China has more to lose if Pelosi visits Taiwan

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s impending visit to Taiwan will be the first visit by a House Speaker in 25 years. Amidst this, China’s fiery language on Taiwan in the readout is a sign that Xi is desperate and is keen on preventing a direct confrontation with the United States over Taiwan.

On July 28, Chinese President Xi Jinping and United States President Joe Biden spoke on a phone call that lasted for over two hours. While the United States made a prior announcement about the call, there was no statement from the Chinese side.

Xi and Biden have not met in an in-person summit yet, but this was the fifth call between the two leaders since Biden assumed the presidency in January 2021. The Chinese readout called the exchange candid and in-depth. The Chinese side made it a point to emphasise that the call was arranged at Biden’s request.

Despite growing tensions and challenges, such exchanges indicate that the two sides are willing to ease tensions in relations. The call is significant for a number of reasons, but both sides have different reasons to keep lines of communication open.

For the United States, China’s support to Russia in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war is still a major hindrance in countering Russia. In this context, the United States department spokesperson said, “China claims to be neutral, but its behavior makes clear that it is still investing in close ties to Russia.”

However, maintaining regular exchanges with the United States is more important for China at the moment. Taiwan has been a major factor in China-United States ties and was discussed extensively during this call as well. On Taiwan, the Chinese readout was full of the usual rhetoric and threatening tone, “Those who play with fire will perish by it. It is hoped that the United States will be clear-eyed about this. The United States should honour the one-China principle and implement the three joint communiqués, both in word and in deed.”

The timing of the call is noteworthy as it took place within a few days of the leak of the news of potential visit of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, to Taiwan in August. It was reported that she is to take a bipartisan House delegation to Taiwan. Polesi was supposed to visit Taiwan in April but the speculated visit was cancelled because she tested positive for COVID-19.

Cost for China is higher

Pelosi’s potential visit to Taiwan would be the first visit by a House Speaker in 25 years. The last visit by an incumbent House of Representatives Speaker was by Newt Gingrich in 1997.

The details of Polesi’s potential Taiwan visit should have remained discreet but what is more problematic was how Biden responded. On the speculations over Pelosi’s visit, he told reporters, “The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now, but I don’t know what the status of it is.”

Expectedly, the Chinese Foreign Ministry and media turned even more ballistic and again accused the United States of violating the so-called One-China Policy. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson even warned the United States that “China will take strong and resolute measures to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The United States must assume full responsibility for any ensuing consequences.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry statements and the fiery language on Taiwan in the readout is a sign that Xi is desperate and is keen on preventing a direct confrontation with the United States over Taiwan.

August 1, 2022, is the 95th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the 20th party congress is scheduled to take place later this year. Xi is likely to be re-elected as General Secretary for another term.

In the midst of such important developments, he does not want to deal with the issue of Taiwan. He has to justify to the domestic audience that he is worthy of becoming the president for life, but Taiwan is one issue that could make him appear weak if he does not respond aggressively to growing exchanges between Taiwan and the United States.

However, even if Pelosi decides to visit Taiwan, it does not mean there will be a war. Xi won’t start a war that China can’t win. Probable reactions from China might include sanctioning Pelosi, more encroachment into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification zone, and escalation in China’s gray zone activities against Taiwan. It is unlikely that Pelosi’s visit, if it takes place at all, will lead to the fourth Taiwan Strait crisis.

No doubt that if China and the United States ever go to war, it will be over Taiwan. This is precisely the reason why the Chinese invasion of Taiwan is not imminent, not in the near future. Therefore, the Xi-Biden call was also an opportunity for Xi to persuade Biden to discourage Pelosi to visit Taiwan.

Taiwan in a bind

No major reaction to Pelosi’s potential visit has come out of Taiwan yet. While most commentaries and pundits have focused on the United States’ actions and China’s angry reactions, the commentary on what Taiwan wants is largely missing.

China’s aggression is mounting and what Taiwan needs is assurance and the support of its partners, particularly the United States. Pelosi not going ahead with the visit might embolden China to coerce Taiwan further. If the visit is called off, it would be disappointing for Taiwan specifically after the Xi-Biden call. Calling it off means the United States is bowing to China and paying attention to China’s sensitivities while neglecting Taiwan completely.

To some extent, it will have repercussions on Taiwan-United States ties as well. It might lead Taiwan to rethink the United States’ commitment. Even if the visit is symbolic, it will be important to show Taiwan it is not alone in its fight against an aggressor. Perhaps, this is the right time to seriously consider what Taiwan wants and make sure that Taiwan does not just become a pawn in the China-United States rivalry.

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