Hong Kong/Beijing/Taipei (CNN) – US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s possible visit to Taiwan has resulted in stern warnings from Beijing and mounting concerns in Washington.
Though the California Democrat has so far declined to confirm the trip publicly, she has invited both Democrats and Republicans to accompany her.
China has lashed out at the potential visit, vowing to take “resolute and forceful measures” if the trip goes ahead. This week, China’s Defense Ministry reiterated the threat, warning: “If the US insists on taking its own course, the Chinese military will never sit idly by.”
US officials are worried that the reported visit would be met with a military response from China, potentially triggering the worst cross-strait crisis in decades.
The tensions provided the backdrop for a lengthy phone call between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Thursday, in which Xi warned the US not to “play with fire” on the Taiwan issue — though neither side confirmed if Pelosi’s reported plans were discussed. Preparation for the call predated reports of the possible trip.
Here’s what you need to know about the potential high-stakes visit.
Why is Beijing angry about Pelosi’s potential visit?
China’s ruling Communist Party claims the self-ruled democracy of Taiwan as its own territory — despite never having governed it — and has not ruled out the use of force to “reunify” the island with the Chinese mainland.
For decades, Beijing has sought to isolate Taipei on the world stage, from chipping away at its diplomatic allies to blocking it from joining international organizations.
Any move that appears to lend Taiwan a sense of international legitimacy is strongly opposed by China. And in the eyes of Beijing, high-profile overseas visits by Taiwanese officials, or visits by foreign officials to Taiwan, will do just that.
In 1995, a visit by then-Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to the United States triggered a major crisis in the Taiwan Strait. Enraged by the trip, China fired missiles into waters around Taiwan, and the crisis ended only after the US sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area in a forceful show of support for Taipei.
In recent years, Taiwan has received a flurry of visits by US delegations, consisting of sitting and retired officials and lawmakers. That has drawn angry responses from China, including sending warplanes into Taiwan’s self-declared air defense identification zone.
But Pelosi’s political stature makes her potential visit all the more provocative to Beijing.
“Pelosi is the third public official in the line of succession after the President and Vice President, I think the Chinese take that very seriously,” said Susan L. Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at UC San Diego.
“So she is a very important figure in American politics. It’s different from your ordinary member of Congress.”
Pelosi is a longstanding critic of the Chinese Communist Party. She has denounced Beijing’s human rights record, and met with pro-democracy dissidents and the Dalai Lama — the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader who remains a thorn in the side of the Chinese government.
In 1991, Pelosi unfurled a banner in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to commemorate victims of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters. More recently, she has voiced support for the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Why is the potential trip fueling US-China tensions?
Beijing has warned that Pelosi’s trip, if it materializes, will have “a severe negative impact on the political foundations of China-US relations.”
The US formally switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 — but has long trod a delicate middle path. Washington recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China, but maintains close unofficial ties with Taiwan.
The US also supplies Taiwan with defensive weaponry under the terms of the decades-old Taiwan Relations Act, but it remains deliberately vague on whether it would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion — a policy known as “strategic ambiguity.”
China’s authoritarian turn under Xi’s leadership and plummeting relations with Washington have pulled Taiwan closer into the orbit of the US. This has infuriated Beijing, which has accused Washington of “playing the Taiwan card” to contain China’s rise.
The US, meanwhile, has stepped up its engagement with Taiwan, approving arms sales and sending delegations to the island.
Since the Taiwan Travel Act was signed into law by then-US President Donald Trump in March 2018, US officials and lawmakers have embarked on more than 20 trips to the island, according to a CNN tally. The 2018 law encourages visits between officials of the US and Taiwan at all levels.
Taiwan figured prominently in Xi and Biden’s two-hour-and-17-minute phone call, with the Chinese leader urging Washington to honor existing agreements with Beijing both “in word and in deed,” according to a readout from China’s Foreign Ministry. The statement added that China would “resolutely safeguard” its national sovereignty.
For his part, Biden reiterated that US policy “had not changed,” according to a White House readout of the call.
“The United States strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” Biden said, according to the statement.
