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Pelosi Taiwan trip overrides Chinese military threats

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will visit Taiwan on Tuesday, decisively ending weeks of wrangling between the United States and China about whether she should make the trip.

Pelosi’s controversial stop in Taipei, which would make her the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the self-governing island in decades, indicates that the Pentagon has downgraded its assessment of a potential credible Chinese military threat to the speaker’s safety.

Beijing has strongly protested Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and issued lurid warnings of a stern Chinese response. “A visit to Taiwan by her would constitute a gross interference in China’s internal affairs … and lead to a very serious situation and grave consequences,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Monday.

Despite the rhetoric, Pelosi’s Taiwan visit — part of a congressional trip to four Asian countries — suggests that both sides have come to a grudging accommodation that will allow it to proceed while mitigating the potential for miscalculations at a time of heightened bilateral tensions. “Part of our responsibilities is to make sure that she can travel freely and securely and I can assure you that she will,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Monday, without elaborating.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the military-to-military are having conversations … to make sure there’s no accident that could happen,” said Ret. Command Chief Master Sergeant in the United States Air Force, Dennis Fritz, director of the Eisenhower Media Network.

Such bilateral military discussions, though unconfirmed, are likely to occur in tandem with diplomatic outreach to ensure that Beijing has adequate clarity on Pelosi’s trip to reduce the possibility of dangerous misinterpretations of U.S. intentions.

“In advance of her arrival in Taiwan, the U.S. will relay detailed information about Speaker Pelosi’s flight plans to China’s military,” said Craig Singleton, senior China fellow at the nonprofit Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “U.S. officials will also message, publicly, and privately, the trip’s very limited goals and Washington’s continued adherence to its ‘One China’ policy … [and] work to shape and downplay the media coverage surrounding the trip.”

Pelosi said earlier this month that the Pentagon had hinted her plane “would get shot down” if her visit went ahead.

President Joe Biden amplified those concerns when he stated earlier this month that the U.S. military assessment of the proposed trip was that “it’s not a good idea right now.”

Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Snr. Col. Tan Kefei fanned those fears when he warned last week that a Pelosi visit to the self-governing island would prompt “further escalation of tension across the Taiwan Straits.” U.S. officials have concluded in recent days that China’s belligerence is an intimidation tactic, the congressional official said.

That rhetoric reflects the Chinese government’s efforts to push back on long-established standards of U.S. engagement with the self-governing island. U.S. congressional delegation visits to Taiwan are routine and U.S. law — the 2018 Taiwan Travel Act — authorizes “officials at all levels of the United States government … to meet their Taiwanese counterparts.”

But the Chinese Communist Party considers “reunification with Taiwan,” a territory that the CCP has never ruled, a “historical task.” And Chinese President Xi Jinping has ramped up pressure on the island with a relentless campaign of hostility since the 2016 election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party.

That tough-on-Taiwan policy is key to Xi’s credibility as he seeks an unprecedented third term as China’s leader this fall. Earlier this month, Liu Jieyi, director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, described “national reunification” — Beijing’s shorthand for a Taiwan takeover — as an “inevitable requirement” of Xi’s hawkish “national rejuvenation” policy.

“The fairly aggressive statements we’ve had from China over the past few weeks are probably more for domestic than international [consumption] — the Chinese leadership cannot be seen as backing down in any shape or form,” said Ret. Vice Adm. Robert B. Murrett, professor of practice at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. “President Xi can’t be seen as backing down from what could be viewed as a challenge by the speaker’s visit to Taiwan and at the same time, politically, the Congress and the [Biden] administration can’t be viewed as backing down, either.”

Beijing backed its criticism of Pelosi’s travel plans with “live fire exercises” on Saturday off the coast of Fujian opposite Taiwan. In the lead-up to Pelosi’s arrival in Taiwan, China’s Maritime Safety Administration warned on Monday — the politically sensitive 95th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army — of an additional five days of military exercises in the area starting Tuesday.

Those exercises shouldn’t endanger Pelosi’s visit, however. But the PLA is expected to flex some muscle in the Taiwan Strait — something that Chinese state media can trumpet as a symbol of Xi’s iron resolve — and which projects power over Taiwan without risking military confrontation.

“PLA Air Force aircraft [could shadow] her flight into or out of Taiwan…but there wouldn’t be any interaction,” Murrett said. “Aircraft for countries that are not friendly to each other [shadow] each other all the time … it’s typically handled very effectively.”

The Pelosi visit will inevitably fuel the Chinese government’s suspicions regarding U.S. policy toward Taiwan and may prompt a longer-term intensification of ongoing military intimidation of the island.

“I do think there will be some form of retaliation,” Fritz said. “You’re going to see more [PLA] live fire drills — they’re going to be more active, there’s no question.”

Andrew Desiderio, Alexander Ward and Matt Berg contributed to this report.

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