Nancy Pelosi has left Taiwan. The real crisis may be just beginning

F OR MORE than a decade, first as vice-president and now as president, Joe Biden has told the Chinese that the only thing worse than an intended conflict is an unintended one. The accident he feared may now be materialising. A visit by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, to the self-governing island of Taiwan has enraged the rulers of mainland China, who claim it, and wrong-footed the Biden administration. Some are already speaking of the “Fourth Taiwan Strait crisis”, which is liable to be worse than the third confrontation of 1995-96.

As Ms Pelosi’s plane approached Taiwan late on August 2nd—taking a circuitous route from Malaysia around the Philippines to avoid the South China Sea, which is dotted with Chinese bases—military commanders in Beijing announced a series of “targeted operations”. They include, ominously, live-fire drills around Taiwan (see map). These will be spread so widely that they may amount to a blockade of the island. The Chinese armed forces said the exercises would begin on August 4th, the day after Ms Pelosi’s departure, and last for four days. Chinese media said air and sea traffic should stay away from six designated areas that encircle the island and in some cases overlap with its territorial waters. The creation of a live-fire range on the far side of Taiwan from China suggests that China may fire ballistic missiles over the island. Some airlines were reportedly cancelling flights. Unusually, Chinese jets have pressed against the “median line” in the Taiwan Strait, the unofficial frontier between Chinese and Taiwanese waters and airspace. As is more customary, they also probed Taiwan’s air-defence identification zone farther south. Some worry that China may also try in some way to enforce its assertion, aired publicly in recent months, that the Taiwan Strait is not an international waterway. Separately, the mainland announced a ban on imports from Taiwan of agricultural goods, fish and many other products. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, echoed earlier warnings from Xi Jinping, China’s leader: “Those who play with fire will not come to a good end; those who offend China will surely be punished.” Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s low-key president, tried to balance a warm welcome for Ms Pelosi with calm and resolve: “Facing deliberately heightened military threats, Taiwan will not back down; we will firmly uphold our nation’s sovereignty and continue to hold the line of defence for democracy.”

China’s most jingoistic commentators had been calling for Ms Pelosi’s plane to be shot down. But China appears to be trying to avoid any sort of direct military confrontation with America. At any rate, the American aircraft-carrier and other naval vessels sailing to the east of Taiwan have not been threatened. But Ms Pelosi’s departure for South Korea is unlikely to end the crisis; it is probably just the beginning. A commentary in China’s Global Times, a tub-thumping state-run tabloid in English, predicted: “China’s countermeasures will not be one-off but a combination of long-term, resolute and steadily advancing actions.” China-watchers believe cross-strait relations are at an “inflection point”, and that China will keep turning up the pressure.

Biden in a bind

The Biden administration seems resigned to a spiral of worsening relations. “China has positioned itself to take further steps, and we expect that they will continue to react over a longer-term horizon,” said John Kirby, a White House spokesman. He insisted that the trip by Ms Pelosi, who is second in the line of succession to the president and the first House speaker to visit the island in 25 years, did not mark a change in America’s “one-China” policy. America would not engage in sabre-rattling, he declared; nor would it be intimidated.

There is considerable discomfort within Mr Biden’s administration, though. It had warned Ms Pelosi—who, like Mr Biden, is a Democrat—against making the trip. Ms Pelosi’s Republican foes in Congress, in turn, lined up to praise her. “I’m about to use four words in a row that I haven’t used in this way before,” said Roy Blunt, a Republican senator from Missouri. “Those four words are, ‘Speaker Pelosi was right’.”

If Ms Pelosi has any regrets about the uproar she has created, she is not showing it. “Now, more than ever, America’s solidarity with Taiwan is crucial and that is the message we are bringing here today,” she said at a meeting with Ms Tsai. Echoing one of Mr Biden’s catchphrases, she went on: “The world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy. America’s determination to preserve democracy here in Taiwan and around the world remains ironclad.”

Ms Pelosi said a new law to encourage chipmaking in America would create economic opportunities for Taiwan. She also hinted at a possible future trade deal. Ms Tsai presented her with the Order of Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon, given to those who have made outstanding contributions to Taiwan. Well-wishers on the streets in Taipei cheered Ms Pelosi as she went to meet politicians and visited the National Human Rights Museum, where she was due to have private meetings with Chinese dissidents and Taiwanese who had fought to establish democracy. Taipei 101, the tallest building on the island, lit up with greetings such as “Thank you, friend of democracy” and “Taiwan [heart] USA”. But there were also critics of her visit, some of whom called her an “arsonist”.

