The latest US confrontation with China has been sparked by leaked plans for a possible visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan – and is particularly dangerous because it is driven by domestic politics on both sides of the Pacific.
The feud worsens the already poor relationship between the United States and China, as their 21st century superpower fight takes shape. It also complicates a call expected as early as Thursday between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Taiwan has long seemed the most likely spark for a military escalation between the United States and China.
Under the complex web of agreements governing relations with Beijing, Washington only grants formal diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China, but maintains close ties with Taiwan, a self-governing democracy over which China claims sovereignty. .
The United States’ policy of strategic ambiguity left it unclear what it would do if China ever invaded Taiwan, in part to avoid encouraging a formal declaration of independence by the Taipei government. But the United States is required by law to offer Taiwan the means to defend itself.
China has warned vehemently that it will take “resolute and forceful” action if Pelosi surrenders. An attack on his plane is unthinkable. But there is speculation in Washington that China could follow its US military aircraft with fighter jets or even send planes to fly over Taiwan itself – a highly volatile scenario fraught with scope for miscalculation.
Given such rhetoric, it would be hard for China not to take unprecedented action if Pelosi surrenders. Xi has little room to defuse before a national party congress later this year, which is expected to confirm his unusual third term.
Biden, perhaps recklessly, revealed that the US military was not keen on Pelosi’s visit. Now, if he convinces the speaker not to go, he will be accused of caving in to the Chinese, an accusation no US president can bear – especially one whose approval rating has dipped below 40%.
Pelosi, the third figure in the US government, has been arguing with China over human rights for 30 years and is not one to be bullied. With Democrats tipped to lose the House in November’s midterm elections, she will be loath to make what could be one of her last big plays on the international stage a raid on Beijing.
The White House, keen to avoid offending a Democratic icon and aware of the political sensitivity of trying to coerce another branch of government, spoke to Pelosi behind the scenes about the risks of his trip, according to reports from The News. .
On Capitol Hill, hawkish advice is coming from both sides of the aisle.
“We shouldn’t allow them to bluff and dictate to America, the greatest nation in the world, where our Speaker of the House should travel,” progressive Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California said Tuesday on “The Situation Room.” ” from Les Actualites. “I mean, who are they to say that President Pelosi shouldn’t go to Taiwan?”
Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy weighed in, saying Pelosi “shouldn’t back down now.” He also said he would lead a congressional delegation to Taiwan if he becomes president next year — though such a visit would potentially be less explosive than Pelosi’s, since Biden could make the case to the Chinese that rival Republicans don’t. not represent its policy.
Given the political tensions on both sides, it’s hard to see how Biden and Xi can ease the situation.
Things could get dicey if Xi asks Biden to prevent Pelosi’s visit. Biden has no power to make that happen. But the Chinese leader might take offense if the speaker then makes the trip, further fracturing trust.
China, which is increasingly militarily capable, is also monitoring vocal bipartisan calls on Capitol Hill for strategic ambiguity to be dropped and for the United States to simply declare that it will defend Taiwan. Biden hasn’t really helped by repeatedly making statements that cross politics – only to be pushed back by aides.
Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said perhaps the best that could come out of the call is a mutual understanding of exactly what China would do if Pelosi left.
“I hope the Chinese can give us something in terms of understanding how China might react so that the United States and Taiwan can hopefully plan a way that will not create more escalation in this dynamic,” Lin said.
But China may not yet know how it would react, she added. And he may not be interested in steps that defuse the situation.
A lot depends on what Pelosi decides to do.