Analysts warn that Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan will inflame the crisis between the United States and China

Analysts warn that Pelosi's visit to Taiwan will inflame the crisis between the United States and China

China has stepped up a campaign of threats and war games to try to dissuade Nancy Pelosi from visiting Taiwan in the coming days.

Beijing has publicly warned of “strong countermeasures” to any visit, which would be the first by a US House speaker in 25 years, and has stepped up naval and air maneuvers around Taiwan. Chinese officials have even suggested to their American counterparts the possibility of a military response.

So intense has been the reaction to the visit, which is expected to be part of a trip to Asia next week, that many analysts believe Beijing and Washington are facing a new crisis in Taiwan.

In a conflict that has been frozen since China’s Nationalist government fled to Taiwan in 1949, the United States is trying to gauge whether this time friction could bring it to the brink of war with Beijing.

“If he leaves, there will definitely be a Taiwan Strait crisis, and it will definitely surpass the last one in 1995-1996,” said Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. “This is because China’s military capabilities far exceed those of 26 years ago.”

But Chinese scholars and former US officials with first-hand knowledge of the latest crisis believe China still wants to avoid open military conflict with the US.

“We have to take seriously the possibility that this [Chinese president] Xi Jinping could order the People’s Liberation Army to engage in at least some limited use of military force and not just in its display,” said Richard Bush, who was a national intelligence officer for in East Asia when tensions in the Taiwan Strait peaked in 1995.

“But there are reasons why it is too risky for China to engage in even a limited war. It is clear that the US would respond and cannot be sure of winning,” he said. “Also, they still have confidence that the psychological warfare they have been engaged in for the past six years will work.”

Things have come to a head in the Taiwan Strait three times. In 1955, Chinese and Taiwanese forces exchanged fire after the PRC bombarded islands off the coast controlled by Taipei. In 1958, Taiwan won a naval battle triggered by another round of PRC bombing of the offshore islands.

The so-called third Taiwan Strait crisis occurred almost 40 years later. Beijing launched missiles into the waters off the northern and southern ends of the island after Washington allowed then-Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to visit in 1995.

China also sought to warn Taiwan against electing a pro-independence president in 1996. The US responded by sending warships into the vicinity in its largest show of military force in Asia since the Vietnam War.

Former US officials agree that the massive modernization of the Chinese military since then is likely to change Xi’s calculations.

“It was a different PLA back then and a very different China overall,” said Randy Schriver, a former deputy US defense secretary under the Trump administration. He also served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense responsible for managing relations with the PLA and the bilateral security relationship with Taiwan from 1994-1998.

“In 1995, we knew they had limited capabilities and they knew it. But the military reforms they’ve undertaken since then were informed by that very crisis,” Schriver said.

“Within a year, they bought [Russian] destroyers with surface-to-surface missiles, and from 1996 they began to think about how to keep US forces in the region at risk with cruise missiles.”

Taylor Fravel, a PLA expert at MIT, said China’s expanded military capabilities would allow for a more diverse reaction to a visit by Pelosi.

Taipei officials said Chinese warplanes could cross the median line in the Taiwan Strait, a theoretical line dividing both sides that the PLA has repeatedly crossed in the past two years, and fly into space sovereign air of Taiwan.

Under another potential scenario discussed by Taiwanese officials, the PLA could impose a blockade on the Taipei-controlled South China Sea island of Pratas and prevent Taiwan from sending vital supplies, or even land and detain Taiwanese soldiers with sit there

“The problem with China is that after they’ve done what they’ve done, they’re still in the same difficult position,” Bush said. “They have no way of convincing Taiwan to come to an agreement.”

Analysts also argue that a limited use of force by China now could propel a more radical pro-independence candidate in Taiwan’s next presidential election in 2024.

Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military analyst, suggested that Chinese retaliation could range from sending warplanes and harassing Pelosi’s plane to supplying Russia with weapons. But any Chinese response would likely be measured.

“The move has to be big enough and it has to at least cause fear in the opponent,” Ni said. “But this action must be controlled so that it does not trigger an armed conflict.”

Western analysts point to the writings of PLA scholars on the importance of managing a crisis and argue that Beijing has not escalated its rhetoric to the maximum level.

Xi warned Joe Biden in a call on Thursday that “those who play with fire will die from it.” That’s a notch above his government’s previous language, but below the phrase China used in the Korean War and other tense moments in cross-strait relations, when it demand from the US”watering his horse at the edge of the precipice“.

Still, fueling the tension is Beijing’s belief that the United States is using Taiwan as leverage in a growing struggle for global dominance.

“Since Trump, the US has steadily increased its support for Taiwan and is using the Taiwan card all the time,” Wu said.

US analysts add that competition between the US and China and mutual distrust are destabilizing the situation in Taiwan.

“It’s all about US-China relations,” said Shelley Rigger, an expert on cross-strait affairs at Davidson College in North Carolina.

He added that Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has few options as she faces both the threat from China and the need to retain support from the US, Taiwan’s sole protector. Rigger said, “He’s got guns to his head from both sides.”

Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing



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