Pelosi Trip Risks Sparking Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis for U.S. and China

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's expected travel to Taiwan has threatened to spark a fourth dangerous Taiwan Strait Crisis between the United States and China.

As footage Tuesday indicated that Pelosi's plane had landed in Taipei, marking what would be the first trip by a House leader to the disputed island in 25 years, tensions continued to mount between Beijing, which considers Taiwan a part of its territory, and Washington, which has long maintained political and military support for Taipei.

The Taiwan issue has been a flashpoint between the U.S. and China since the earliest days of the Chinese Communist Party's 1949 victory on the mainland and the establishment of a rival government by nationalists across the narrow strait. For three decades, Washington maintained recognition of Taipei as the Republic of China, and supported it directly through two deadly confrontations with the People's Republic of China in the 1950s that went so far as to raise the nuclear question in Washington.

A third crisis came in the wake of the Cold War in 1996, also prompted by a controversial visit, as then-Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui traveled to the U.S. to speak at his alma mater, Cornell University. China conducted live-missile drills in the Taiwan Strait, while the U.S. sent two aircraft carrier groups, again raising tensions between the two powers.

Frictions never fully dissipated, and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan the following year during an Asia trip that also brought him to China. The tour once again ratcheted up tensions between the two superpowers and Pelosi's visit is having a similar effect as Gingrich's a quarter-century ago.

Crisis Group senior China analyst Amanda Hsiao told Newsweek that "the risk of an unintended crisis resulting from large-scale military posturing by China is uncomfortably high."

China, PLA, Fujian, air, defense, exercises
Members of the Chinese People's Liberation Army conduct air defense exercises in the Fujian Provincial Military Command in this footage released on August 2, the same day that U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi was expected to visit Taiwan, sparking regional tensions. Eastern Theater Command/Chinese People's Liberation Army

China's Maritime Safety Administration announced Monday, a day before Pelosi was reportedly due in Taiwan, that military exercises would be held in the nearby South China Sea from August 2 through August 6. Chinese Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry officials have also warned that the People's Liberation Army would not remain idle if Pelosi went through with her trip.

"Though China does not want a military confrontation with the U.S., it will resort to escalatory, highly visible demonstrations of its military strength," Hsiao said. "This could include sending large numbers of warships and warplanes across the Taiwan Strait median line, staging multiple large-scale joint exercises across a long period of time, and conducting missile tests around Taiwan."

As in previous cycles of escalation, both Beijing and Washington have already upped the ante through military deployments near Taiwan and the People's Liberation Army Eastern Theater Command announced after Pelosi's arrival that it would be holding live-fire exercises in the air and water surrounding Taiwan in the coming days.

The scope of the exercises appeared to expand significantly further than those held by Chinese forces during the last Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995 and 1996. Eastern Theater Command spokesperson Senior Colonel Shi Yi said the drills were "targeted at the U.S.' shocking recent major escalation on the Taiwan issue" and Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian warned that China "will launch a series of targeted military operations to counter this."

"We've seen in the last 48 hours the movement of military assets by both sides toward the Taiwan Strait," Hsiao said. "Military posturing in close quarters raises the odds of dangerous encounters and accidental collisions."

"More generally," she added, "tense moments like these increase the likelihood of the two sides radically misreading each other's intentions, leading to disproportionate responses and escalation."

White House National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby also warned directly of this risk on Monday, noting the possibility of the People's Liberation Army conducting high-profile maneuvers such as missile launches near the Taiwan Strait as Pelosi planned to visit.

"What that does is it does increase the risk of miscalculation," Kirby said, "which could lead to unintended consequences, and that's really the risk."

"It's not so much that there might be a direct attack," he added, "but it raises the stakes of miscalculation and confusion, which could also lead to unintended consequences."

After reports of military activity continued to stir throughout the night, director of Asia engagement at Defense Priorities Lyle Goldstein told Newsweek, "I must say I am considerably more worried than I was yesterday, things have taken kind of a grim turn."

Like Hsiao, he felt that neither Beijing nor Washington felt a direct clash was in their interests. At the same time, he warned that history has proven that wars can result from miscommunication.

