A Pelosi trip to Taiwan heightens the risk of an 'accident' that triggers a US military crisis with Beijing, top China experts warn

A Pelosi trip to Taiwan heightens the risk of an 'accident' that triggers a US military crisis with Beijing, top China experts warn
A US Marines C-130 comes in to land at the air force base in Tainan, in southern Taiwan.SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is traveling to Asia and could make a controversial visit to Taiwan.
  • Experts say that such a visit could raise the risk of an "accident" that leads to a military crisis in the region.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi departed on Friday for a tour of Asia that could include a controversial stop in Taiwan, the self-governed island democracy at the heart of rising tensions between Beijing and Washington.

Top experts on China are warning that a visit to Taiwan by Pelosi, who would be flying on a military aircraft, heightens the risk of an "accident" that could spark a military crisis in the region.

"There's a risk of an accident, not a risk of an imminent Chinese attack on Taiwan," Bonnie Glaser, a leading China expert and director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Insider.

Pelosi would be the highest-ranking US lawmaker in over two decades to visit Taiwan, an island democracy of 23 million that mainland China's rulers, the same that have cracked down on democratic Hong Kong, have long had in their sights.

The possibility of a visit to the island by Pelosi has triggered heated rhetoric and warnings from Beijing, and reports indicate the Pentagon is making plans to possibly call upon US warplanes and ships to provide additional security near Taiwan should the House Speaker visit. And repeated mixed messages from the Biden administration on whether the US would respond militarily to a Chinese attack on Taiwan may be adding to elevated tensions between Beijing and Washington.


Glaser said there's a risk of a Chinese military aircraft attempting to "interfere" with a plane carrying Pelosi and, perhaps, even attempting to prevent it from landing in Taiwan.

That said, Glaser underscored that even if China sent fighters and Taiwan scrambled its own warplanes in response, it's "not likely we're going to see shooting."

"But it increases the potential for an accident, because these fighters would be flying very close to one another and in ways that they haven't in the past," Glaser said. "That's the crisis that we are confronted with essentially today."

There's a "real" potential for the "Chinese using force against Taiwan," she added, but it is more likely that will take place "years down the road."

"This is an interactive dynamic. The Chinese see what the US is doing and what we are saying and then they react to that," Glaser said.


'If she goes, the prospect of a crisis goes way up'

A Pelosi trip to Taiwan heightens the risk of an 'accident' that triggers a US military crisis with Beijing, top China experts warn
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi attends her weekly news conference at the US Capitol on February 23, 2022 in Washington, DC.Win McNamee/Getty Images

China is vehemently opposed to Pelosi visiting Taiwan, warning that such a trip could trigger a possible military response.

"If the US insists on taking its own course, the Chinese military will never sit idly by," a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Defense said last week.

Correspondingly, Chinese leader Xi Jinping warned President Joe Biden not to "play with fire" when it comes to Taiwan as the two world leaders spoke on the phone for over two hours on Thursday, according to a statement from the Chinese government.

Pelosi has declined to confirm she will visit Taiwan, citing security concerns. "I never talk about my travel. It's a danger to me," Pelosi told reporters on Wednesday.

America's relationship with Taiwan has a complicated history, and Pelosi's visit would occur at a time when Beijing is rapidly vying to improve its military and taking an increasingly bellicose tone in interactions with the US. Biden has said that the US is in a competition with China to win the 21st century, and senior Pentagon officials have noted repeatedly the challenges posed by increased Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific region.


The US has not had formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan since 1979, when Washington established official relations with Beijing. Under what is known as the One China policy, which has been followed by successive administrations for decades, the US does not support Taiwan's independence and offers diplomatic recognition of Beijing's position that there's only one Chinese government. But the US government still maintains a robust unofficial relationship with Taipei and is legally compelled to provide defensive arms to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.

For years, the US has taken a deliberately opaque position on whether it would come to Taiwan's defense in the event of a Chinese attack — a policy known as "strategic ambiguity." Biden has been accused of undermining this longstanding approach by repeatedly suggesting that the US would indeed respond militarily if China attacks the island.

The White House has walked back Biden's statements, maintaining that there's been no changes to US policy. But critics say the administration's inconsistent approach to Taiwan has exacerbated an already contentious dynamic with Beijing.

"The Chinese see Washington as intentionally provoking a crisis, and I don't know what Biden could say to Xi to persuade him otherwise," Susan Thornton, another prominent China expert and a senior fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School, told Insider.

"We keep claiming our One China policy hasn't changed, but a Pelosi visit would clearly be precedent setting and can't be construed as in keeping with 'unofficial relations,'" Thornton, the former acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department, added. "If she goes, the prospect of a crisis goes way up as China will need to respond. It would thus be accelerating Beijing's timeline on Taiwan, which is the opposite of what we should be doing."


'We just have not been very consistent'

A Pelosi trip to Taiwan heightens the risk of an 'accident' that triggers a US military crisis with Beijing, top China experts warn
President Joe Biden listens as he meets virtually with Chinese leader Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House on November 15, 2021.AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File

The US needs "to be more clear and more consistent in our policy" toward Taiwan, Glaser said, adding, "The US says it doesn't support Taiwan independence. We have to be clear about what that means we will not do."

But Glaser also emphasized that "this is not one-sided," going on to say that the Chinese "have been using economic, diplomatic, and military coercion against Taiwan in ways that are extremely destabilizing."

"I think it is not wrong to say that the Chinese bear more blame — certainly more blame than Taiwan — in changing the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and introducing the degree of instability that exists today," Glaser said. "But the US is a factor, it's not only Beijing and Taipei. And I just don't think that this has been handled very well by the US. Congress is part of it too. It's Congress, it's the executive branch. We just have not been very consistent."

Last week, Biden told reporters that the US military "thinks it's not a good idea right now" for Pelosi to visit Taiwan, though the White House has also said "the Speaker of the House makes her own decisions about travel."

Meanwhile, congressional lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed support for Pelosi making the trip. Some have suggested that if Pelosi doesn't go, it would send a dangerous signal that China's threats work when it comes to Taiwan.


Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell last week said that if Pelosi doesn't go, she will have handed China a "victory of sorts."

Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, last Monday told CNN that Pelosi "should not" call off the trip. "We're not going to let the Chinese Communist Party dictate where the Speaker of the House should go," Khanna said, saying the visit would not undermine the One China policy.

Another factor hanging over a potential Pelosi trip to Taiwan is the ongoing war in Ukraine. Many foreign policy experts have suggested the conflict will have major implications on China's approach to Taiwan, though it may be too early to tell what those are.

"The Chinese will draw lessons from the war in Ukraine," Glaser said. "There are more differences than there are similarities, but they will learn from it. They will learn from it at a broader strategic level."

"I don't think that China will draw conclusions rashly, and I don't think it will draw the conclusion: now is the time to invade Taiwan," Glaser added, noting that "China has its own logic when it comes to Taiwan."