The last time a US speaker visited Taiwan was back in 1997. About 25 years after the then US Speaker Newt Gingrich travelled to Taipei, incumbent US Speaker Nancy Pelosi is likely to visit the country again.
This visit, as expected, has upset China. Beijing has warned the United States of "serious consequences" if Pelosi "insists on making the visit." Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, speaking about what measures the Chinese military might take, warned, "if she dares to go, then let us wait and see."
In the wake of the speaker's trip, according to Reuters, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) ship have been stationed close to the median line in the Taiwan Strait and several military jets flew close to the line on Tuesday morning.
In response to the Chinese warnings, the US has also warned Beijing not to turn Pelosi's expected trip to Taiwan into a crisis.
The US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said, "There is no reason for Beijing to turn a potential visit consistent with longstanding US policy into some sort of crisis or conflict, or use it as a pretext to increase aggressive military activity in or around the Taiwan Strait."
As tension boils between the two superpowers, what could be a possible fallout of Pelosi's Taipei trip in the Indo-Pacific and the world? The Business Standard reached out to International Relations academics to understand the geopolitics of Nancy Pelosi's Taiwan trip.
'The possibility of military escalation is still very low'
Shahab Enam Khan
Professor of International Relations, Jahangirnagar University
When US Speaker Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan, the situation was completely different. It was the time when Hong Kong was being handed over to China and the tensions regarding Taiwan was not so high.
Secondly, how Beijing sees Nancy Pelosi is very important. Technically, she is the second in line for US presidency succession. But whether she will be running again next January is still unclear. Pelosi has long been a critique of China. This makes the Chinese community, particularly the Chinese Communist Party, a bit sceptical about Nancy Pelosi. Therefore, this will be one of the key determinants of how intensified Beijing's response will be.
President Xi Jinping has always reiterated that Taiwan is China's internal affairs. The western media and the diplomatic community have noticed that both Xi Jinping and President Biden maintain the same approach, which is the One China policy. The US has many times reiterated the One China policy, which is a good thing, which Beijing would take into consideration.
But when it comes to the current situation, the US also has a policy called the Indo-Pacific strategy – which Beijing reads as a containment policy - essentially to put pressure on the Chinese in carving its growing presence and power in the South China Sea, and subsequently in inner Asia, and all the way to Eurasia.
Also, the whole situation is complicated because of the Chinese role in the Ukraine crisis, which has not largely been very conducive for the Western allies.
So this visit is taking place exactly when these two phenomena playing out hand-in-hand. Nancy Pelosi is going to Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and South Korea. That also shows that these visits are all part of the Indo-Pacific strategy, by and large.
So it has both geopolitical and military connotations. Nancy Pelosi, as an American citizen and as a US speaker, has the right to visit Taiwan. That is the legal part, which gives Pelosi an absolute international legal ground that she can always visit. And these visits should not always be considered a threat to Chinese integrity.
But that is something that the US side has to reconfirm.
Given these complex responses, the Chinese have already strengthened their eastern theatre commands. So now you are seeing that the PLA is ready to launch military exercises and it is on standby battle formation. So this is the first reaction that has come from Beijing.
Another important response that has come from Beijing is essentially the diplomatic pressure on both the US and its allies.
So this is something we are going to see when it comes to the question of whether there will be a military escalation. The possibility is still very low. The obvious reason is that there are mixed messages coming from the US as well as Beijing.
However, unless there is some sort of diplomatic miscalculation or military miscalculation – in which case the biggest victim of the situation will be Taiwan itself – there is a lesser chance of a military escalation.
What I would assume now is that the Chinese will exert diplomatic pressure. And they might cut some trade ties with the US and its allies. Maybe there will be some diplomatic offices shut down. And definitely, what is inevitable is, there is going to be large-scale military exercises in the South China Sea.
And lastly, there lies an issue of political symbolism. This can also be a symbolic foreign policy positioning of the Biden Administration in the Indo-Pacific region, to reiterate the American commitment to democracy and human rights and so on.
Overall, this situation creates a mixed picture in which the potential for diplomatic and military level interventions is high. But it is not a very definite situation where we can conclude by saying that there will be a military incursion and so on.
'No one can bear the burden of another conflict'
Niloy Ranjan Biswas
Associate Professor of International Relations, Dhaka University
The last time any US Speaker visited Taiwan was back in 1997. Pelosi is the latest speaker to attempt a Taiwan trip again.
So, China's official reaction is definitely not welcoming.
On the question of potential Chinese reactions to Pelosi's visit, if you think of a serious threatening sort of reaction, China has a naval presence in the Taiwan Strait. We frequently see that the Chinese navy exercises in that area. The Chinese missile tests and explorations are also conducted there. In international relations or strategic studies, we call this a symbolic gesture of showing that we control this land and the surrounding areas.
The Chinese authority already said that the PLA will not sit idle if Pelosi's trip really takes place. So what could be a serious reaction from China – since Beijing considers Taiwan a part of their country and not a separate state, one thing that may happen is the increase in Chinese military mobilisation on the Taiwan border. There is no question of seizing Taiwan, since China already considers the country a part of its territory.
On the US side, if you consider the rationale of the Speaker's trip, she is actually independent. She doesn't necessarily need permission from State Department or the White House, except for security clearances. This is a state visit, but not in the sense that it is necessarily directed by the State Department, or how the president's visits are conducted.
But this is indeed a reflection that the United States is looking ahead to a different policy towards Asia, Southeast Asia to be more specific, to curtail Chinese dominance in the Indo-Pacific.
If we look at the other countries in the region where Pelosi is travelling, we realise how the Taiwan tour is connected. This trip could energise that perspective, according to those who believe that it would encircle the Chinese in some way.
I don't think, however, that this will turn into physical aggression or mobilisation which could potentially lead to a conflict situation over there. However, it is true, things can take a turn in any direction at any time.
But what we can say for sure is there will be showcasing of military mobilisation in the Taiwan Strait or in the South China Sea – through regular Chinese military exercises, to send a message that Taiwan is under control of China. But it will not lead to a bigger conflict because a European war is already having a significantly devastating impact on the world. No one can bear the burden of another conflict.