Possible Pelosi visit causes shrug in Taiwan

Iris Xue’s list of worries in Taipei is topped by COVID-19 restrictions, electricity prices and, if she’s being honest, the latest news about Taiwanese pop stars. Nowhere on this list is the alleged visit of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and potential backlash from China.

“Whether she comes or not, it won’t really change anything,” the 37-year-old saleswoman suggested. “I think China will see this as a provocation, but I also don’t think they will escalate any real military behavior because of it.”

Asked how her circle of friends felt about the standoff that prompted a group of American aircraft carriers to be sent to the Taiwan Strait and China for Saturday’s live-fire military exercise, Xue said matter-of-factly: “I don’t think they really care. “.

As tensions flare between the two superpowers – which could lead to the region’s worst crisis in a quarter of a century – people in Taiwan seem to be generally responding with a collective shrug, preoccupied with things like the summer heat and local elections. . not the specter of war.

Such is life on a self-governing island of 23 million that has long served as the center of an explosive geopolitical confrontation. The threat of Chinese military action has been looming for so long that few seem to raise an eyebrow when Beijing lashes out, as Chinese leader Xi Jinping did on Thursday when he warned President Biden about call that “those who play with fire will perish by it.”

When speaking, Nancy Pelosi raises her index finger.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi left for Asia on Friday.

(J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

While the invasion of Ukraine has fueled fears around the world about a possible Chinese attack, many in Taiwan still see Beijing’s belligerent threats as mostly bluster.

“The Chinese Communist Party is playing the same old tricks,” said Yisuo Zeng, a research fellow at the National Defense and Security Research Institute in Taipei. “They make noise over nothing.”

Pelosi, a frequent critic of China’s human rights abuses, left for Asia on Friday. Its route includes US allies Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. As of Saturday morning, there were no plans to stop in Taiwan. Biden said the Pentagon discouraged her from visiting.

The rancor over the trip highlights how badly relations between the US and China have soured in recent years and how Taiwan remains the most dangerous flashpoint. Pelosi won’t be the first House Speaker to visit an island with Democratic governance; Republican Newt Gingrich made the trip in 1997. But China under Xi has become a much more powerful and assertive country than then, and it is determined to dominate Asia in the way that befits a great power.

Directly in its path is Taiwan, a teardrop-shaped island roughly the size of Maryland less than 100 miles off the coast of mainland China.

Formerly known as Formosa, it was taken over by the fleeing Chinese Nationalist government after they were defeated by the Communists in 1949 during the Chinese Civil War.

Beijing considers Taiwan part of China and, after years of calls for peaceful unification, warned it would take the island by force if necessary, especially if it formally declared independence.

Washington switched diplomatic relations with communist China in 1979, adopting a “one China” policy that recognizes Beijing’s claims to Taiwan but does not support them. To deter China from invading, the US is providing Taiwan with defensive weapons and a policy called strategic ambiguity, designed to leave China guessing whether US troops will defend the island if attacked.

While this approach has contributed to a peaceful status quo for more than four decades, it has become even more dangerous with the rise to power of Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

Xi enlisted Taiwan in his grandiose national revival project, marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party last year with a speech that called unification a “historic mission and unwavering commitment.”

Much of China’s military planning and modernization is focused on invading the island. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force tripled the number of sorties around Taiwan in the first half of this year from the same period a year ago, a tactic designed to push and deplete the territory’s air defenses.

Chinese President Xi Jinping walks past the line of troops.

Xi Jinping is China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

(Andy Wong/Associated Press)

In June, Beijing said the sea separating China from Taiwan, known as the Taiwan Strait, could not be considered international waters, claiming sovereignty over the waterway and challenging the presence of the US Navy there.

Beijing has also accused the US of diluting its “one China” policy with cabinet ministers and members of Congress increasingly visiting Taiwan. Biden made the remarks three times, suggesting that the US dropped strategic ambiguity by promising to defend Taiwan by force, but the administration declined to comment each time.

