WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has grown increasingly anxious this summer over China’s statements and actions regarding Taiwan, and some officials fear that Chinese leaders will try to move against the self-governing island over the next year and a half, perhaps time trying to cut off access to all or part of the Taiwan Strait, through which US warships regularly pass.
Domestic concerns have heightened in recent days as the administration works quietly to try to dissuade House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from making a proposed visit to Taiwan next month, US officials say. Ms. Pelosi, a Democrat from California, would be the first speaker to visit Taiwan since 1997, and the Chinese government has repeatedly denounced her. informed plans and threatened retaliation.
US officials see a heightened risk of conflict and miscalculation over Ms. Pelosi’s trip as China’s President Xi Jinping and other Communist Party leaders prepare in the coming weeks for a major political meeting in which it is expected for Mr. Xi to extend his mandate.
Chinese officials have strongly asserted this summer that no part of the Taiwan Strait can be considered international waters, contrary to the views of the United States and other nations. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said in June that “China has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait.”
US officials don’t know if China plans to enforce that claim. But Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, who is close to President Biden and deals with the administration often on Taiwan-related issues, said “a lot of attention is being paid” to lessons that China, its military and Xi could be learning from. learning. events in Ukraine.
“And one school of thought is that the lesson is ‘go early and be strong’ before there is time to strengthen Taiwan’s defenses,” Coons said in an interview on Sunday. “And we may be headed for an earlier confrontation, more of a squeeze than an invasion, than we thought.”
Chinese officials are well aware that Biden administration officials, also applying lessons learned from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, are trying to shape their arms sales to Taiwan to turn the democratic island into what some call a “porcupine”, bristling with sufficient armaments and effective defense systems. to dissuade Chinese leaders from trying to attack it.
US officials say they are not aware of any specific intelligence that Chinese leaders have decided to act soon on Taiwan. But analysts inside and outside the US government are studying what might be the optimal time for China to take bolder steps to undermine Taiwan and the United States.
A central question is what senior Chinese officials think about the evolving strengths of the Chinese military relative to those of Taiwan, the United States, and America’s regional allies that include Japan and South Korea.
Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that the Chinese military’s behavior in the Asia-Pacific region was “significantly more and notably more aggressive.”
Chinese officials have reported a steady stream of visits by top US officials to Taiwan, which Beijing sees as akin to a formal diplomatic engagement with the island. Ms. Pelosi had planned to visit her in April, but she postponed it after her aides said she had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“If the United States insists on going ahead, China will take firm and resolute measures to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the United States will bear all serious consequences,” said Zhao Lijian, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, at a regularly scheduled news conference Monday.
US officials said planning for Pelosi’s trip was moving forward despite growing furor over it.
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Pelosi is likely to fly to Taipei on a US military plane, as is customary for such visits. Some analysts looking at Chinese claims of the proposed visit say China could send planes to “escort” their plane and prevent it from landing.
This scenario is a legitimate concern, US officials said, although it is unlikely, and Washington would view any such move as a serious escalation. The officials interviewed for this story spoke on condition of anonymity due to sensitivities on diplomatic issues.
Ms. Pelosi said last week that she does not speak publicly about travel plans, but that “it is important for us to show our support for Taiwan.”
During the Trump administration, a cabinet member and a senior State Department official became the highest-ranking officials of the American administration visiting Taiwan on a working basis since 1979, when Washington severed diplomatic ties with Taipei to normalize relations with Beijing. Newt Gingrich was the last House Speaker to visit Taiwan, 25 years ago.
Asked by reporters about the proposed visit, Mr. Biden said last wednesday that “the military thinks it’s not a good idea at the moment.” He also said that he planned to speak with Xi, the Chinese leader, in the next 10 days. The two last spoke by video call in March, when Biden warned there would be “implications and consequences” if China provided material assistance to Russia in its offensive against Ukraine.
Xi and other top Chinese officials and Communist Party leaders are preparing for the party’s 20th congress in the fall, and are expected to hold secret meetings in August at the Beidaihe resort ahead of the formal conclave. Analysts say Xi will almost certainly break with the norms by seeking to serve a third term as president and extend his tenure as party secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission.