Goldstein noted reasons why China may not use force, including the upcoming Chinese Communist Party Congress, expected to be a pivotal moment for President Xi Jinping, where he is expected to be re-elected as leader at a time when he has sought to focus on domestic issues, including an economic slowdown. He also noted that China, although it has made strides in its military, was still in the throes of its transformation to a "world-class" military by the middle of the century.

"In general, the Chinese military is prepared and probably could execute a Taiwan operation, but it would be incredibly bloody. Everybody knows that," said Goldstein, who served for 20 years as a research professor at the Naval War College. "So there are some reasons why they wouldn't."

But he also noted there are some reasons for a Chinese attack in the short term, including the intensive level of U.S. military support currently going to Ukraine as a response to Russia's ongoing war there. He argued that the same internal pressures that could dissuade the Communist Party from taking action could alternatively push it to act.

Short of a full-scale effort to retake Taiwan, Goldstein said one potential course of action could be "limited action against one of the offshore islands," such as Penghu, also known as the Pescadores, consisting of 90 islands just around 20 miles off the coast of south-central Taiwan. He argued islands could serve as "a great staging area for a larger attack" to be conducted in the future.

But Goldstein hopes that all three principal parties in the dispute — China, Taiwan and the U.S.— prioritize diplomacy in this sensitive moment, and put such efforts into "high gear" to avoid further escalation. He recalled that the last meeting between the heads of China and Taiwan took place relatively recent in 2015, and it was viewed as generally positive. He said that Washington should play a proactive role in encouraging some sort of compromise, even if it meant an acknowledgment on the U.S. part that Taiwan "was generally a part of China."

Such language is already encoded in the half-century-old Shanghai Communique that served as the starting point for relations between Beijing and Washington and Goldstein said "that's the construct that has kept the peace for decades." Chinese officials have accused the U.S. of eroding this understanding, however, as Washington's backing for Taipei has increased in recent years, especially under former President Donald Trump and continued under President Joe Biden.

"The U.S. should be actively involved in trying to broker a compromise that will get us a few years or a few decades down the line. We can do that," Goldstein said. "But it will take major restraint on the American part, and also some conviction that we're determined not to get into war with China over this."

While Biden and Xi held their latest and fifth call just last Thursday, there has been little visible reduction in tensions, as both sides have doubled down on their positions.

The White House, State Department and Pentagon have insisted that it was up to Pelosi whether she travels to Taiwan or not, though the U.S. military would be tasked with ensuring her safety. Chinese officials, for their part, have remained firmly opposed to the trip.

Speaking at a press conference in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chinying rejected the explanation that Pelosi's visit could be considered a "personal act" given her position as second-in-line for the presidency in comments referred to Newsweek by China's embassy in Washington, D.C.

"If the U.S. side insists on making the visit in spite of China's serious warnings," she said, "China will legitimately take any countermeasures necessary, as it is the right of any independent, sovereign country to do so. We urge the U.S. to give up on playing the 'Taiwan card' and to match their words with actions."

She urged the U.S. to "strictly abide" by the founding commitments of the U.S.-China relationship or else face the consequences.

"If instead the U.S. continues down their present path," she added, "they must assume full responsibility for any serious consequences arising thereof."

The embassy then shared a lengthy Chinese Foreign Ministry statement condemning Pelosi's visit once her arrival had been confirmed, calling the trip a "serious violation of the one-China principle and the provisions of the three China-U.S. joint communiqués" reached decades ago as Washington switched its recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

"It has a severe impact on the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and seriously infringes upon China's sovereignty and territorial integrity," the statement said. "It gravely undermines peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and sends a seriously wrong signal to the separatist forces for 'Taiwan independence.' China firmly opposes and sternly condemns this, and has made serious démarche and strong protest to the United States."

The embassy also vowed that China "definitely take all necessary measures to resolutely safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity in response to the U.S. Speaker's visit.

"All the consequences arising therefrom must be borne by the U.S. side and the 'Taiwan independence' separatist forces," it added.

Newsweek has reached out to the Pentagon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office and the Taipei Economic and Culture Office in New York for comment.

This is a developing news story. More information will be added as it becomes available.