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Is a China Crisis Now Inevitable?

Nancy Pelosi
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaking with attendees at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention at the George R. Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, California.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping held their fifth call today since Biden’s inauguration. According to the White House readout of the conversation, on the thorny issue of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s reported trip to Taiwan, Biden told Xi simply “that the United States policy has not changed.” Xi, in contrast, was direct and blunt: “Those who play with fire will perish by it. It is hoped that the US will be clear-eyed about this,” with Beijing’s readout adding China should be “prepared for the worst scenario, especially military preparation,” as the best way to deter the U.S.

What happens in August will have much of the world’s attention: will Rep. Nancy Pelosi defer to the Pentagon’s admonition that this is “not a good idea” and cancel the trip—or ignore Xi’s threats and visit Taiwan, potentially sparking a military clash in the Taiwan Strait? The stakes couldn’t be higher.

As the United States and China careen towards a potential showdown over Pelosi’s proposed visit, much of establishment Washington wants to resolve the issue with its knee-jerk favorite tool: flexing military muscles. Over-reliance on coercion as the lead tool in international relations has served U.S. interests poorly over the past two decades.

Especially at a time of economic turmoil in much of the Western world – along with the persistent threat of the war between Ukraine and Russia spilling over the borders into NATO territory – the United States cannot afford to see its already-tense relationship with China devolve into a potential military clash. Yet hawks in both Washington and Beijing seem intent on pushing the envelope of such risk. Speaker Pelosi’s potential visit to Taipei is the latest flashpoint, but far from the only one by U.S. and allied leaders in recent months.

Over the past number of months, a raft of former high-ranking U.S. officials has visited Taiwan. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, along with former Deputy National Security Advisor and Undersecretary of Defense Meghan O’Sullivan and Michelle Flournoy, went at Biden’s behest in February. In March, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the trip, and earlier this month, former Secretary of Defense Mike Esper did the same. On Thursday, a rare high-level visit from Japanese lawmakers and two former ministers of defense met with the Taiwanese president discussing regional security.

China, which has long claimed it views such high-level visits as contributing to “separatist” elements on Taiwan in seeking independence, has reacted with unusually strong vitriol against reports that Pelosi may visit Taipei. Wang Wenbin, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said if Pelosi goes through with the visit, “China will take strong countermeasures. We mean what we say.” Col. Tan Kefei, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense, ominously warned that “the Chinese military will never sit idle (if Pelosi visits Taiwan) and will take strong measures to thwart any external interference.”

Perhaps strongest of all, however, Hu Xijin, long-time editor of the semi-official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, the Global Times, tweeted “the mainland’s response to Pelosi’s visit will be unprecedented and will involve shocking military response.” Without question, the United States should not form its foreign policy based on whether another country does or doesn’t like our actions.

But Washington very much must base its actions on policies that have the best chance to produce positive outcomes for our country, strengthening U.S. national security and economic opportunity. Needlessly poking China on an emotional issue that could result in military action against our nation, however, is unwise and must be avoided. Unfortunately, the way this situation has unfolded has put both Pelosi and the United States in a tough situation – one that must be navigated with skill and wisdom.

Because Beijing’s demarches have been so firm and public, Pelosi cannot easily back out of the trip. Already she has significant support from two notable Republicans, Pompeo and Sen. Tom Cotton, both of whom have strongly and publicly advised her to make the trip. Pelosi will almost certainly face public censure from the right if she is seen as “backing down” to Chinese bullying. Yet, if she does proceed with the visit, the U.S. and Taiwan face the risk that China might make good on its threats and take some sort of military action. Wars have been started over much less.

Recent satellite imagery has shown increasing Chinese air force activity at the Longtian Airbase – a seven minute flight to Taiwan – featuring a tarmac that was “packed with Flanker-series fighter jets, Russian-made Su-27s and the Chinese variants of J-11 or J-16 series.”

Meanwhile, the United States has reportedly begun military movement of its own, dispatching an aircraft carrier group to the South China Sea. Defense officials told the Associated Press that if Pelosi makes the trip to Taiwan, the Pentagon would also dispatch “fighter jets, ships, surveillance assets and other military systems would likely be used to provide overlapping rings of protection for her flight to Taiwan.” Owing to such volatile conditions in and around the Taiwan Straits, the wisest thing the Administration and Pelosi could do is to scotch the trip.

