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Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan came at the worst possible moment. What now

Xi Jinping is going through a difficult period as he enters an unusual third term for China as CPC General Secretary, a decision on which is just around the corner. Biden could face big challenges in the midterm congressional elections. In Ukraine, a critical situation has developed for the current Ukrainian government, supported by the United States. In the Taiwan Strait, the chance of an accidental military clash increases as the PLA escalates its military demonstrations dramatically.

“Worst Moment”

Well-known columnist for The New York Times, Thomas Friedman, commented on a report on the possibility of a visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan on August 1, calling it “reckless.” While the US and Europe are focused on the Russian special operation in Ukraine, why are they provoking China, which does not seem to support Moscow directly?

There are several other good reasons for the bad timing of the visit by the US establishment. Chinese President Xi Jinping will be re-elected for a third term as General Secretary at the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in October, breaking the tradition of his predecessors who limited themselves to two terms in power. The economic situation in the country also worries Xi, who finds himself in a politically delicate situation. Gross domestic product growth remained at 0.4% in the second quarter due to lockdown due to a new wave of the coronavirus pandemic and other factors.

President Xi has made “unification with Taiwan” one of the goals of “rebuilding the Chinese nation.” However, US President Joe Biden has said three times since taking office that he could intervene directly militarily in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The White House has declined to comment each time, but Biden’s remarks, which seem to have thrown aside Washington’s long-held “strategic ambiguity” about Taiwan defense, have made China even more sensitive. U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns said relations between the two countries had reached “the lowest point” since 1972, when both sides began moving towards normalization. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement that President Xi said in a telephone conversation with President Biden last week on the Taiwan issue that “he who plays with fire will burn himself” speaks to the high tension in the relationship. Many assume that President Xi, who is about to enter his third term, will not want to show weakness, and the same can be said for President Biden ahead of the midterm elections in November.

Pelosi has a famous episode in the history of her political activities when, together with fellow lawmakers in 1991, during a visit to Beijing, she exhibited a poster on Tiananmen Square, which read in English and Chinese: “To those who gave their lives for democracy in China. She met with the Dalai Lama, who is considered a national traitor by the Chinese government, and visited Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan-populated Tibet Autonomous Region.

David Sachs of the US Council on Foreign Relations wrote in Foreign Affairs that “during past crises, China has been the most interested party in maintaining a constructive relationship with the United States.” Cases include the third Taiwan Strait crisis in 1995-1996, the “accidental” bombing by the US military of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999, and the collision of Chinese fighter jets with US spy planes in 2001. “But I think that Xi Jinping has nothing else to rely on to develop such approaches now that US-China relations have deteriorated so quickly,” he added.

China’s reaction to the fact that Chairman Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has become a fait accompli has been unprecedentedly poignant. The Chinese military has announced that it will conduct exercises in the South China Sea from August 2 to 6, and has issued a warning that ships will not enter the area. On July 31, the PLA also released a video showing a projectile, believed to be a Dongfeng (DF)-17 hypersonic missile, being launched from a mobile launcher. This is the first public footage of the DF-17 launch.

There are various predictions about how aggressive China will behave in the near future. There is a strong opinion that Beijing will hold large-scale military exercises and increase the number of military aircraft included in the Taiwan air defense identification zone. Last November, the Chinese military sent 27 military aircraft to the area shortly after a delegation of US congressmen visited Taiwan. There is also the possibility of a strong Chinese response by launching missiles into the Taiwan Strait, as was the case during the third Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996. Recently, a scenario was even voiced according to which China, which denies recognition of the Taiwan Strait as international, has in mind the blockade of this waterway.

However, in the face of a major political event in the PRC – the 20th Congress of the CPC – it is very likely that President Xi will not try to push the situation to the extreme. The US and Chinese leaders decided to continue face-to-face talks. However, the large-scale deployment of military aircraft and naval ships around Taiwan increases the possibility of an accidental conflict between the PLA and the Taiwanese and US military forces, with grave consequences.

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