it will respond forcefully if U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proceeds with her plans to visit Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy Beijing claims as its own territory.
Pelosi, second in line to the presidency behind Vice President Kamala Harris, would be the highest-ranking U.S. politician to visit Taiwan since 1997.
China has threatened unspecified “resolute and strong measures” if she goes ahead, which analysts say could cause tensions to spike in the Taiwan Strait, considered a major potential Asian powder keg.
Here’s a look at what’s happening:
Why does Pelosi want to visit Taiwan?
Pelosi has been a staunch critic of China throughout her more than three decades in Congress. She once unfurled a banner in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square memorializing those killed in the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989. She was also a strong supporter of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019, making her a target of caustic criticism from Beijing.
Taiwan enjoys strong bipartisan support in Congress, and Pelosi said last week that it’s “important for us to show support for Taiwan.”
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has defied Beijing’s threats, and her administration has favored core democratic values and liberal policies close to Pelosi’s heart, including same-sex marriage and a strong social security net.
Why would the visit cause a rise in tensions?
China claims Taiwan as its own territory, to be annexed by force if necessary, and Beijing’s military buildup in recent years appears to have been oriented toward such a mission.
China objects to all official contact between Taipei and Washington, and routinely threatens retaliation. And this time, the stakes appear to be higher.
Beijing launched military exercises and fired missiles into waters near Taiwan in response to a 1995 visit to the U.S. by Taiwan’s then-President Lee Tenghui, but its military capabilities have advanced massively since then.
Experts say it’s unlikely China would use force to prevent Pelosi’s U.S. government plane from landing in Taipei, but its response remains unpredictable. Menacing military drills and incursions by ships and planes are potential scenarios that would set the entire region on edge.
Why is the timing so sensitive?
President Biden’s administration is keen to keep America’s crucial but often turbulent and highly complex relationship with China on an even keel.
Pelosi had planned to visit in April but postponed that trip after she came down with COVID-19. She has declined to discuss reported plans to travel to Taiwan in coming weeks — which could coincide with China’s celebrations of the Aug. 1 anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the ruling Communist Party, and possibly overlap with a planned phone call between Biden and President Xi Jinping.
A more robust Chinese response could also be driven by Xi’s desire to bolster his nationalist credentials ahead of a party congress later this year at which he is expected to seek a third five-year term in office. Xi’s expansion of his powers and his hard-line response to the COVID epidemic have sown a degree of resentment, and appealing to raw patriotism, particularly over Taiwan, might help him fend off criticism.
What is Taiwan’s attitude toward a visit?
Tsai has been welcoming of foreign dignitaries, serving and retired, from the U.S., Europe and Asia, and such visits have served as a bulwark against China’s campaign of diplomatic isolation and refusal to deal with her government. Still, her rhetoric on such occasions has generally been relatively low-key, reflecting her calm demeanor and possibly a desire not to further antagonize China, which remains a crucial economic partner and home to around a million Taiwanese.
Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, staged a civil defense drill Monday, and on Tuesday Tsai attended annual military exercises, although there was no direct connection with tensions over a possible Pelosi visit.
The Taiwanese public strongly rejects China’s demands for unification, yet the ability of the island’s military to defend itself against the People’s Liberation Army without U.S. help is highly questionable, so shoring up Taiwan’s armed forces has been a hallmark of Tsai’s term in office.
Speaking Tuesday during the exercises, Taiwanese Defense Ministry spokesperson Sun Li-fang said that the military was monitoring Chinese warships’ and aircrafts’ movements around the island, but that Taiwan had “the confidence and ability to ensure the security of our country.”