Face-saving ways can be found – such as “postponing the trip until a later time” – but this specific trip should be canceled for one overriding reason: the risk to American security represented by Pelosi’s visit is in no way commensurate with any potential benefit to the U.S. In fact, there is virtually no upside for America with this visit. As pointed out above, there has been no shortage of official and semi-official contacts between Washington and Taipei recently that no additional benefit could accrue to the U.S. by adding the Speaker of the House to the list.

But her visit could result in a belligerent China taking rash action that could change the security status quo in the Taiwan Straits, putting both American and Taiwanese interests in danger. The risk simply isn’t worth it.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

33 Comments

33 Comments

  1. pagar

    July 28, 2022 at 6:13 pm

    Pelosi and co have surely handed the US-loving or US-arse licking dengists in china a really big super hot potato.

    There’s no way pelosi is going to back down to the third-world people of china.US today, really no different than hitler’s germany of ’30s.

    There are 2 ways the dengists could respond. One is to play tit-for-tat. Break diplomatic relations with fascist ukraine and declare open support for russia and iran. Send weapons and rockets to both and rack up manufacturing of rockets by setting up new manufacturing facilities in all three.

    That would entail getting hit by all kinds of asset seizures and sanctions by the west. Well, full-scale economic war better than all-out military clash. It would also meaning kissing bye-bye to massive investments made by xi jinping in ukraine which are worthless now anyway.

    The other option is to hurl one massive IRBM rocket at taipei’s taoyuan airport on the eve of pelosi’s arrival and await the inevitable outcome-ugly huge massive brazen threats from US military, a campaign by US Congress for a declaration of war and loss of taiwan trade which last year exceeded $200 billion.

    It will lead to a nam-style struggle between china and US-US lackeys but china could then be free to lob more old IRBMs and SRBMs at taipei and let’s see who wins in the end. Also, opportunity to ban all air flights over china by US lackeys like japan, UK and others. And also flights by all boeing aircraft. In return, china should seek RS-28 technology from russia and develop space weapons like multiple orbiting stations and spaceplanes. Unfortunately, the tengyun HTHL project is not expected to arrive until 2025, by which time US could be deploying hypersonic weapons right at china’s front door. I would go for the former, as you don’t want to fight babylon until you’ve the right swords to slay its beasts.

  2. Scottfs

    July 28, 2022 at 6:16 pm

    China is clearly the most formable enemy the USA has faced since the Second World War. And we have fought them before, to a standstill, in the Korean war.

    Why would we trade with the enemy, funding their massive global bellicosity? It is time to deny to China most favored trade status, and not only maintain, but slowly increase tariffs. There are many friends abroad we can trade with.

    Free trade with allies, not enemies. It is beyond belief we would continue to fund our own demise.

    Should Pelosi go? Of course. China understands strength. To back down by the John Cena way…licking the boots of Xi? Unacceptable!

  3. cobo

    July 28, 2022 at 7:11 pm

    It’s a mistake to think that war may come. The global communist war against western democracies is decades old – look at home first.

  4. TheDon

    July 28, 2022 at 7:30 pm

    50 yrs of Pelosi and congress blunders.
    Sold battery, motor companies, appliance, semiconductors, computere, phones, now all made china.

    China has a lot of engineers they are graduating,factories building,and schooling is respected. Their leaders dont bash “evil” corporations like Bernie, but understand these companies provide income and military strength.

    The sales of goods to us does support their economy right now, however, theres a lot more people in the world to sell to in the glabal economy.

    A war would be insane for both of us. But all wars have been insane.

    Unfortunately, someone will lose big.

    I suspect China will sanction US. Imagine taking Saudi oil fields? When we have no home plan.

    50 yrs of fumbling.

  5. jeff

    July 28, 2022 at 9:07 pm

    At least we have a president up to the task of the times. /sarcasm

  6. Error403

    July 29, 2022 at 2:05 am

    Pelosi’s fascistic visit to taiwan next month must serve as the catalyst for the chinese people to pull down xi jinping from his high horse and chuck him into the nearest jail. Or send him into exile.

