Reports have surfaced this week that US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will visit southeast China’s Taiwan region in August. If this happens, it will be the highest level of contact between US officials and separatist forces in Taiwan, plunging Washington-Beijing relations to a new low.
This sort of announcement has been made before. Pelosi previously planned a trip to Taiwan in April this year but had to cancel after testing positive for COVID-19. It was anticipated that Pelosi would move forward with her trip at another time, setting the stage for this latest development in the US-China saga.
Pelosi is the third-highest level official in the US government. If something happens to President Joe Biden which prevents him from fulfilling his duties, she is second in line for the White House after Vice President Kamala Harris. An official visit by the Speaker of the House of Representatives to the Taiwan region is an extraordinarily high-level endorsement by the US of Taiwan’s so-called government.
That’s why China has promised “resolute and forceful measures” in response to this development, should it take place. China’s foreign ministry said that Pelosi’s delegation would "have a severe negative impact on the political foundation of China-US relations, and send a gravely wrong signal to 'Taiwan independence' separatist forces."
"If the US insists on going down the wrong path, China will definitely take resolute and forceful measures to firmly defend its national sovereignty and territorial integrity," ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told a news conference. "The United States must be fully responsible for all the consequences caused by this."
As always, however, Beijing did not put all its cards on the table as to what its response would be. That said, it’s certainly not a bluff. I believe, first of all, that Pelosi will almost certainly get herself and her immediate family, including her husband who has business dealings on the Chinese mainland, placed on a sanctions list. There could also be a significant military response.
Chinese officials have made it clear that reunifying Taiwan with the mainland is one of their top priorities. They’ve also said repeatedly that Beijing would fight “at all costs”to prevent secession, as Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe put it at the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last month.
Hu Xijin, an influential columnist for the Global Times, made a bold suggestion about how Beijing could stand up to Pelosi. He suggestedthat People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft “accompany” Pelosi’s plane as it enters the island’s airspace. The significance of this, he said, “would overwhelm Pelosi’s visit.” He even went on that he believes his suggestion is one of the options Beijing has on the table.
If indeed China retaliates against what it sees as a threat to its national sovereignty with military action, this raises the chances for a direct military confrontation between the US and China. For the vast majority of the people in this world who see avoiding the annihilation of our species as desirable, this would be a negative development. The US has the sole responsibility to avoid bringing this to fruition.
But even if Pelosi cancels her trip again out of common sense or another bout of COVID-19, the US has to give the world answers about its official position regarding the one-China principle. It must make a clear choice about whether it will honor its diplomatic commitments to Beijing or recklessly stand behind “Taiwan independence.” This has to be more thorough and articulate than Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s speech on China this May where he somehow spoke for over 44 minutes and said nothing.
Furthermore, I would also say that the US has to answer questions about the coordinated efforts it’s launching to undermine Beijing while boosting Taipei. One example of this is through the European Parliament, where Washington-supported politicians have undermined EU-China relations by freezing the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) and issuing a series of resolutions that embolden “Taiwan independence.”
In fact, European Parliament Vice President Nicola Beer met in Taiwan this week with regional leader Tsai Ing-wen, which was preemptively condemned by China’s foreign ministry as a violation of the political foundations of the EU-China relationship.
Some may see the only-verbal response from China over this visit as a foreshadowing of what’s to come (or not to come) for Nancy Pelosi – but the European Parliament, and the EU in general, are too heavily influenced by Washington to do anything to prevent a dangerous escalation.