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Beijing bites back over repeated rumors of Pelosi’s Taiwan visit

China ratcheted up its already strong response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plans to visit Taiwan, with the Ministry of Defense in Beijing threatening military action.

Ministry spokesman, Sr. Col. Tan Kefei, told a media briefing on Tuesday that, should Pelosi insist on making the visit, “the Chinese military will never sit idly by, and will certainly take strong and resolute measures” to retaliate.

The U.S. “must not arrange for Pelosi to visit the Taiwan region,” he said.

China considers the self-governed democratic island a breakaway province and its reunification a matter of “national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Britain’s Financial Times first reported on the planned visit last week, saying it would be part of a tour that will also include Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Pelosi and her entourage will also make a stopover in Hawaii to visit the headquarters of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the paper said.

It would be the first time since Newt Gingrich’s 1997 trip that a U.S. House speaker has visited the island.

U.S. officials have not confirmed the news but President Joe Biden indicated that the military “did not think it was a good idea right now” for Pelosi to visit Taiwan. 

The much talked about trip by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the third most senior figure in the political system, has created a huge headache for U.S. policymakers.

Biden is expected to discuss it, among other issues, with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in a telephone call on Thursday. It would be the fifth such conversation since Biden became U.S. president in January 2021.

‘Fourth Taiwan crisis’

Before the defense ministry delivered its official response, the Chinese foreign ministry had already protested against the reported trip, saying the U.S. must be prepared to “assume full responsibility for any serious consequence arising.” 

Analysts say with so much tension over the alleged visit, U.S.-China relations are entering a “perilous period.”

Taylor Fravel, Director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), wrote on Twitter that Pelosi’s visit seems likely “as other members of Congress cast her visit as a question of what China can or cannot ‘dictate’ to Congress.”

This would “create even stronger incentives for a forceful response,” as Xi Jinping’s “policy, reputation and credibility will be seen to be at stake.”

“We’re heading straight toward a Fourth Taiwan Strait crisis,” Fravel warned, referring to previous crises in the Taiwan Strait. The last one was in 1996 and ended after U.S. intervention.

Some Taiwanese analysts disagree with the assessment, saying the possibility of a war is low.

“This is not good timing for Xi to wage a fourth Taiwan crisis,” said Ming-Shih Shen, a senior expert at the Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR).

There are only a few months left before the opening of China’s most important political event – the Chinese Communist Party’s Congress – where Xi is believed to be seeking an unprecedented third term.

“The situation’s being exacerbated perhaps by those who oppose Xi’s leadership within the Party in order to create troubles [for him],” Shen said.

To go or not to go?

Despite China’s hawkish response, Pelosi should still make the visit, said the Taiwanese expert, adding that it would work for her domestically, too.

Carl Schuster, a retired U.S. Navy captain and former director of operations at the U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, said that China’s coercion tactics “work only when countries allow them to do so” and the United States “should stand up to China.”

“China’s economy is not in better shape than ours and China is not going to war over Pelosi’s visit,” he said.

“Bowing down to Chinese bullying makes us look weak at a time when we need to appear strong. Weakness, like withdrawing our embassy and trainers, encouraged Putin to invade Ukraine. We can’t make that mistake twice,” Schuster added.

“The current tensions over Speaker Pelosi’s putative visit to Taiwan puts the Biden Administration in a no-win situation,” said Carl Thayer, a veteran regional expert.

“If Speaker Pelosi decides to visit Taiwan, Xi Jinping will have no recourse but to provoke a crisis to demonstrate China’s resolve. This will put further strain on U.S.-China relations and undermine efforts underway by Biden to find some common ground with China,” the Canberra-based analyst said.

The Biden Administration, in his opinion, “has not yet had to respond to a major incident of Chinese bullying and also has not gone out of its way to provoke a confrontation with China.”

“If Pelosi decides to go and China throws down the gauntlet, this will be the first test for President Biden to call China to account and push back against its bullying,” Thayer said.