The visit to Taiwan by the U.S. House Speaker and veteran Democrat politician, Nancy Pelosi, has risked triggering a fourth Taiwan Strait crisis and a dangerous escalation amid already worsening relations between the world’s two biggest powers. Ms. Pelosi is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Taiwan in 25 years — the first by a House Speaker since Newt Gingrich’s trip in 1997. That visit took place in the aftermath of the third Taiwan Strait crisis, when China conducted missile tests in response to then Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui visiting the U.S. In a phone call on July 28, U.S. President Biden sought to assure his counterpart, Xi Jinping, that “the U.S. policy has not changed”. But that does not seem to be the view in Beijing. As China’s Foreign Ministry put it on August 2, in its view, Washington, going back to the days of the Trump administration, has been gradually “hollowing out” its “One China Policy”. In the call, Mr. Xi warned Mr. Biden that “those who play with fire will perish by it” and said he “hoped that the U.S will be clear-eyed” about the consequences. Beijing has responded by announcing military drills near Taiwan. More countermeasures could follow.
This latest crisis comes at a time when China-U.S. relations are already on edge. This explains why even officials in the Biden administration and the U.S. military had called on Ms. Pelosi to reconsider. Ironically, that prospect was likely diminished by China’s stern public warnings, which all but ensured the trip would go ahead as a cancellation would have been politically costly for the Biden administration. Domestic political considerations appear to be driving both sides into their respective corners in this entirely avoidable crisis. Mr. Xi is three months away from a politically sensitive Party Congress that will mark the start of his third term. White House officials have made the point that Ms. Pelosi represents a different branch of government and members of Congress have travelled previously to Taiwan. That the visit appears to have been driven largely by Ms. Pelosi, who has been sharply critical of China’s policies in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, rather than by the Biden administration, has not appeared to have assuaged Beijing. A sharp response, in Beijing’s view, would dissuade other countries from engaging with Taiwan at higher political levels. It may also burnish Mr. Xi’s status at home. The fact that neither side wants, nor can afford, a military confrontation may yet see the current tensions defused with each side walking away and claiming a show of strength for their domestic audiences. The latest crisis has, however, made clear the perilous state of relations between the world’s two biggest powers. It is unlikely to be the last.
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