China says its military will never “sit idly by” if US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi were to visit Taiwan, the self-ruled island claimed by Beijing.
In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian reiterated earlier warnings on Monday, saying “there will be serious consequences if she insists on making the visit”. He did not spell out any specific consequences.
“We are fully prepared for any eventuality,” he said. “The People’s Liberation Army [PLA] will never sit by idly. China will take strong and resolute measures to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
PLA ships have been stationed close to the median line in the Taiwan Strait, which separates China and Taiwan, since Monday, and several military jets flew close to the line on Tuesday morning, Reuters news agency reported citing unnamed sources. Taiwan had dispatched aircraft to monitor the situation, it added.
China has been steadily ratcheting up diplomatic and military pressure on the self-ruled democracy since President Tsai Ing-wen was first elected in 2016. But threats of retaliation over a visit by Pelosi have driven concerns of a deepening crisis amid continued tension between Beijing and Washington, which has formal diplomatic relations with China, but is required by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself.
Several Taiwan media outlets reported late on Monday, citing unnamed sources, that Pelosi would visit Taiwan on Tuesday and spend the night in Taipei.
One of the newspapers, the Liberty Times, said Pelosi was scheduled to visit Taiwan’s parliament on Wednesday morning.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry said it had no comment on reports of Pelosi’s travel plans.
“We have many differences when it comes to Taiwan, but over the past 40 plus years, we have managed those differences and done it in a way that is preserved peace and stability and has allowed the people of Taiwan to flourish,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“It would be important, as part of our shared responsibility, to continue to manage this in a wise way that doesn’t create the prospect for conflict.”
The US side needs to fulfill President Biden’s commitment of not supporting “Taiwan independence” and refrain from arranging for a visit by Speaker Pelosi to Taiwan. pic.twitter.com/hK7PKmuLmz
— Spokesperson发言人办公室 (@MFA_China) August 1, 2022
Amid widespread speculation over the potential stop in Taiwan, Pelosi’s office said on Sunday she was leading a congressional delegation to the region that would include visits to Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan. It did not mention Taiwan.
Zhao said it would be “a gross interference in China’s internal affairs” if Pelosi visits Taiwan, and warned it would lead to “very serious developments and consequences”.
Asked what kind of measures the PLA might take, Zhao said: “If she dares to go, then let us wait and see.”
A slickly produced video by the Peoples Liberation Army’s Eastern Theatre Command, which showed scenes of military exercises and preparations and was posted on state media sites on Monday evening, urged troops to “stand by in battle formation, be ready to fight upon command, bury all incoming enemies”.
China, which has not ruled out the use of force to take control of the island, views visits by US officials to Taiwan as sending an encouraging signal to those on the island who want independence.
A visit by Pelosi, who is second in the line of succession to the US presidency and a long-time critic of China, would come amid worsening ties between Washington and Beijing. Republican Newt Gingrich was the last House speaker to visit Taiwan, in 1997.
‘Playing with fire’
The White House dismissed China’s rhetoric as groundless and inappropriate.
“The speaker has the right to visit Taiwan,” John Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, told reporters, warning China was “positioning” to respond with a show of military force.
“There is no reason for Beijing to turn a potential visit consistent with longstanding US policies into some sort of crisis,” he said. However, China “appears to be positioning itself to potentially take further steps in the coming days.”
This “could include military provocations such as firing missiles in the Taiwan Strait or around Taiwan”, according to Kirby, also identifying “large scale air entry into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone” as a possible step.
Some developments “could be of a different scope and scale,” Kirby said, noting the last firing of Chinese missiles into the Taiwan Strait was back in the mid-1990s.
During a phone call last Thursday, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned US President Joe Biden that Washington should abide by the one-China principle and “those who play with fire will perish by it”.
Biden told Xi that US policy on Taiwan had not changed and Washington strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
On Monday, Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang did not directly respond when asked whether Pelosi would visit.
“We always warmly welcome visits to our country by distinguished foreign guests,” he told reporters in Taipei.
‘Really just symbolism’
Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing, said a Pelosi visit would prompt the strongest counter-measures by Beijing in years, but he did not expect that to trigger major military conflict.
“China has reiterated in no ambiguous terms its opposition to Taiwan separatism. The US has reiterated many times its one-China policy has not changed and that it is against any change to the status quo by either side of the Taiwan Strait,” he said.
“Unless by accident, I am sure neither side would intentionally take military action that could lead to a major security risk.”
Ross Feingold, an Asia political risk analyst, said Beijing could cut some trade with US allies, close consulates, and increase large-scale military exercises in the region if Pelosi does make the trip. He added the purpose of her visit was unclear.
“The fact is Pelosi is a bit of a lame duck. There is a likelihood she won’t be speaker come January next year. So what could she really do for Taiwan in the remaining months she is speaker is a legitimate question to ask. So what is the point of all this? It’s really just the symbolism,” Feingold told Al Jazeera.
Last Wednesday, Biden told reporters he thought the US military believed a Pelosi visit to Taiwan was “not a good idea right now”.