While major breaking news usually gives journalists an adrenaline rush, Pelosi’s visit is a different case.
On the night of 1 August, when US and Taiwan media both quoted an informed source confirming that US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would be visiting Taiwan, a fellow journalist texted me to say that the news was “unsettling”.
Playing with fire
Two weeks ago, the Financial Times reported that Pelosi, the US’s third most powerful politician, was planning to visit Taiwan in August, which became a hot topic. People breathed a sigh of relief when the official itinerary of her Asia tour did not include Taiwan — a crisis had been averted.
However, various media later confirmed that she would visit Taiwan and stay overnight in Taipei — the unsettling feeling returned.
Since late July, the Chinese foreign and defence ministries and Eastern Theater Command have made unusually severe statements: “The Chinese military will not sit idly by” and is “prepared for any eventuality”.
Amid the sabre-rattling on China’s internet, the different advocates of war are coming to the fore.
In his phone call with US President Joe Biden last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping also gave a warning: “Those who play with fire will eventually get burned.”
The Chinese military even held a series of naval exercises and sent aircrafts to circle Taiwan, signalling that they would take strong action to safeguard China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
With all the official publicity, Chinese social media has been on a rampage. On the night of 1 August, articles on Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan were among the top searches on Weibo, along with the warning by a foreign ministry spokesperson that “if she dares to go to Taiwan, we shall see”, and declarations by the Eastern Theater Command that they were “ready and waiting for orders to fight”, and would “bury all incoming enemies”.
Amid the sabre-rattling on China’s internet, the different advocates of war are coming to the fore. Those for armed reunification say that Pelosi has presented a good opportunity for the Chinese people to “witness the historic reunification of the motherland”.
Meanwhile, those rubbing their hands in anticipation shout that “we’ll greet the jackal with rifles”, and urge the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to “show what they’re capable of in a real fight”.
And those who want to erase China's shame and humiliation firmly believe that swords must now be drawn, otherwise “if China misses this chance to stand tall, it will be difficult to show its strength in the future”.
... the “cold but peaceful” cross-strait relations may fade away amid the worsening China-US relations, with Taiwan increasingly at the forefront of China-US clashes.
Increased military pressure
The Economist declared last year that Taiwan is the most dangerous place on earth, while academics in international relations warn of another crisis in the Taiwan Strait. Such dangers appear more imminent with Pelosi’s visit.
In recent years, cross-strait relations have continued to deteriorate as Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party government refuse to recognise the 1992 Consensus and mainland China’s proposed “two systems”. Beijing has ramped up the pressure on Taiwan’s military and diplomatic affairs, sending military aircraft and vessels to circle Taiwan, and pulling away Taiwan’s diplomatic partners.
In mainland China, calls for armed reunification with Taiwan are getting louder, including from officials and retired PLA leaders. In recent years, there has been virtually no official cross-strait contact, while exchanges among the people were also disrupted by the pandemic.
However, despite the tense situation in the Taiwan Strait, relations between the mainland and Taiwan have remained peaceful, albeit cold, over the past few years. Worryingly, the “cold but peaceful” cross-strait relations may fade away amid the worsening China-US relations, with Taiwan increasingly at the forefront of China-US clashes. Furthermore, Pelosi’s Taiwan visit has just pushed the Taiwan Strait to the brink of war.
Analysts also pointed out that Pelosi’s Taiwan visit may prompt the mainland to assert even more military pressure on Taiwan, including sending PLA military aircraft and warships across the median line.
Everyone is anticipating Beijing’s response to Pelosi’s Taiwan visit. Bloomberg put forward six possibilities: bigger warplane incursions; flying warplanes over Taiwan; conducting missile tests near Taiwan; economic sanctions; diplomatic protest; and seizing an outlying island. (NB: Beijing has announced plans for six zones encircling Taiwan where it said it would carry out live-fire military drills from 4 to 7 August, according to a statement released by Xinhua, China’s state news agency.)
Analysts also pointed out that Pelosi’s Taiwan visit may prompt the mainland to assert even more military pressure on Taiwan, including sending PLA military aircraft and warships across the median line. Such incursions could later become “regular” operations.
Rising nationalist sentiment
Taiwan’s peace is directly related to regional stability, and no one wants a China-US military conflict in the Taiwan Strait. With the Chinese Communist Party set to hold its 20th Party Congress, which is held every five years, Beijing’s top priority is ensuring stability.
Both China and the US also face economic challenges — China’s economy has yet to recover from the recurrent Covid-19 outbreaks, while the US faces 40-year high inflation. A crisis at this time would inevitably cause more economic damage.
The phone call between Xi and Biden last week also revealed that both parties are making plans to meet in person. It is clearly not the time for a showdown.
However, their hawkish positions and increasing hostility towards each other have also put both Washington and Beijing under domestic political pressure. Some Americans had reservations when the news of Pelosi’s plan to visit Taiwan broke, but standing firm against the pressure from Beijing is still a bigger political imperative.
Even if Pelosi’s Asia tour did not include a stop in Taiwan, such nationalist sentiment will explode sooner or later.
Amid China-US hostility, it is not difficult to understand the righteous indignation of the mainland Chinese over Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Beijing believes that it is the US that has changed the status quo. Rising nationalist sentiment in the mainland is also mixed with the desire to rise above historical humiliation and defeat, along with the drive to march forward following the country’s rise and strengthening.
Even if Pelosi’s Asia tour did not include a stop in Taiwan, such nationalist sentiment will explode sooner or later. While China does not adopt the democratic system of Western countries, the politics of public opinion will still push the country forward, giving Beijing less manoeuvring space and making it tougher to maintain strategic focus.
The outcome of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan remains to be seen. The next two days will be unsettling for everyone. We can only hope that a “hot crisis” will not break out prematurely in the Taiwan Strait.
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