(Bloomberg) -- From frothy rhetoric to fighter jet incursions, China rarely leaves even a low-level exchange between the US and Taiwan unanswered. The question now is how far Beijing will go to signal its displeasure with any Taipei visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
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Not only would the reported trip next month be the first by someone in her post in a quarter century, it comes at a sensitive time for Xi Jinping. The Chinese president is expected to spend the first half of August huddled with Communist Party elders ahead of a reshuffle, in which he’s seeking support to rule for at least another five years. He can’t afford to look weak in response to what Beijing views as a foreign effort to break off a piece of the country’s territory.
President Joe Biden further raised concerns of a strong response by China on Wednesday, when he told reporters the American military thought any visit by Pelosi was “not a good idea right now.” The reference conjured comparisons to the last major Taiwan crisis in 1995-96, when China lobbed missiles into the sea near Taiwanese ports and then-President Bill Clinton sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich visited both Taiwan and China the year after that episode, warning Beijing that the US would defend the island. China offered a measured response, with former President Jiang Zemin saying ties between Washington and Beijing were moving into the “sunshine after the rain.”
“The Chinese response to her visit is probably going to be different than they have been for previous congressional delegations,” said Drew Thompson, visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and a former US defense official. “The question is what.”
Here are some possible responses from China:
1. Bigger Warplane Incursions
People’s Liberation Army warplanes have breached Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone with increased frequency in recent years, putting political pressure on Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen while demonstrating its ability to project power in the strait. A Pelosi visit could be met by a particularly large or lengthy series of flights, such as when some 15 planes flew around the east side of Taiwan after a US congressional delegation visit. The daily record for such incursions remains 56 planes on Oct. 4, which may have been a response to nearby US-led military exercises. China could similarly send warships to conduct drills in nearby waters.
2. Crossing the Median Line
One likely response by Beijing would be to send warplanes across the Taiwan Strait’s median line, a buffer zone the US established in 1954 to prevent a conflict between China and Taiwan. PLA aircraft repeatedly breached the line in September 2020, when then-US Undersecretary of State Keith Krach traveled to the island. Similarly, Chinese planes crossed the line earlier this month when US Senator Rick Scott visited Tsai. A deep or extended sortie across the line, which Beijing doesn’t recognize, would put particular pressure on Taiwan’s smaller military, since it would require its planes to stay in the air.
“The most likely scenario is the PLA will send multiple warplanes crossing the strait mid-line, especially at the area between Taipei and Hsinchu, which is the narrowest point in the Taiwan Strait,” said Chieh Chung, an associate research fellow at Taiwan’s National Policy Foundation.
3. Missile Test Near Taiwan
Among China’s most provocative responses to an exchange between Washington and Taipei came in the summer of 1995, when China test-fired missiles into the sea near the island. The move was part of Beijing’s protests against Clinton’s decision to let Taiwan’s first democratically elected president, Lee Teng-hui, visit the US. China declared exclusion zones around target areas during the tests, disrupting shipping and air traffic. More recently, the PLA launched “carrier-killer” ballistic missiles into the South China Sea in August 2020, in what was seen as a response to US naval exercises.
4. Flying Over Taiwan
Nationalist voices in China have outlined a range of potential responses to Pelosi’s visit that carry an even greater risk of escalation. Among the options repeatedly floated by the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper has been conducting a military flight directly over Taiwan, something that would set up a tense showdown between the two militaries. Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng told parliament last year that his forces would take tough measures against intruding planes. “The closer they get to the island, the stronger we will hit back,” he said.
5. Shadowing Pelosi’s Trip
Hu Xijin, the Global Times’s outspoken former editor, has suggested Chinese warplanes should “accompany” Pelosi on any attempted flight to Taiwan. Such a move would put a lot of pressure on the Chinese and American pilots to avoid mistakes. Australia accused the Chinese military of flying in a “dangerous” manner beside one of its surveillance aircraft in May -- a charge the PLA disputes.
“Xi needs to make a careful balance and pick a proper response ahead of the key party congress,” said Wang Ting-Yu, a Taiwanese lawmaker. “On the one hand, he needs to satisfy internal hawks by having some actions militarily, but on the other, the moves can’t lead to international pushback when China is already struggling to deal with economic and diplomatic issues.”
(Updates with details of Newt Gingrich’s 1997 visit to Asia.)
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