Pelosi arrives in Taiwan, escalating US-China tensions

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan on Tuesday with an unannounced but long-awaited and controversial visit is sure to exacerbate tensions between the US and China and fears of a military conflict between the two superpowers.

Pelosi (D-San Francisco), an outspoken critic of Beijing, is the highest-ranking elected US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years. Even before she arrived on an official tour of Asia, the prospect of a stopover in Taiwan had drawn the ire of Beijing, which sees the trip as a challenge to its claim of sovereignty over the self-ruled island.

“Our delegation’s visit to Taiwan demonstrates America’s unwavering commitment to supporting a vibrant Taiwanese democracy,” Pelosi tweeted minutes after landing at Taipei airport. The closely watched plane from Malaysia made a long route around the South China Sea and landed shortly after 10:40 p.m., where Pelosi was met by officials, including Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu.

Speaking about China, she added that Taiwan’s support “is more important today than ever as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy,” but she also insisted that her visit “in no way contradicts” US policy towards China and China. Taiwan, which has held out for decades.

Pelosi was scheduled to meet with President Tsai Ing-wen at 10:30 am on Wednesday.

Chinese officials were quick to threaten reprisals, warning that military countries were ready to act and that “those who play with fire will die from it.” The aggressive rhetoric has stoked fears of a military escalation, fueling debate about the wisdom of Pelosi’s trip and the potential backlash.

After Pelosi landed in Taiwan, China’s defense ministry condemned the visit and said it would launch a series of targeted military operations. On Tuesday evening, the Eastern Theater Command began a series of naval, air and long-range live-fire exercises in the Taiwan Strait, state media reported.

Other state media reported that the country’s People’s Liberation Army planned to hold military exercises Thursday through Sunday across the island after Pelosi was due to leave.

The democratically governed island of 23 million has become central point of dispute worsening US-China relations. With growing mistrust between the two countries, analysts say Pelosi’s visit could lead to misunderstandings and a military clash, even though neither side wants war.

“The risk of an unintentional crisis as a result of China’s large-scale military action is extremely high,” said Amanda Xiao, senior China analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank. “It is possible that politicians on both sides are radically misinterpreting each other’s intentions.”

BUT long call between President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week over issues such as Taiwan failed to defuse tensions over the visit. Given the heightened hostility, Xiao said the US, China and Taiwan would have to tread carefully so as not to aggravate the situation.

China’s global power and influence has grown since the last such visit by a US official of the rank of Pelosi, when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, traveled to Taiwan in 1997 meet with then-president Lee Teng-hui. While some U.S. pundits warned that Pelosi’s trip, with little material gain, could spark saber-rattling from Beijing that escalated into a larger crisis, others feared the cancellation would be seen as a concession to Chinese pressure and undermine confidence in the U.S. backing Taiwan.

While the Biden administration is reluctant to be soft on China, it also has little interest in opposing the country’s leadership, especially with the raging war between Russia and Ukraine. US warns China against providing material support to Russia, and it will be difficult for him to face challenges from both countries at the same time.

Before the trip, Pelosi Biden said the Pentagon had advised against doing so, but was taking steps to keep her safe. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the visit did not contradict longstanding US policy and should not be a reason for increased military activity of China. The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Tuesday accused the US of encouraging Taiwan’s independence efforts and said it would have to bear the consequences of its actions.

Analysts say that while Beijing is under pressure to comply with its warnings, it wants to refrain from actions that could drag it into war with the US, which is required by federal law to ensure that Taiwan can defend itself. Biden has previously said the US would intervene militarily if China attacks Taiwan, though the administration declined to comment each time. China’s countermeasures, which include missile tests, increased military exercises and more aggressive air and sea sorties, are a step up from conventional military activity around Taiwan and point to a more provocative stance.

More dire possibilities could include a naval blockade of the key southwestern port city of Kaohsiung, no-fly zones over the Taiwan Strait, and military exercises that would cut off Taiwan’s channel to the outside world. These scenarios signify a significant escalation and pose a serious danger. for the Taiwanese armywhich would have to respond by raising combat aircraft and naval assets into the air.

“The Chinese military will not attack the US,” said Yuzhen Kuo, director of the National Policy Research Institute at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan. “China wants to punish Taiwan.”

China has also suspended food imports from more than 100 Taiwanese companies, local media reported on Tuesday. China had previously banned Taiwanese products such as pineapple and sea bass in what was seen as an attempt to put economic pressure on the island.

China has long considered Taiwan part of its territory, even though the Communist Party has never ruled the island. After losing the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the Chinese Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan with the goal of one day reclaiming the country. In 1979, Washington switched diplomatic relations with the Communist Party and adopted a policy of recognizing Beijing’s claims to Taiwan without backing them. Meanwhile, Taiwan has transitioned to democratic rule, and its citizens increasingly see their cultural and political identity as separate from mainland China.

As Beijing stepped up calls for unification and scared the island with a record number of combat aircraftrising tensions have led some officials to warn that an attack is possible in the next few years.

Xi, who is expected to break Chinese political norms by accepting a third five-year term as president later this year, sees unification with Taiwan as paramount as part of his broader goal of “national rejuvenation.” Chinese leader juggling internal problems ahead of an expected extension, including a property crisis and the economic impact of the COVID-19 lockdown. A weak response to Pelosi’s visit could undermine his leadership at a politically challenging time.

How aggressively China chooses to act is entirely up to Xi, Kuo said. But if he “does not react strongly to Pelosi’s visit, he will face huge challenges from other factions in the Communist Party.”

Russian invasion of Ukraine raising awareness potential conflict with mainland China, spurring defense-strengthening initiatives in the Taiwanese military and among civilians. However, many locals are skeptical that Pelosi’s visit will significantly change China’s military approach to Taiwan.

Despite pressure from Beijing, many Taiwanese citizens and lawmakers hailed Pelosi’s arrival as a sign of US support and international recognition. On Tuesday evening, the Taipei 101 skyscraper was lit up with messages of thanks from Pelosi and the United States.

While the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, generally favors closer ties with Beijing, the opposition party also said Tuesday that it welcomes Pelosi along with other international guests who promote liberal democratic values ​​and free trade.

“The visit should not be interpreted as a provocation, but rather as support for maintaining the status quo on both sides of the strait,” said Wen Lii, director of the Matsu Islands branch of the ruling Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party. “I think it’s important for Taiwan to continue to receive public gestures of support from other democracies.”

Yang reported from Taipei and Pearson from Singapore.