But last week, China warned against A potential high-profile trip to Taipei by Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi has raised concerns in Washington.
Since then, waves of comments from US officials have only added to the sense of alarm.
“I think what the president is saying is that maybe the military was afraid my plane was going to be shot down or something like that. I don’t know exactly,” Pelosi said.
On Sunday, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also offered to join Pelosi on her reporting trip.
But with Pelosi’s potential visit now playing out in public, delaying or not going could be seen as a concession.
“Speaker Pelosi needs to go to Taiwan and President Biden needs to make it clear to President Xi that there is nothing the Chinese Communist Party can do,” Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican, said Monday. “No more weakness and self-inhibition.”
The Chinese government has not publicly indicated what “strong measures” it plans to take, but some Chinese experts say Beijing’s response could include a military component.
“China will respond with the strongest countermeasures since the Taiwan Strait crisis,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China.
Military conflicts erupted across the Taiwan Strait in the 1950s — the decade after the founding of Communist China, when Beijing shelled several outer islands controlled by Taipei on two separate occasions.
The last major crisis occurred in 1995–1996, when Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui visited the United States. Infuriated by the visit, China fired missiles into waters around Taiwan, and the crisis ended only after the United States sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region in a show of strong support for Taipei.
“If Pelosi goes ahead with her visit, the U.S. will definitely prepare to respond militarily to a possible Chinese military response,” Xi said. “The situation between China and the US will be very tense.”
Another time, another China
Beijing has hinted that things will be different this time around.
“It’s a very different regime in Beijing with Xi Jinping. China is in a very strong position to impose costs and consequences on countries that don’t consider China’s interests in policymaking or actions,” Drew Thompson said. Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
“So in that sense, it’s a very different China since Newt Gingrich visited in 1997.”
On Monday, Gingrich wrote on social media: “What is the Pentagon thinking when Speaker Pelosi publicly warns against going to Taiwan? If we are so intimidated by the Chinese Communists, we can’t even protect an American speaker. Why should Beijing believe we can help Taiwan survive. Cowardice is dangerous.”
Under Xi, a rising tide of nationalism has hit China, and support — perhaps by force — for “reunification” with Taiwan is running high.
Hu Zijin, a former editor of the state-run nationalist newspaper Global Times and a prominent hawkish voice among Chinese online pundits, has suggested that Chinese Liberation Army fighter jets fly over the island to “accompany” Pelosi’s flight to Taiwan.
This is a significant violation of Taiwan’s autonomy. As cross-Strait tensions have risen to their highest level in recent decades, China has sent a record number of warplanes into Taiwan’s self-declared air defense identification zone, with Taiwan scrambling jets to warn them — but no PLA jets have yet entered. Territorial airspace of the island.
“If the Taiwanese military dares to fire on PLA warplanes, we will resolutely retaliate by shooting down Taiwanese warplanes or attacking Taiwanese military bases. If the US and Taiwan want an all-out war, the moment will come to liberate Taiwan.” Hu wrote.
Although Hu’s belligerent views on Taiwan have long resonated in China’s nationalist circles, they do not represent Beijing’s official position (and some of Hu’s previous threats against Taiwan have turned out to be empty).
But as Thompson points out, the fact that Hu’s statements are not censored in China’s tightly controlled media shows “a certain level of support among the Communist Party” — if only for propaganda value.
A well-known public figure and high-profile critic of Beijing, Pelosi’s visit comes at a critical time for China.
The PLA celebrates its founding anniversary on August 1, while Xi, the country’s most powerful leader in decades, prepares to break with tradition and take office for a third term at the 20th Congress of the ruling Communist Party this fall.
While the politically sensitive time will prompt a strong response from Beijing, experts say the Communist Party wants to ensure stability and prevent things from spiraling out of control.
“Honestly, this is not a good time for Xi Jinping to instigate a military conflict before the 20th Party Congress. It is in Xi Jinping’s interest to manage this rationally and not provoke a crisis on top of other crises he has to deal with. China’s sluggish economy, deepening real estate crisis, rising unemployment and its zero -Thompson said, citing the ongoing struggle to prevent sporadic outbreaks under the Covid policy.
“So whatever they do, I think it will be measured and calculated. They’ll certainly try to put more pressure on Taiwan, but I think they’ll stop at anything that’s particularly dangerous or creates conditions that they can’t control,” he said.
Shi, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, acknowledged that tensions between the US and China are unlikely to escalate into an all-out military conflict.
“Unless things accidentally get out of control in a way that no one can predict, there is no chance of a military conflict between the US and China,” he said.
But Xi said it is difficult to predict what China will do now.
“This is a very difficult situation to deal with. First, (Beijing) must take unprecedented countermeasures with determination. Second, it must prevent military confrontations between the US and China,” he said. “We don’t know how things will turn out until the last minute.”
CNN’s Brad Lenton and Kylie Atwood contributed to this story.
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