Has a US House Speaker ever visited Taiwan?
Pelosi’s reported trip wouldn’t be the first time a sitting US House speaker has visited Taiwan.
In 1997, Newt Gingrich visited Taipei only days after his trip to Beijing and Shanghai. China’s Foreign Ministry criticized Gingrich after his Taiwan visit, but the response was limited to rhetoric.
Beijing has indicated things would be different this time around.
Twenty-five years on, China is stronger, more powerful and confident, and its leader Xi has made it clear that Beijing will no longer tolerate any perceived slights or challenge to its interests.
“China is in a position to be more assertive, to impose costs and consequences to countries that don’t take China’s interest into consideration in their policymaking or actions,” said Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
What about the timing?
Pelosi’s reported visit would also come at a sensitive time for China.
The House Speaker had previously planned to lead a US congressional delegation to Taiwan in April, but postponed the trip after she tested positive for Covid-19.
The Chinese military is celebrating its founding anniversary on August 1, while Xi, the country’s most powerful leader in decades, is preparing to break conventions and seek a third term at the Communist Party’s 20th congress this fall.
In August, Chinese leaders are also expected to gather in the seaside resort of Beidaihe for their annual summer conclave, where they discuss personnel moves and policy ideas behind closed doors.
“It’s a very tense time in Chinese domestic politics,” Shirk said. “(Xi) himself and many other members of the elite in China would view the Pelosi visit as a humiliation of Xi Jinping (and) his leadership. And that means that he will feel compelled to react in a way to demonstrate his strength.”
While the politically sensitive timing could trigger a stronger response from Beijing, some experts believe it could also mean the Communist Party would want to ensure stability and prevent things from getting out of control.
“Honestly, this isn’t a good time for Xi Jinping to provoke a military conflict right before the 20th party congress. It’s in Xi Jinping’s interest to manage this rationally and not instigate a crisis on top of all the other crises he has to deal with,” Thompson said, citing China’s slowing economy, deepening real estate crisis, rising unemployment, and constant struggle to curb sporadic outbreaks under its zero-Covid policy.
How will China react?
China has not specified what “forceful measures” it is planning to take, but some Chinese analysts say Beijing’s reaction could involve a military component.
“China will respond with unprecedented countermeasures — the strongest it has ever taken since the Taiwan Strait crises,” said Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at China’s Renmin University.
In private, Biden administration officials have expressed concern that China could seek to declare a no-fly zone over Taiwan to upend the possible trip, a US official told CNN.
National security officials are quietly working to convince Pelosi of the risks her potential trip to Taiwan could pose, while the Pentagon is developing a security plan to use ships and aircraft to keep her safe should she decide to go ahead.
But the constant worry among US officials is that miscalculations or inadvertent incidents or accidents could occur if China and the US significantly increase their air and maritime operations in the region.
The US does not expect direct hostile action from Beijing during a potential visit by Pelosi. At least five Defense officials described this as a very remote possibility and said the Pentagon wants to see the public rhetoric lowered.
What has Taiwan said about Pelosi’s potential trip?
Taiwan has made few comments about the situation. When Pelosi’s potential visit was first reported by the Financial Times last week, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had “received no information” about the visit.
During a regular news briefing on Thursday, a ministry spokeswoman reiterated it had not received any definite information on whether Pelosi would be visiting the island and had “no further comment” on the matter.
“Inviting members of the US Congress to visit Taiwan has long been a focus of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Taiwan and our Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States,” spokeswoman Joanne Ou said.
Neither President Tsai Ing-wen nor the presidential office have issued statements on Pelosi’s potential trip.
On Wednesday, Taiwan’s Premier Su Tseng-chang said the island welcomes any friendly guests from overseas. “We are very grateful to Speaker Pelosi for her strong support and kindness towards Taiwan over the years,” he said.
Though international media is closely watching events, the escalating tension barely made headline news in Taiwan this week. Taiwan’s media has mostly focused on upcoming local elections and Taiwanese military drills.
Previously, Taiwanese officials have publicly welcomed visits by US delegations, seeing them as a sign of support from Washington.