Pelosi Stares Down Xi’s Threats, Giving China A Reality Check

In roughly 24 hours, Chinese officials and propagandists went from warning of a powder keg to pleading for patience.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Nancy Pelosi on her visit to Taiwan. (Source:&nbsp;Nancy Pelosi’s official twitter account)</p></div>
Nancy Pelosi on her visit to Taiwan. (Source: Nancy Pelosi’s official twitter account)

In roughly 24 hours, Chinese officials and propagandists went from warning of a powder keg to pleading for patience as Beijing struggled to articulate a cohesive response to Nancy Pelosi’s landmark trip to Taiwan.

Ahead of Pelosi’s visit, the first by a US House speaker in 25 years, President Xi Jinping warned the Biden administration would get “burned” while nationalist Chinese commentators suggested she would “ignite the powder keg.”

Yet after Pelosi landed safely, stayed the night in Taipei and hailed US-Taiwan ties in a meeting with President Tsai Ing-wen, China’s tone shifted from belligerent to defensive. At a briefing on Wednesday afternoon, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying asked the public to give the government more time to follow through on threats to punish the US and Taiwan.

“We will do what we have said,” she said. “So please have some patience about that.”

China’s response to Pelosi reflects the complexity of dealing with Taiwan, the pragmatism of the Communist Party and Xi’s own political situation. The 69-year-old leader has been focused on eliminating risks to extending his rule at a party congress later this year, leaving little appetite for triggering a conflict that could spin out of control. 

Even if Pelosi’s visit ultimately convinces China’s leaders they won’t be able to settle their claims to Taiwan peacefully, that doesn’t mean Xi wants that fight now. The country is already grappling with a property crisis and slowing economic growth after more than two years of strict pandemic-control measures.

Missile Tests, Drills

“It’s important for Xi Jinping to respond strongly, but responding strongly and engaging in conflict are two very different things,” said Lev Nachman, assistant professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “There’s not going to be any kind of hot conflict because none of the three sides want that.”

While China’s response disappointed some fervent nationalists, it could still rattle the region. Beijing announced missile tests that may take place anytime, and military drills starting Thursday that show a capability of surrounding the main island of Taiwan -- all amounting to China’s most provocative actions in decades. 

Pelosi Stares Down Xi’s Threats, Giving China A Reality Check

The exercises threaten to disrupt shipping and airline routes in Taiwan, one of the world’s most-crucial suppliers of computer chips. Several airlines are planning adjustments to their flights, while pilots of Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. were advised to carry 30 minutes worth of extra fuel for possible rerouting in Taiwan.

Taiwan has condemned the moves, saying they are tantamount to blockading its airspace and sea area. It’s not clear whether the three days of flight restrictions would be extended, adding to concerns over soaring commodity prices and supply-chain risks.

Still, the failure to deter Pelosi from visiting in the first place upset China’s most outspoken patriots. Hu Xijin, the prominent former editor-in-chief of the Global Times, accepted blame on Wednesday for suggesting measures that ultimately proved unfeasible. 

Beijing is clearly in a stronger position than the last major cross-strait crisis in the mid-1990s, but it’s also far away from being able to push the US around. And unlike Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Xi is much more averse to triggering a military conflict that could quickly spin out of control -- particularly with no guarantee of success. 

“I don’t think they are eager to change the status quo,” said Bilahari Kausikan, the top bureaucrat in Singapore’s Foreign Ministry until 2013. “To launch an amphibious operation is beyond China’s capability and experience. They have never done something like that and that’s the most difficult kind of military operation.”

Over the years, China has seized on actions from opponents at home and abroad to change the status quo. 

Seizing Opportunities

In 2012, after Japan nationalized a set of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, China began regular coast guard patrols in the area that never stopped. 

Around the same time, as the US began forcefully opposing China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, Beijing seized the disputed feature of the Scarborough Shoal and proceeded to militarize other outcrops under its control.

And in 2020, after US politicians supported Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters, Xi’s government imposed a sweeping national security law that effectively crushed any opposition.

In a similar way, China could yet use Pelosi’s trip as a way to squeeze Taiwan, hitting the island economically while regularly impeding flights and shipping. On Wednesday, China suspended some fish and fruit imports, and also banned exports of natural sand used in construction. 

Yet the stakes are also much higher in Taiwan, raising the risk any provocative actions could blow back on China. The strait is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, with almost half of the global container fleet and a whopping 88% of the world’s largest ships by tonnage passing through the waterway this year.

China also faces the constant tension of seeking to woo Taiwan’s 23 million people even as it threatens them with force. Any move to seize Taiwan would fundamentally indicate a failure to convince the island’s residents that Beijing offers a better system than the democratic values advocated by the US and its allies.

‘Historic Mission’

At the same time, Xi has staked his legacy on getting Taiwan into the Communist Party’s hands. Last year he declared taking control of Taiwan as the party’s “historic mission” and an “unshakable commitment.”

But while Xi may not be ready for a military strike anytime soon, he’ll still face pressure to act tough -- ensuring the Taiwan Strait will be even more of a flashpoint for years ahead. 

“Both sides feel that the other is changing the status quo in dangerous ways,” said Amanda Hsiao, senior analyst at Crisis Group, a Brussels-based policy research organization. “This visit may make any sort of understanding or agreement around Taiwan more difficult to achieve.”

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