For all the solidarity Ms Pelosi sought to express, Taiwan’s position looks more precarious after her trip. The island has long been stuck in a dangerous grey zone in the contest between America and China. It is a democracy of 24m people and historically part of China, but wants nothing to do with the communist regime that rules over 1.4bn mainlanders and claims Taiwan as its own. Though Taiwan is the world’s most important exporter of advanced semiconductors, its statehood is recognised by only about a dozen (mostly tiny) countries. China has tried to limit its relationships. For Mr Xi reunification has become central to his quest for “national rejuvenation” by mid-century—peacefully if possible, but through force if necessary.

Under a contorted diplomatic formula, America accepts that there is only one China, without spelling out what that means in practice. It has no formal diplomatic links with Taiwan, although it maintains close relations under other labels. America insists that the status of Taiwan can be settled only by peaceful means. Domestic legislation requires it to “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” and to maintain its own military capacity to defend the island. Yet America also follows a policy of “strategic ambiguity”, whereby it does not clearly state whether and how it would intervene in the event of a war between China and Taiwan.

Pelosi’s purpose

Ms Pelosi made her trip for several reasons, personal and political. She has been known as a caustic critic of China and its abuse of human rights at least since 1991, when she unfurled a banner in Tiananmen Square to protest against the killing of protesters there two years earlier. She had planned to visit Taiwan in April but postponed the trip after contracting covid-19. At the age of 82, she is almost certainly in her last term as speaker (the Democrats are expected to lose the House in mid-term elections in November). She may see the visit as part of her legacy.

When news of Ms Pelosi’s trip leaked last month, Mr Biden said that military chiefs thought the trip was “not a good idea”. But as China denounced the visit ever more loudly, the high-ups in Washington were trapped. To cancel the visit would be to yield to Chinese bullying. And as a former senator, Mr Biden did not want to challenge the prerogatives of Congress, a “co-equal” branch of America’s government.

There is probably never a good moment for such a high-profile American visit. But Bonnie Glaser of the German Marshall Fund, a think-tank in Washington, argues that the timing was particularly poor. It coincided with the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, always a time for jingoism (“Prepare for war”, declared one poster). More important, Mr Xi is just a few months away from a crucial party congress at which he is seeking to secure a third term, violating recent norms. “Xi Jinping really cannot be seen as soft on the United States,” said Ms Glaser. “He has to demonstrate determination to defend China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The fact that Ms Pelosi is of the same party as Mr Biden adds insult to injury: in Chinese eyes Mr Biden is either weak or conniving.

China complains that America is “salami-slicing” the one-China policy, although Ms Pelosi’s visit does not run counter to any specific American commitments. Mr Biden himself has sowed confusion by repeatedly saying he would defend Taiwan, only for White House officials to walk back his comments. Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper, former secretaries of state and of defence under Donald Trump, have recently called for America to abandon strategic ambiguity, or even abrogate the one-China policy by treating Taiwan like any other independent state.

Jude Blanchette of the Centre for International and Strategic Studies, another think-tank, argues that adding to the sensitivity is a fear on all sides that time is running out. American leaders worry that China might launch an invasion in the next few years. Chinese rulers fear that Taiwan is slipping from their grip as it leans further towards independence. Taiwanese leaders fret that America is distracted by the war in Ukraine and problems at home.

Mr Biden has met Mr Xi several times by video—not yet in person—and has urged China to agree to cold-war-style “guardrails” to manage the contest between the two countries. This may have helped avoid an immediate military incident during Ms Pelosi’s visit, but may not contain a longer-term confrontation. “Pelosi’s visit breaks the norms and patterns for the last 25 years or even longer. But the drills and the exercises that China is conducting are unprecedented as well,” says Wang Huiyao, head of the Centre for China and Globalisation, a think-tank in Beijing. “It symbolises a break away from the status quo on both sides, which is not healthy.”

If China’s exercises turn into a de facto blockade of Taiwan, Mr Biden will have to decide whether to interpose American forces, as Bill Clinton did by sending warships through the Taiwan Strait in 1996. That will impose a greater military burden on America than on China, notes Mr Wang. For its part, the G7 club of industrialised countries told China “there is no justification to use a visit as pretext for aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait”, and urged all sides “to remain calm, exercise restraint, act with transparency, and maintain open lines of communication to prevent misunderstanding.”

In the quarter-century since the last big crisis, China has grown richer, more powerful and, under Mr Xi, more belligerent. Taiwan’s survival, argues Mr Blanchette, depends on preserving the status quo, thereby encouraging China to treat the island’s fate as a problem best left for another day. By going to Taiwan, Ms Pelosi may have wanted to do away with diplomatic obfuscation and create a moment of moral clarity about America’s support for Taiwan. She may also have created a moment of danger. ■