After weeks of intense speculation and rattling sabers, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, is expected to visit the self-governing island of Taiwan. The top US lawmaker did not include Taiwan on his official itinerary of a tour of Asia that began with visits to Singapore and Malaysia.
Recent reports suggest Pelosi will visit Taiwan before heading to Northeast Asia, but the length and nature of her visit remains a mystery. No one knows for sure whether the speaker will meet with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen or another senior local official, as other senior US officials have done during recent visits to the island.
The last time a speaker of the US House of Representatives visited Taipei was in 1997, when Rep. Newt Gingrich sought to show solidarity and support for self-governing democracy after the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, in which both Both Washington and Beijing have shown military muscle in the region. This time, Pelosi will visit the island amid the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, which has run out of steam very eerie comparisons with the situation in Taiwan.
Many fear that the visit by the Speaker of the US House of Representatives will exacerbate the crisis. After all, China considers the self-governing island a “renegade province” that must eventually be fully reintegrated into the mainland. And the Asian power is increasingly worried about Washington’s expanding diplomatic and military support for Taiwan.
On July 25, China’s foreign ministry warned that a possible visit by Pelosi would lead to “serious consequences” for which the US would have to take full responsibility. A few days later, on July 28, in a long-awaited phone call with US President Joseph Biden, China’s Supreme Leader Xi Jinping repeated the warning and warned Washington not to “play[ing] with fire”. Just yesterday, China’s UN ambassador Zhang Jun again described Pelosi’s expected visit as “dangerous” and “provocative” and said it would be met with “firm and strict measures to protect our national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Accordingly, both the US and Chinese armed forces have taken preparatory measures ahead of the visit.
Concerns are now growing that the coming days and weeks could see a significant escalation in the ongoing US-China rivalry, with several commentators warning that the House speaker’s visit could even spark a full-scale military confrontation.
So how did the situation get to this point, and what could be the immediate and long-term consequences of Pelosi’s expected visit to the island?
Taiwanese scholar Hsiao-ting Lin aptly describes his country as a “chance condition” that is less “the result of deliberate deliberation and planning” by protagonists than “the result of many ad hoc, individualistic factors and decisions related to war or maintaining an alliance or even a coincidence’.
Once home to Austronesian peoples and later divided between various European powers and Chinese dynasties, the island of Taiwan was occupied by Imperial Japan in the late 19th century following the First Sino-Japanese War. Unlike the brutal occupation of Korea and many other Southeast Asian countries by Tokyo over the next few decades, the colonization of Taiwan was, in the words of one historian“relatively orderly, peaceful and productive”.
The result of the “orderly” occupation was the creation of a modern state with relatively high levels of economic and educational standards. At the end of World War II, Japanese forces withdrew from Taiwan. But it was not the departure of Japanese forces, but the civil war between Communist and Nationalist forces in mainland China that made Taiwan what it is today. After a series of major defeats at the hands of Maoist forces, the Kuomintang (KMT), led by Chiang Kai-shek, retreated to the island.
It was at this point that the US entered the picture, deploying the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet to the region in defense of the KMT forces. The presence of American troops in the area effectively froze the conflict and prevented the CCP from pursuing its rivals and occupying Taiwan. On many occasions, Beijing and Taipei almost came to blows, but US intervention, most dramatically by deploying multiple aircraft carriers in the Taiwan Strait in the mid-1990s, proved crucial in maintaining the fragile status quo.
Although since the early 1970s the US has had a “one China” policy that recognizes Beijing as the sole official representative of both the mainland and Taiwan, successive US administrations have maintained strong defense and diplomatic ties with the self-ruled island under The Taiwan Relations Act.
In return for its support, Washington expected Taipei to refrain from provocative actions, including a declaration of formal independence from mainland China. The so-called1992 Consensus,” with both Taipei and Beijing acknowledging that there is, after all, one China, without clarifying under whose rule, represented an important step toward building peace.
Some Taiwanese leaders, such as President Ma Yingzhou, have gone a step further by rapidly expanding diplomatic and economic ties with China. At times, both sides even discussed the possibility of Taiwan’s peaceful accession to China based on the “one country, two systems” model governing Hong Kong.
But tectonic shifts in domestic political positions and the regional balance of power have unleashed dangerous dynamics in the Taiwan Strait. On the one hand, China has become more assertive in its foreign policy, especially since the ascension of Xi Jinping, who has vowed to carry out the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and pursue the “Chinese dream” of turning his nation into a global superpower.
To that end, Xi has made it clear that he will use “all necessary means” to reincorporate Taiwan into China and defend his country’s territorial claims in the region. Under his supervision, China is developing rapidly its conventional and asymmetric military capabilities, dramatically undermining America’s military preeminence in the region.
Meanwhile, local nationalism and independence sentiment is gaining momentum in Taiwan. Back in the mid-1990s, more than the half residents of Taiwan identified as “Chinese and Taiwanese”. In 2020, a Pew Research Center survey showed that only four percent considered themselves Chinese, with as many as two-thirds of the population self-identifying as purely “Taiwanese”. In addition, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), from which President Tsai hails, has become the dominant political force in the country, managing to win in both the 2016 presidential and parliamentary elections.
Concerns have deepened in China that Taiwan is drifting away from the mainland despite the growing economic and social interdependence seen under Xi. That’s why Beijing’s efforts to intimidate Taipei have intensified in recent years, including large-scale exercises in the Taiwan Strait, open threats of military invasion and increased deployment of fighter jets in Taiwan’s airspace.
Meanwhile, eager to assert its regional leadership and reassure its allies in Asia, the US has taken steps to deepen its diplomatic and military ties with Taipei, which has become increasingly important to the West as the world’s leading semiconductor producer.
The US Congress recently approved several packages of massive arms exports to Taiwan, while high-ranking US officials, including a cabinet member and several lawmakers, visited the self-ruled island. Bilateral military exercises, in which even US special forces now participate, have also stepped up accordingly.
Pelosi’s expected visit to Taipei will mark the latest and most high-profile visit to date by a senior US official. After intensive talks with his Chinese counterparts, Biden did so expressed his reservations about the planned trip. And yet the US president himself has repeatedly stated that America has a mutual defense obligation to Taiwan in the event of a conflict with China, even if such assurances are not explicitly mentioned in more generally formulated Taiwan Relations Act.
Sensing growing bipartisan support for Taiwan, the Biden administration began lending more support to Pelosi’s visit, with National Security Council spokesman John Kirby warning China not to turn[ing] potential visit in line with long-standing US policy in some kind of crisis or to use it as a pretext to increase aggressive military activity in or around the Taiwan Strait”.
China deployed several fighter jets to Taiwan’s airspace on Monday as the Asian power stepped up military exercises in the region. But as one Chinese academic acknowledged, any military response “will not get out of hand,” even if “it will be a very strong response.”
With the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – which will mark a dramatic change in local leadership – just months away and the country faces severe economic slowdown, Xi is likely to avoid a major military confrontation. He is most likely to voice his displeasure with, among other things, increasing military deployments across the Taiwan Strait, conducting large-scale military exercises in the area and, in the most extreme case, as in the mid-1990s, firing missiles near to Taiwanese shores in the coming days and weeks.
The problem, however, is that even calibrated military maneuvers could risk major incidents and cause unforeseen escalation between protagonists. And even if Pelosi’s visit does not spark a major military confrontation in the coming days, the two superpowers still face a stark choice amid rapidly shifting nationalist sentiment and the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. The geopolitical mess surrounding the visit by the speaker of the US House of Representatives is likely to mark the opening salvo in a long and increasingly dangerous struggle over Taiwan’s future.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.