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Monday, May 27, 2024

A Pelosi Trip to Taiwan Would Test China’s Appetite for Confrontation

Soon after Beijing’s most recent major confrontation with the United States over Taiwan, Xi Jinping joined a reserve artillery division. At the time, he was a rising official in a Chinese province that faces the disputed island. Later, he had himself photographed in military greens, cap turned backward as he peered through the sights of an antiaircraft gun.

Mr. Xi realised even before he became China’s top leader that showing toughness toward the island’s self-rule is necessary for political survival in the Communist Party, which is China’s main political party.

This lesson looms large over him as he mulls over how to respond in the event that Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, visits Taiwan on her tour of Asian countries, which started on Monday in Singapore. Since the former speaker, Newt Gingrich, came to the island in 1997, she would be the most senior official from the United States to visit the island since then.

Mr. Xi has portrayed himself as the standard-bearer of a holy cause, which is the unification of Taiwan and China. Beijing views trips to the island by American officials as an assault to that claim, and it is important to note that Mr. If Ms. Pelosi travels to Taiwan, as is widely anticipated, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs will threaten her with “severe repercussions,” and China’s military has given ambiguous threats of its willingness to protect the country’s national sovereignty.

However, Mr. Xi is also dealing with a precarious economic and political time, and careening into a crisis over Taiwan may undermine him even as he gains support from nationalists.

His attention is now centred on a congress of the Communist Party that will take place later this year. At that meeting, he is extremely expected to win support for a third term as the general secretary of the party, breaking the norm of two terms established by his immediate predecessor. He hopes that by orchestrating widespread praise from authorities, he would be able to get a new five-year term and assure that he will continue to control choices about the leadership lineup.

The fact that China’s economy has slowed down due to Covid outbreaks and shutdowns, as well as the fact that Russia’s protracted conflict in Ukraine has sparked suspicions about Mr. Xi’s connection to President Vladimir V. Putin, have led to muttered reservations about his record. Now, the possibility of Ms. Pelosi meeting with officials from Taiwan might provide a further challenge to Mr. Xi.

But at least for the time being, the Communist Party’s main newspapers have not published editorials about Ms. Pelosi’s possible visit that would signal a major escalation. In addition, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has not issued anything comparable to the authoritative statement that exacerbated the standoff over Taiwan in 1995. Both of these factors indicate that the situation is likely to remain relatively stable for the foreseeable future.

One of the alternatives available to Mr. Xi for taking retaliatory action is to conduct intimidating military exercises, maybe in the waters and airspace closer to Taiwan. He might also deploy more aircraft and ships close to Taiwan, including by passing the median line in the Taiwan Strait, which is an unofficial limit that Chinese troops do not cross very often.

Gerald Brown, a military analyst in Washington who collects and analyses data on those flights, said that after other American politicians and foreign delegations visited Taiwan, Beijing increased the number of flights into Taiwan’s “air defence identification zone,” which is an area that goes well beyond the island’s sovereign airspace. Brown is the one who collects and analyses data on those flights. China sent 27 military jets into the zone in November, not long after legislators from the United States visited Taipei.

In the worst case scenario, China might launch missiles near Taiwan, just as it did in 1996. However, at that time, China’s armed forces were not powerful enough to pose a significant danger to American troops operating across the area. If Mr. Xi were to act in the same manner at this time, the worldwide shock waves may be considerably more severe.

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