Analysis: House speaker’s arrival is likely to inflame relations between the US and China without making Taiwan safer

Nancy Pelosi begins controversial visit to Taiwan amid tensions with China – video

In the era of US-China geopolitical competition, Joe Biden has been keen to ensure great power politics do not lead to uncontrollable escalation. Yet the trip to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, is threatening to break what administration officials call “guardrails”. She is the highest-ranking member of Congress to visit the island since 1997.

The move, which is a welcome and a bold assertion of democratic principle to Pelosi’s supporters, has certainly rattled Beijing in a politically sensitive year for China’s ruling Communist party. Xi Jinping is expected to be anointed for an extraordinary third term in the party’s five-yearly congress in the next few months. It also comes as the People’s Liberation Army is celebrating the 95th anniversary of its founding.

The visit of one of Pelosi’s predecessors, Newt Gingrich, a quarter of a century ago also triggered complaints, but that time Beijing eventually swallowed its irritation. Not long before Gingrich’s visit, the Taiwan strait crisis lasted for a few months into 1996. Undoubtedly, China today has more tools in its toolbox, and its military capabilities far exceed those of 26 years ago – although are still far behind that of the US.

Beijing sees the unification with Taiwan as a part of Xi’s project national rejuvenation. The Chinese president has on several occasions expressed his preference for peaceful unification but, as has been the case with previous Chinese leaders, he has also vowed not to rule out a military option as a last resort. As relations between China and the west deteriorate, talk of a potential move on Taiwan has been on the increase, particularly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. Unfortunately, Beijing’s own rhetoric and action do not help dispel such concerns, either.

“We cannot stand by as the CCP proceeds to threaten Taiwan – and democracy itself,” Pelosi wrote in her opinion piece for the Washington Post.

But at a time of strategic suspicion and escalating tensions, her visit does not seem to contribute to the stabilisation of an increasingly fraught US-China relationship, or advance American interests, or increase the security of the people of Taiwan, said Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

“Washington’s thinking on the trip is now driven by a second order concern, namely fear that, following Beijing’s promises to escalate its coercion of Taiwan if Speaker Pelosi lands there, not making the visit would make the US look weak and increase Beijing’s leverage over Taiwan,” Daly noted.

In Beijing’s perspective, Pelosi’s visit is a “provocation” that will lead to further distrust of Washington in the long term. In the last few days, Biden’s officials have been keen to highlight the differences between the White House and Congress. But Chinese commentators seemed to conflate the position of the House speaker with that of the White House itself, even though the two have separate constitutional roles.

On Monday, China’s spokesperson warned its military would “not sit idly by” if the visit happened. A few hours later, China’s Maritime Safety Administration announced yet another series of exercises in the South China Sea from 2 August to 6 August. On Tuesday, the PLA announced military drills from Thursday – shortly after her departure.

The US was catching up, too. On Tuesday, Reuters reported four US warships, including a carrier strike group led by the USS Ronald Reagan, were positioned in waters east of the island on “routine” deployments.

Analysts say that even if Pelosi’s visit does not trigger a full-on military standoff, the trip will further play into the hawks’ narrative that the US and its allies are, in effect, helping the Tsai Ing-wen administration to eventually seek independence. Beijing has long suspected of Biden’s and Tsai’s intention. The suspicion will be deepened by Monday’s report that a high-profile delegation of British MPs is also planning on a visit to Taipei later this year.

Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, said the probability of war or a serious incident is low. “But the probability that the PRC will take a series of military, economic, and diplomatic actions to show strength and resolve is not insignificant. Likely it will seek to punish Taiwan in myriad ways,” she wrote on Twitter.

The punishment has begun and there is no end in sight. Overnight, Chinese authorities announced a sudden ban on imports from more than 100 Taiwanese food companies, according to local media. It is no doubt an act of retribution over Pelosi’s visit, given China is the island’s largest trading partner.

It is unclear how Taipei and Washington are to respond to Beijing’s reactions. “My major worry is that Beijing will take measures that Washington, in turn, will see itself forced to respond to in order to avoid appearing irresolute or passive, thus potentially triggering a spiral of escalation,” said Prof Todd Hall, who directs the University of Oxford China Centre.

Daly agreed. “Whatever they do to escalate, will then become a new status quo … that is to make this relationship even more dangerous,” he said. “Beijing and Washington would be better served if they put their energy into strategic stability talks rather than escalation games.”