Taipei, Taiwan – Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the United States House of Representatives, has arrived in Taiwan, on a visit that has enraged China which claims the self-governing island as its own territory.
Pelosi’s arrival in Taipei late on Tuesday risks triggering a major crisis between China and the US, which does not officially recognise Taiwan as an independent state but is still required by US law to provide its government with the means to defend itself.
China had threatened “serious consequences” if Pelosi – the highest ranking US official to travel to Taiwan in 25 years – went ahead with her visit.
“The US side will bear the responsibility and pay the price for undermining China’s sovereign security interests,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
On Tuesday morning, Chinese warships and aircraft repeatedly edged into the median line of the Taiwan Strait, according to reports. Four US naval ships, including one aircraft carrier, were deployed in the waters east of Taiwan before Pelosi’s arrival.
Analysts in Taiwan said Beijing’s reactions to the visit are likely to be both short and long-term.
“We can expect China to escalate its existing military activity, such as live-fire exercises, but calibrated in a way so as not to enter direct conflict with either Taiwan or the United States,” James Lee, a researcher of US-Taiwan relations at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, told Al Jazeera.
“Chinese warships and fighters may cross over the median line in response to the visit, but they are unlikely to enter Taiwan’s national airspace or its territorial waters, as there is too high a risk of engaging Taiwanese air force fighters,” Lee said.
Wen-ti Sung, an expert at the Australian Centre on China in the World at Australian National University, told Al Jazeera that China’s People’s Liberation Army will likely use live-fire exercises and missile tests to demonstrate strength to its domestic audience in response to the Pelosi visit.
“The message China intends to send is that it has the ‘ability’ to respond, but whether it currently has the ‘intention’ to respond or not, is a different matter. China will argue that it will take action at a timing of its own choosing, rather than reacting or dancing to the tune of external ‘provocations’,” Sung said.
China may also continue to up the ante after Pelosi leaves.
“An escalation now could be a one-off event, but it may also become part of a sustained pattern of aggression,” Ross Feingold, a Taipei-based political analyst and lawyer, told Al Jazeera.
Chinese incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), which have increased in both frequency and regularity in recent years, were an example of such an escalation, he said.
“This could be a real strain on Taiwan’s defence resources and the men and women who serve in the military going forward,” Feingold said.
While specific details of Pelosi’s itinerary in Taiwan have not been confirmed publicly, she is expected to visit the country’s Legislative Yuan on Wednesday morning and meet Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen before she leaves.
It also remained unclear if any substantial policy outcomes were to be announced during the visit, but experts concurred that the optics alone of Pelosi’s arrival are strategically significant.
“There are no clear indications of a substantial policy announcement to come from this visit,” Lee said.
“Instead, it is a case of strategic signalling,” he said.
Pelosi’s position as speaker of the House is important for Taiwan, Lee said, explaining that Section 3 of the Taiwan Relations Act gives the US Congress much influence over Washington’s decision to defend Taiwan.
“Even if the president says, ‘We will defend Taiwan,’ it’s actually not that simple. But this visit is signalling that congressional support for Taiwan remains solid,” Lee said.
Pelosi’s visit also came at a critical time for both Pelosi’s Democratic Party and Taiwan’s governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
The US is headed towards midterm elections in November, the results of which will decide whether the Democrats keep their current majority in both the House and the Senate.
Taiwan, meanwhile, is due to hold local government elections that same month.
Whether Pelosi’s visit boosts or damages the DPP in the eyes of Taiwanese voters depends on China’s response.
‘Soft on China’
“If China doesn’t do too much, then it will be a win for the ruling party as they’ll show they are getting more American officials to visit, which the electorate responds well to,” Lee said.
“Yet if China takes aggressive actions that really threaten the peace, it could turn public opinion if they attribute the instability to the DPP’s policies,” he added.
“On the other hand, the use of force could backfire against China and further entrench Taiwanese voters’ views that China is the aggressor, as happened in 1996 during the Third Cross-Strait Crisis.”
Political analyst Feingold said that the DPP is likely to benefit from the visit, even if China reacts aggressively.
“It will allow the government to show it’s being bullied by China and that it needs support from friendly nations like the US, Japan, and Australia,” Feingold said.
“Taiwanese voters have endorsed the current government and its policies toward China and are well aware of China’s aggression,” he said.
Pelosi’s own party could also stand to gain from the visit among American voters.
“The Democrats are often criticised by the Republicans for being too soft on China, but this visit will give them something to refute that claim,” Feingold said.
“That could help Democrat candidates in tight seats come November.”