    Xi has acted as a one-man show in china and in the process has committed huge massive mistakes and errors.

    China must again revert its president’s post to its former ceremonial status with its prime minister running the country while a foreign affairs secretary handles the quirks of foreign relationships. This post must be backed by a space force capable of separating the ‘head from the neck’ of any foreign nation willing to serve up a two-timing move against the country. It however needs to gain approval or green light in black and white from china’s NPC for all decisions and agreements with/pertaining to foreign nations.

    Such a move will avoid xi jinping-type one man show while also crucially separating internal governance from official foreign dealings. This will mean no more biden-xi pow-wow shows thus forever insulating chinese people from the voraciousness or insatiability exhibited by foreign dragons thirsting for fresh human blood.

  7. Mike in CT

    July 29, 2022 at 8:25 am

    The answer is simple. No US officials visit Taiwan IF China finally clamps down on fentynl production. More fentanyl deaths in US will result in more visits and transits of the Taiwan straight, less deaths result in fewer visits and transits.

    To me, the fentanyl problem in the US is a direct result of production in China and is an act of war. We should treat it this way.

  8. GhostTomahawk

    July 29, 2022 at 8:48 am

    Why is Pelosi going over there? I’m not scared of China. Their military is garbage. I’m scared of our inept leadership. This is a group that couldn’t execute a tactical withdrawal that they planned on.

    Why is Pelosi going over there? What does SHE do by going over there? Headline grabbing? She has no authority so this is bluster. Ultimately China will move hard and force America’s hand. Then we will be financing and supporting 2 losing wars!!!

    Thanks Biden voters

  9. Andrew P

    July 29, 2022 at 10:22 am

    This is how they create a Midterm Crisis to rally the Democratic Party before November. Pelosi’s plane is shot down or forced down by the ChiComs. If forced down, Pelosi is forced to land in China and is taken prisoner. Then Dementia Joe has to make concessions to China to get her back. Or else she is executed, and Joey gets another war.

  10. Leon Lee

    July 29, 2022 at 10:49 am

    Freedom of navigation only for US battleships and not for people? Of course Pelosi should go, and any American of whatever status should go whenever they like and Taiwan welcoming. No need to balk at Chinese intransigence. Remember how the South “China” Sea was lost? You back down one inch, they move forward one mile. Go quietly and carry a big stick.

  11. DMH

    July 29, 2022 at 11:48 am

    It would be a colossal blunder to back out of the trip in the face of Chinese threats.

  12. Arlo

    July 29, 2022 at 11:59 am

    So many American politicians have accepted Chinese money that they feel they have to stage this theater to show they are not really puppets. It’s all Kabuki, Xi is certainly playing his part and standing up to a foreign enemy to quell his own opposition.

  13. Rich

    July 29, 2022 at 12:11 pm

    Pelosi will go and return with nothing but a big yawn. No one will care. China currently holds $1.1 trillion is US debt. China exports $450 billion/year to the US. They will not jeopardize that because of one old woman’s visit to Taiwan. In any event, she and her hubby should stick to insider trading; it’s what they do best.

  14. Ben

    July 29, 2022 at 12:26 pm

    Pelosiu has been around so she has thought about the risks and rewards.I suspect that she realizes how weak Biden is and is trying to show US strength and resolve regarding Taiwan.China has boxed itself into a corner now with their threats but they always threaten and bluster to get their way.I say if Xiden and Xi are whining its the right move.Go Nancy go.

  15. Jim

    July 29, 2022 at 12:30 pm

    This was a bad foreign policy decision for Pelosi to go, and seems to be a freelance move, with evidence Pelosi didn’t consult with the Biden Administration before announcing the trip.

    However, once the trip is announced, it becomes problematic to cancel. Demonstrating strength of purpose by staying the course and refusing to be intimidated are important aspects that need to be considered.

    Xi stated on the Biden call, “Those who play with fire will perish by it. It is hoped that the US will be clear-eyed about this,”

    Bellicose statements by Beijing are a regular occurrence, if the U. S. refrained from action every time Beijing growled we’d be paralyzed.