“The domestic political situation in China right now is extremely tense in the months leading up to the party congress, when Xi is hoping to be approved for an unprecedented third term,” said Susan L. Shirk, a former senior State Department official. and author of “Overreach,” a next book about Chinese politics.
“The risk is that Speaker Pelosi’s visit will be perceived, even by Xi himself, as a humiliation of his leadership and that he will take rash steps to show his strength,” he said. “Furthermore, in view of his recent errors in judgment that damaged the country and caused internal controversy (the draconian approach to managing Covid, the alignment with Russia’s war in Ukraine, and the crackdown on private companies), we cannot count with its prudence in its military response to Pelosi’s trip. It is better to postpone than to risk war.”
Pentagon and White House officials have been discussing the political environment and potential risks of the trip with Ms. Pelosi’s office. Authorities say it’s up to her to decide.
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at China’s Renmin University in Beijing, said Beijing will seek a military response that is seen as strong, but not so aggressive as to spark a larger conflict.
“I don’t think anyone can predict in detail what China will do militarily,” Shi said.
Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a nationalist newspaper published by the Communist Party, wrote on Twitter that Chinese military fighter jets could follow Ms. Pelosi’s plane and cross into Taiwanese-controlled airspace over the island. She also said China’s actions would amount to “a shocking military response.”
Analysts say China could do something less provocative. It could, for example, send planes across the median line down the middle of the strait separating China and Taiwan, as it did in 2020 in response to a visit by Alex Azar, then the US secretary of health and human services.
Chinese fighter jets have crossed that line and flown into the island’s air defense identification zone with increasing frequency since 2020.
On Monday, Joanne Ou, a spokeswoman for Taiwan’s foreign ministry, said that Taipei had not received any “definitive” information about Ms. Pelosi’s visit.
Officials and lawmakers from Taiwan’s two major political parties have welcomed any visit by the speaker.
“Chairwoman Pelosi has many admirers in Taiwan, and her visit would be a strong statement of American support for Taiwan’s democracy,” said Alexander Huang, Washington representative of the Kuomintang, the opposition party.
Many in Taiwan worry that if the trip is cancelled, Beijing will get the impression that its bullying tactics are working.
In Washington, some Republican lawmakers publicly urged Ms. Pelosi to go ahead with the trip to take a stand against China.
Ivan Kanapathy, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and China director at the National Security Council under Presidents Trump and Biden, said canceling the trip could undermine Washington’s attempts to strengthen Taiwan’s relations with other democracies and efforts to boost your profile. in international organizations and venues.
“A big part of why China cares about what the US does is because we make room for others,” Kanapathy said. “And that is what China is most concerned about: more legitimacy for the Taiwanese government in the international community.”
Some analysts say there are less risky ways to show support for Taiwan. Washington could send a top military officer, for example, or sign a bilateral trade deal, which could help the island reduce its economic dependence on China.
US military officials say an air and sea invasion of Taiwan would be difficult for the People’s Liberation Army to carry out today. If China moved sooner than expected against Taiwan, it could do so piecemeal, perhaps first invoking its recent statement on the status of the Taiwan Strait and conducting a limited operation to gauge Washington’s reaction. Another theory is that Beijing could try to seize an outer island off the coast of China.
US officials say the Chinese government is unlikely to have decided what, if any, operation to carry out. But it is a topic that is regularly simulated and played out in Washington.
Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said Friday at the Aspen Security Forum that Taiwan was learning from Ukraine. After years of buying expensive defense systems, he said, Taiwan was paying more attention to “citizen mobilizations” and “information warfare.”
He also noted that supplying Taiwan would add further stress to US military hardware production.
“There are longer-term questions,” he said, “about how to ensure that our defense industrial base, the American defense industrial base and the defense industrial base of our allies can be in a position to sustain the kind of security assistance that we need. we are going to need to keep supplying Ukraine, as well as Taiwan, as well as ourselves.”
edward wong reported from Washington, David E Sanger of Aspen, Colo., and amy qin from Taipei. Catie Edmondson contributed reporting from Washington.