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Nancy Pelosi arrives in Taiwan. How will China respond?

Nancy Pelosi, the US House Speaker, arrived in Taiwan late in the evening of 2 August. She was greeted at the airport by the Taiwanese foreign minister, Joseph Wu. “America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy,” Pelosi said. The Taipei 101 tower in the capital lit up with the US flag and the message, “Speaker Pelosi, welcome to TW”.

Chinese government officials had repeatedly warned Pelosi not to travel to the self-governing island, which Beijing claims as its own territory. As the Speaker’s plane descended towards Taipei, Chinese fighter jets entered the Taiwan Strait, according to Chinese state television. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) announced that it would hold a series of live-fire drills in the waters around Taiwan. Cyber-attacks briefly shut down several government websites, including that of the Taiwanese presidential office. China’s Foreign Ministry called Pelosi’s visit “extremely dangerous” and reiterated warnings that “those who play with fire will perish by it”.

Pelosi is not the first Speaker of the US House of Representatives to visit Taiwan. Newt Gingrich, a Republican, travelled to the island with a congressional delegation in April 1997, when he declared that the US would use “all means necessary” to prevent China taking control of Taiwan by force. Beijing’s response at the time was limited to a sternly worded statement from the Foreign Ministry chiding Gingrich for his “improper” comments.

Twenty-five years later, the context is markedly different. Back then, US-China relations were improving, with American businesses clamouring for access to the fast-growing Chinese market, and Beijing pressing for accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which would finally be granted in 2001. The immediate priority for the Chinese leadership in the spring of 1997 was the handover of Hong Kong, which was due to be transferred to Beijing’s control from British colonial rule on 1 July. The Chinese military was also limited in its capabilities and hardly in a position to credibly threaten an invasion of Taiwan. In short, Beijing had many reasons not to pick a fight.

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In Washington, too, officials were focused on the extraordinary economic potential of trade with China, and the hope that economic liberalisation would be followed by political reform. In a speech that was translated into Mandarin and broadcast in China by Voice of America in October 1997, the president, Bill Clinton, called for a “pragmatic policy of engagement” with Beijing as the “best way to advance fundamental American interests and values”. Pelosi, then a congressional representative, criticised Clinton for “whitewashing” China’s human rights abuses.

US-China relations have since deteriorated. Nicholas Burns, the US ambassador to China, warned in June that diplomatic ties were at their lowest moment since 1972, when Richard Nixon travelled to Beijing to begin the process of normalising relations with the Chinese government after decades of enmity. The relationship was now defined by “unremitting competition”, Burns said.

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Chinese officials have expressed increasing concern about the US approach to Taiwan in recent years. When the US switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, Washington agreed to what became known as the One China policy, which acknowledged but did not endorse the Chinese government’s position that Taiwan was part of China. This formulation, which the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said had taken two all-night negotiating sessions to agree, enabled the countries to set the issue to one side and develop their economic relationship. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, which was passed the same year, the US committed to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, but left open the question of whether American troops would fight to protect the island from a Chinese attack.

Trade negotiations between the US and China broke down in 2018 during Donald Trump’s presidency and ties between the two countries frayed. Trump signed legislation that encouraged senior US officials to travel to Taiwan, which Beijing complained was a serious violation of the “One China” policy. Two years later, in 2020, Trump signed the TAIPEI (Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative) Act calling for ties with Taiwan to be strengthened (the bill was unanimously approved by both houses of congress). He dispatched Alex Azar, the health and human services secretary, to Taiwan in August 2020; Azar was the most senior American cabinet official to travel there since 1979, which prompted the Chinese military to send fighter jets across the median line of the Taiwan Strait to demonstrate its fury. In January 2021, when Trump had just days left in office, the State Department lifted restrictions on interactions between US and Taiwanese diplomats, further angering Beijing, where the Foreign Ministry vowed that “harsh punishment” would follow.

Despite Joe Biden’s efforts over the 18 months since he became president to establish “common-sense guardrails” between the US and China and stabilise the relationship, he has also drawn criticism from Beijing for stating three times that the US would defend Taiwan militarily if it was attacked, most recently during a press conference in Tokyo in May. Each time his aides have denied that he is changing US policy, but the Chinese government is not convinced. In October 2021 the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, accused the US of supporting pro-independence forces in Taiwan and pursuing a “fake One China policy”. Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, warned Biden in November 2021, and again on 28 July, not to “play with fire” over Taiwan.

In the days before Pelosi’s arrival in Taipei, Chinese officials had intensified their warnings against the visit. The PLA held live-fire drills off the coast of Fujian province, which is opposite Taiwan, on 30 July and said that military exercises would continue in waters near the island until 6 August.

Having issued such clear warnings, Beijing will want to mount a response that demonstrates that these were not empty threats. This will be particularly important for Xi, who will want to avoid looking weak before a crucial party congress this autumn at which he is expected to seek a third term in power. The difficulty for Xi – and the danger for Taiwan and the US – will be calibrating that response such that it registers the gravity of his concerns without triggering a major escalation and crisis across the Taiwan Strait.

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