    Now, here, as the author states, the U. S. Military (the Pentagon) has expressed public concern (strange in a way that it’s the Pentagon and not the State Department expressing concern).

    Anyhow, it’s hard to know the basis for this concern, as it many be ‘classified’.

    Frankly, China’s reaction may be directed by what Pelosi says when she gets there, what kind of public speeches will she make?

    (Pelosi claiming Taiwan is an independent country could precipitate military action from China… that’s their “Red Line”.)

    I understand the concern of the present author, I shared it, but a Speaker has gone before, Gingrich went and China didn’t like it, but the world didn’t end.

    Has things changed that much in 20 odd years?

    America needs a strong & firm China Policy.

    Right now the policy is incoherent and even schizophrenic, that will walk America into a disastrous situation.

  16. Stefan Stackhouse

    July 29, 2022 at 1:44 pm

    If we are going to push China, then it should be at a time and place and cause that really matters for us. This is just plain stupid.

  17. Exnavynuke

    July 29, 2022 at 1:46 pm

    The South China Sea is still a flashpoint. Although China has asserted it’s “nine-dash line” and the claim of the water’s commonly used name as proof of ownership, the truth has been nearly universally panned. Even dredging to create islands and then fortifying the artificial features have proven to be ultimately ineffective at best, and a strategic folly at worst.

    China has perhaps the best possible champion for its cause installed in the White House, and yet it cannot seem to help itself by making an antagonistic and unnecessarily inflammatory response. The counter to which is the reported diversion of a US carrier strike group to the area.

    Tensions are high. Both nations have increasingly domestically disliked leadership. Perhaps both sides are looking for a nice bit of saber-rattling to divert their peoples’ attention away from the leaderships’ failings? The problem with this logic is that it only takes a single mistake or misunderstanding to spark a tragedy.

    Others have noted the Eagle and the Dragon have been in trade, espionage, and cultural war for many years. There is evidence to support this, but the conflict hasn’t yet gone kinetic. If it does, the only reasonable projection will be that nobody could tell with any certainty how the conflict would end – save the obvious that many, many lives will be snuffed out.

  18. Dave Schuler

    July 29, 2022 at 3:02 pm

    Unmentioned in the post itself or the comments above is the risk that the Chinese may back themselves into a corner by making threats. Try as they might they can’t control the distribution of news completely. If Pelosi comes and they fail to act doing so much saber-rattling, that will have implications for domestic politics.

  19. Eric-ji

    July 29, 2022 at 3:19 pm

    China has been causing problems for a long time, most recently with its expansion into the Spratly Islands and border challenges with India. They’ve been found to be in the wrong with the Spratley archipelago, but persist. So why is it the US who’s at fault here? It is not at fault.

    It appears the Biden admin is holding some sort of line here, and it’s about time, IMO. If China isn’t challenged in a real sense, they’ll continue, akin to Japan prior to WWII. We’ll see if Biden has the spine, and what the effects of that spine will be.

    My bet, and hope, is Pelosi goes to Taiwan and the Chinese back down, making a lot of noise doing so.

  20. Cookie

    July 29, 2022 at 5:00 pm

    All about the Military Industrial Complex

  21. China and Russia stink

    July 29, 2022 at 5:11 pm

    Piglosi will go.
    China will do nothing.

  22. Ezra Teter

    July 29, 2022 at 6:16 pm

    If China shot her down all I would do is shrug.

  23. Ben d'Mydogtags

    July 29, 2022 at 7:35 pm

    The Pelosi Taiwan trip is probably all about (and maybe only about) Pelosi’s insider trading. Her husband bought options in NVIDIA. The distraction was that this was related to the CHIPS act to subsidize new chip factories. But NVIDIA is a “fabless” company. They do not own or operate any factories. They use contracted “foundry” factories from a Taiwan-based company TSMC. Thus the CHIPS act would not impact NVIDIA very much. BUT a strong demonstration of US support to Taiwan and a suggestion that the US would defend Taiwan would likely boost Taiwan-based stocks, including TSMC and could remove a cloud of fear over fabless companies that rely on Taiwan manufacturing. This trip will put cash directly into the Pelosi’s pocket.
    (There are reports that Pelosi’s husband sold his NVIDIA position. But that is unconfirmed and it is also not clear if he merely shifted from the initial buy into another similar stock position.)

