House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Visits Taiwan could exacerbate the already troubled relationship between the US and China. But according to experts, this is unlikely to change Beijing’s agenda ahead of a key period of change in the country’s leadership.
The tension in the Taiwan Strait is unlikely to escalate into a military conflict. It will also not affect Xi Jinping’s plans to become China’s leader for the third time in the fall, when the Communist Party will hold its next congress. The Hong Kong edition writes about it South China Morning Postadding that nationalist sentiment is on the rise on the mainland. And Beijing was warned against “forceful measures” if Pelosi did come to Taiwan. Observers are confident that China’s reaction will be an indicator of how confident China is under Xi Jinping.
The publication recalls that Pelosi’s visit to the self-governing island, which Beijing threatens to take control of even with the use of brute force, if necessary, could take place as part of her tour of Asia. It began with a visit to Singapore on Monday. But Pelosi has not yet confirmed that she is definitely going to visit the island.
Taiwan is a hypersensitive issue for Beijing, especially against the backdrop of US arms shipments and increased official contacts between Washington and Taipei, despite the lack of formal ties. In a phone call last week, Xi Jinping told Joe Biden that the US must adhere to the One China principle, and “those who play with fire will get burned.” Biden tried to reassure the Chinese leader that US policy towards Taiwan had not changed. However, he said that Washington is opposed to unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
If Pelosi does come to Taiwan, it will be the first visit by a top-level US official in 25 years. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said it would be a violation of Beijing’s “red line”. At the same time, the Chinese army conducted military exercises off the coast of Fujian province, which directly borders Taiwan.
All of this is happening at a very sensitive time for Beijing. Xi Jinping is going to become the leader of China for the third time against the rules. But the harsh response to the COVID-19 pandemic has hurt the economy. And relations with the West are deteriorating due to Chinese assertiveness and its tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Mainland Chinese analysts informed of the sentiment in Beijing told the South China Morning Post that the priority now is to avoid any major upheaval in relations with the US ahead of the Communist Party convention in the fall.
“Sino-American ties cannot further deteriorate. And that’s the tone the party set before the announcement of Pelosi’s potential visit to Taiwan. Beijing is very concerned about the escalation of the situation, especially if a conflict starts over a mistake“, – An anonymous analyst told the publication.
George Magnus, an economist at Oxford University’s China Center, said Beijing and Washington were in a tough spot.
“For China, Pelosi’s potential visit to Taiwan is a glove thrown down. And for the United States, this is turning a simple trip of a politician into a weapon. Both sides seem to feel compelled to react and resist accordingly.“, – he said.
Magnus said Xi Jinping will want to give the impression that he is “in control and brutal in dealing with what he sees as a provocation” amid internal and external challenges as he seeks to continue his power.
“I believe that nothing threatens his reappointment as head of state. But if he fails to stand up to the US, it could undermine his status and freedom of action, as well as encourage opponents now or during his new term in office.‘ Magnus explained.
Shi Yonghong, an expert on international relations at the Renmin University of China, believes that Beijing will not do anything that could escalate into a military conflict.
“Despite increasingly ominous signs, the fundamental situation of the Taiwan problem must be seen as fundamentally stable at its core. Each side has established its own clear boundaries and is convinced that military conflict should be avoided unless it is urgently needed.“, – he said.
For Beijing, the best scenario would be to cancel Pelosi’s visit.
“For Xi Jinping, this would be a big victory. He could take credit for successfully containing and confirming the essence of the Taiwan problem, which is that people like Pelosi cannot visit the island.,” said Dan Youven, former editor of the party newspaper Study Times.
But even if Pelosi shows up in Taiwan, it’s likely to be an unofficial visit. And Beijing will also be able to declare victory this way, says Alfred Wu, a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
“Nationalism and support for Xi Jinping in China is stronger than ever. Ordinary Chinese feel that their leader is strong. And because he can manipulate domestic propaganda, he is able to spread the claim that he scared the US away. And what should have been an official visit became unofficial‘, explained the professor.
Wu said Beijing will try to avoid an overreaction that would risk military conflict with Washington in the months before the Communist Party convention.
“Xi Jinping needs a narrative that China is stronger than the US. And that he personally commands everything. That’s what Beijing needs. Now in China, everything is connected with the desire of Xi Jinping to become the leader for the third time. This is the main agenda. Xi Jinping will shout loudly condemning the US to show the domestic public that he is strong“, – he said.
In turn, University of Chicago political scientist Dali Yang said that while Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan could worsen tensions with Washington, this is not necessarily a bad thing for Xi Jinping.
“An external challenge usually helps a party to strengthen its army and emphasize party leadership. And it certainly helps leaders with a nationalist agenda.“, the expert said, adding that Xi Jinping will have to “keep the situation under control.”
Gal Luft, director of the Washington-based Institute for Global Security Analysis, is confident that if Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan goes ahead, Beijing could launch missiles towards the island or send even more warships to its coast. However, the expert sees no reason for China to overreact.
“Xi Jinping is the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Why would he react to it at all?Luft said, adding that the party apparatus will no doubt try to use Pelosi’s visit for their own purposes. But, in his opinion, an overreaction to the trip of “an 80-year-old politician who will soon lose his post as speaker will be a manifestation of insecurity, which means that there will be more similar events.”