“Confident superpower or insecure?” Beijing’s reaction if Pelosi goes to Taiwan might be telling

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The potential visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan could worsen a strained US-China relationship, but observers say Beijing’s agenda is unlikely to change ahead of a major realignment of the US government. leadership.

The tense situation in the Taiwan Strait is not expected to culminate in a military conflict, or impact President Xi Jinping’s plan to secure a third term in office when the ruling Communist Party launches its bid twice a year in the fall. decade of congress.

Nationalist sentiment is rising in mainland China and Beijing has warned of “strong measures” if Pelosi continues the trip. Observers say her reaction when she visits will be an indication of how confident Xi’s China is.

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US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will meet Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday. Photo: Handout via Reuters alt=US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi meets Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday. Photo: Handout via Reuters>

Pelosi’s visit to the self-ruled island – which Beijing claims and has vowed to take control, using force if necessary – will reportedly be part of her Asian tour that kicked off Monday in Singapore. But she has yet to confirm whether Taiwan is on the route, which also includes Malaysia, South Korea and Japan.

Taiwan is a sensitive issue for Beijing – especially arms sales in the US and increasing official exchanges with Washington, which has no formal ties to Taipei.

In a phone call last week, Xi told President Joe Biden that the US must abide by the one-China principle and that “those who play with fire will perish.” Biden tried to reassure Xi that US policy on Taiwan had not changed, but said Washington opposed unilateral attempts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability in the strait.

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If Pelosi visits Taiwan, she will be the most senior US official to do so in 25 years. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said it would cross Beijing’s “red line” as the military held live fire drills this weekend off the coast of Fujian province — directly opposite Taiwan.

It comes at a politically sensitive time for Beijing. Xi is expected to enter a norm-breaking third term as party congress leader, but tight Covid-19 controls have left the economy struggling, and relations with the West are spiraling downward over China’s assertiveness and tacit support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

A mainland political analyst familiar with Beijing’s thinking said the priority was to avoid a major disruption in US relations ahead of the party congress.

“The ties between China and the US cannot deteriorate further and that was the tone the party had set earlier” [Pelosi’s potential Taiwan trip was reported]”said the analyst, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the case. “Beijing is deeply concerned that the situation may escalate, especially in the event of an accidental conflict.”

George Magnus, an economist and research associate at Oxford University’s China Center, said Beijing and Washington are in a difficult position.

“[Pelosi’s] The alleged visit to Taiwan is clearly seen by China as laying down a gauntlet, and by the US as arming just a trip by a high-ranking politician,” he said. “They both seem to feel an obligation to respond and to oppose, respectively.”

Magnus said Xi would like to appear “in control and steadfast in his approach to what is perceived as a provocation” in the face of domestic and external challenges as he sought a new term at the party congress.

While I think his re-appointment as head of state and party is unlikely to be seriously jeopardized, failing to stand up to the US could undermine its status and freedom of movement, and its opponents now or in its new term.”

Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at Renmin University, did not expect Beijing retaliation to lead to a military conflict.

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“Despite the more ominous indications, the fundamental situation of the Taiwanese problem should be regarded as largely stable on the downside,” he said. “They have established the bottom line of both sides quite firmly and would be convinced that a military conflict should be absolutely avoided until or unless it is absolutely required.”

But Shi expected bilateral ties to deteriorate, saying that “the possibility of an accidental conflict has increased significantly”.

For Beijing, the best scenario would be if Pelosi cancels the trip.

“It would be a big win for Xi as he could take credit for successfully deterring the visit and reaffirming a bottom line on the Taiwan issue – that people like Pelosi should not visit,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor at the Study times newspaper, a party mouthpiece.

But even if she goes, it’s likely to be an unofficial trip — and that would be a win for Beijing, according to Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

“Nationalism and support for Xi in China is stronger than ever before. Ordinary Chinese feel Xi is strong because he can manipulate domestic propaganda into a story that he has scared the US and what could have been an official visit was turned into an unofficial one,” he said.

Wu said Beijing would try to avoid an overreaction that would risk a military conflict with Washington just months before the party congress.

“What Xi wants is a story that shows that China is stronger than the US and that he is in charge — this is what Beijing wants,” he said. “Everything in China is now related to” [Xi’s bid for] a third term and it is the highest agenda. Xi will shout louder if he condemns the US to show the domestic public that he is strong.”

Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, also said that while a visit to Pelosi could exacerbate tensions with Washington, it may not be bad news for Xi.

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“An external challenge usually helps the party strengthen its military and emphasize the party’s leadership, and it helps the cause of leaders with a nationalist and a reunification agenda,” he said, adding that Xi would “get the situation under control.” have to keep”.

Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the US-based Stimson Center, said that despite Beijing’s threats to use military force, stability was the priority ahead of the party congress.

“[A Pelosi visit] will not jeopardize Xi’s plan [to stay on for a third term] “As long as war doesn’t break out,” she said. “It’s embarrassing for him, but instability will be a bigger risk factor for him right now.”

If the trip goes ahead, Beijing could respond by firing missiles toward Taiwan and sending more warplanes near the island, according to Gal Luft, co-director of the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. .

But he said there was no reason for China to overreact. “Xi is the most powerful leader since Mao – why should he react to this?” said Air.

“The party apparatus will certainly try to take advantage of such a visit, but an overreaction to a visit from an octogenarian soon to be thrown out of her job as a speaker … will only be a sign of uncertainty and invite more of the same.” “, he said.

“Confidence is the ability to show restraint in provocation and disrespect. The world knows the purpose of the visit is provocation. What remains to be determined is whether China is a confident superpower or an insecure and easily upset wannabe .”

Additional reporting by Amber Wang and Jun Mai

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative reporting on China and Asia for over a century. For more SCMP stories, explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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