Tensions between the countries with the two largest economies in the world are almost not subsiding. Xi will be less constrained after the 20th Party Congress later this year, when he is expected to receive his third five-year term, the first Chinese leader to do so since Deng Xiaoping imposed two-term limits in 1982. Biden’s ability to maneuver is also limited. bipartisan hostility to China, one of the few issues on which rival lawmakers agree in a highly polarized political climate. There were no proposals during a telephone conversation between the two leaders on Thursday.

Taiwan is caught in the cycle of escalation, whose voice is often drowned out by the noise of Washington and Beijing. The government, led by President Tsai Ing-wen, has said little about Pelosi’s visit, though analysts say her appearance does little good for the territory and could cause more trouble than good.

“Taiwan’s agency in the US-PRC-Taiwan triangle has changed over time, but for now, the US and China are the driving forces,” said Shelley Rigger, lead Taiwan expert at Davidson College, using the acronym People’s Republic. China. “Taiwan is stuck in the middle.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t think the Taiwanese government is in a position to speak frankly with US officials,” Rigger continued. “The US is Taiwan’s main protector and US officials have shown a lot of selfishness and arrogance in the relationship. Insulting American leaders by pointing out the flaws in their decisions is not something Taiwanese officials are really capable of.”

Taiwan usually sees visits by senior US officials and politicians as a political boost for the ruling party and a show of much-needed international support. Beijing has diplomatically isolated Taiwan to the point where it is recognized by only a little over a dozen, mostly small countries. China also thwarted Taiwan’s bid to join the World Health Organization during the pandemic.

Pelosi’s visit “would definitely encourage the people of Taiwan, essentially saying ‘you are not alone,'” said Chen Kuan-ting, executive director of the Taiwan NextGen Foundation, a think tank politically affiliated with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

This is important because since Russia invaded Ukraine, confidence in Washington’s willingness to send troops to defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion has waned. A survey conducted by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation showed that from October last year to March, the number of respondents who believe that the United States will come to the aid of the island fell by 30%.

Many in Taiwan say Pelosi can’t afford to back down, fearing another cancellation (she originally postponed a trip to the territory in April after testing positive for COVID-19) would send a signal to Beijing that it can coerce and intimidate Washington.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen inspects a warship.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen urged her country to better prepare for the invasion.

(Shioro Lee/Associated Press)

“Taiwan is a democratic country. We have the right to greet any friend who supports us,” said Freddy Lim, a pro-independence MP who met with Pelosi in Washington in June and urged her to visit Taiwan.

Beijing, which sees Pelosi’s visit as a challenge to its sovereignty over Taiwan, said it would react harshly to her visit. Analysts say China could sanction the US MP, test missiles or, in the most provocative scenario, raise fighter jets to try and turn its plane around. If nothing is done, the Chinese leadership will look weak, a problem China has faced after years of threatening Taiwan.

“To have the same intimidating effect on the Taiwanese population, Beijing has to be more threatening,” said Ja Yan Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore. “This cycle can continue until Beijing either has to carry out its threats or its bluff is blown.”

The last time tensions in the region were this high was in 1995, when then-Taiwan President Lee Tenghui caused a stir in Beijing by visiting the US and violating diplomatic protocol. China, which also wanted to send a warning to pro-independence groups ahead of Taiwan’s upcoming elections, responded by conducting a series of missile tests in waters off the island. The standoff ended when the Clinton administration sent more warships into the Taiwan Strait than had been assembled since the Vietnam War.

Many in Taiwan do not expect the same harsh US response – not when Chinese military forces advance far enough to cause massive damage to the US Navy.

But in a country where air-raid sirens and military drills are commonplace, the latest crisis doesn’t seem to have bothered anyone.

“Pelosi’s visit will add tension [Beijing’s] diplomatic remarks,” said Su Liu Di-sheng, a 23-year-old graduate student in the Department of Political Science at National Taiwan University. “But the military risk has always been high.”

Yang reported from Taipei, Taiwan, and Pearson from Singapore.