FORMER US SECRETARY of State Mike Pompeo would probably be the most provocative travelling companion imaginable for Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, if she makes her much-discussed trip to Taiwan next month.
On July 24, Pompeo, an arch-China hawk even by the standards of former Trump administration officials, offered to accompany Pelosi on her controversial trip, even though she has not confirmed when, or even if, she would visit Taipei.
If she goes, Pelosi would be the most senior serving US official to visit Taiwan since one of her predecessors as Speaker, Newt Gingrich, a quarter of a century ago.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian yesterday repeated Beijing’s uncompromising opposition to the trip:
The Chinese side has repeatedly made clear to the US side our serious concern over Speaker Pelosi’s potential visit to Taiwan and our firm opposition to the visit. We are fully prepared for any eventuality. If the US side insists on making the visit, the Chinese side will take firm and strong measures to safeguard our sovereignty and territorial integrity. The US must assume full responsibility for any serious consequence arising thereof.
China has reportedly backed up its open threats of retaliation if the visit occurs with stronger than usual warnings through official back channels. The US military is understood to have been told that her plane would not be allowed to land, although it is unclear how China would enforce that.
Whether Pelosi flew in on a military plane or a commercial flight, shooting it down, or even intimidating it would be an act that the United States could not let pass without a strong, probably military response. President Xi Jinping would need to be extremely sure of his ground to let that unfold ahead of the autumn’s Party Congress (or be in a position of desperation, of which there is little to no evidence).
US President Joe Biden said on July 20 that ‘the military thinks it’s not a good idea’ for Pelosi to visit Taiwan. The White House would prefer the trip not to go ahead. It has already been postponed once, after Pelosi contracted Covid-19 in the spring. Yet, given the public discussion about the trip and China’s warnings, Pelosi’s not going would be seen in both Beijing and Washington as a US climb down in the face of Chinese pressure.
Biden said last week that he intends to hold his next conversation with Xi by the end of the month, offering some prospect of a diplomatic de-escalation of the rising tensions over Taiwan. His case will not be helped by efforts in the US Congress to pass a resolution formally abandoning the One China policy, although it has a low chance of passing in this Congress. The next Congress, if Republican-controlled as is possible after November’s elections, would be another matter.
Beijing has been responding to what it sees as Washington salami-slicing the One-China policy through increasing acts of US support for Taipei by ratcheting up its squeeze on Taiwan diplomatically, economically and especially through military intimidation. The risk in tit-for-tat retaliation is always an accidental clash that escalates into a bigger crisis.