  24. Dan C.

    July 29, 2022 at 9:25 pm

    Having read a few articles by this author (Daniel Davis), he always has the same take: appease Russia and China no matter what.

  25. Russell

    July 30, 2022 at 12:25 am

    Pelosi and the entire worthless US government deserve a beatdown, and China will do it…Now. They have seen Uncle Sam lose war after war..why would China worry about the US?? All of the unproven spying allegations, and damning of everything China is just pathetic because the US cannot compete on the world stage.

    China has surpassed the US, and they see this visit as another weak attempt at saving hegemony by pushing China into a corner. What is most saddening is that the US government is a delusional mental case that cannot get out of its own way.

  26. Arash P

    July 30, 2022 at 2:09 am

    I lived in America for years.

    Never met an American who was willing to die for Taiwan !

    America needs to mind its own business and not overreach its actual power.

  27. Fred777

    July 31, 2022 at 9:15 am

    A drunk San Fran Nan will stumble off her plane and mumble something incoherent, thus reminding the Taiwanese of the value of their relationship with China.

  28. tony

    July 31, 2022 at 10:39 am

    Can’t stand Pelosi, but I support her in going to Taiwan. The fascist, dictatorial Chinese Communists will never tell us what to do or not do.
    If they attack her plane, it means war.

  29. Mark Aaron

    July 31, 2022 at 11:25 am

    What American state does Taiwan border?

    American policy is provocative, counter productive and ludicrous.

    This proposed trip is baffling. As Kissinger rightly pointed out, astute foreign policy is foremost about avoiding crisis and not how to act when in a crisis.

  30. Antiwar7

    July 31, 2022 at 11:49 am

    Sure, she has every right to walk up to an enraged tiger. And I have every right to laugh at the inevitable outcome.

  31. Antiwar7

    July 31, 2022 at 11:57 am

    You’re absolutely right, except you forgot to mention that the mental case is an evil grifter with bad motives.

  32. Ryoko Malcolm

    July 31, 2022 at 11:41 pm

    The importance is timing of the Lady’s visit. Taiwan feeling vulnerability after HongKong, Xinjiang, Ukurain and Abe’s death, it is paramount to show to the world now standing firm with Taiwan, solidarity with Taiwan, we will never abandon Taiwan. Yes USA can do that, otherwise, how and when she would earn respect as the torch bearer of Democracy. The Lady and the delegation’s visit should not be used as the cause to wage a war. However, in November once Xi jinping was elected for the third term, Xi would take it consolidation of his supreme power and approval of “mandate of Heaven” justifying to take any matters into his own hands in order to complete “China’s dream” that is “Rejuvinalisation of China” to settle China’s one hundred year-old humiliation toward the West. As far as Taiwan is concerned, to Xi it is Taiwan’s position in terms of economy as the producer of semi-conductor and in militaristic strategy, if China got Taiwan, that would make her possible to free access to Japan, Australia and all the way to Hawaii. Territorial sovereignty over Taiwan is the cover.

  33. Rm

    July 31, 2022 at 11:48 pm

    The importance is timing of the Lady’s visit. Taiwan feeling vulnerability after HongKong, Xinjiang, Ukurain and Abe’s death, it is paramount to show to the world now standing firm with Taiwan, solidarity with Taiwan, we will never abandon Taiwan. Yes USA can do that, otherwise, how and when she would earn respect as the torch bearer of Democracy. The Lady and the delegation’s visit should not be used as the cause to wage a war. However, in November once Xi jinping was elected for the third term, Xi would take it consolidation of his supreme power and approval of “mandate of Heaven” justifying to take any matters into his own hands in order to complete “China’s dream” that is “Rejuvinalisation of China” to settle China’s one hundred year-old humiliation toward the West. As far as Taiwan is concerned, to Xi it is Taiwan’s position in terms of economy as the producer of semi-conductor and in militaristic strategy, if China got Taiwan, that would make her possible to free access to Japan, Australia and all the way to Hawaii. Territorial sovereignty over Taiwan is the cover.

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