BEIJING >> Beijing grumbled but swallowed its irritation in 1997 when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich of the U.S. House of Representatives visited Taiwan, the island democracy claimed by the mainland’s ruling Communist Party as its own territory.
China had other priorities. President Jiang Zemin’s government was preparing to celebrate Hong Kong’s return and wanted to lock in Beijing’s emergence from diplomatic isolation after its 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Gingrich, a booster of closer U.S.-Chinese ties, had just helped that campaign by meeting Jiang in Beijing. China avoided a disruptive clash with Washington.
A quarter-century later, conditions have changed drastically. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government is richer, more heavily armed and less willing to compromise over Taiwan following news reports the current speaker, Nancy Pelosi, might become the most senior U.S. official since Gingrich to visit the island.
Beijing sees any official contact with Taiwan as recognition of its democratically elected government, which the mainland says has no right to conduct foreign relations.
The timing adds to political pressure. Xi is widely expected to try to award himself a third five-year term as party leader at a meeting in the autumn. That could be undercut if rivals can accuse Xi of failing to be tough enough in the face of what they consider American provocation.
Pelosi has yet to confirm whether she might visit, but Beijing is warning of “forceful measures” including military action if she does.
The United States “must not arrange for Pelosi to visit Taiwan,” a Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesman, Tan Kefei, said Tuesday.
“If the United States goes ahead with this, the Chinese military will never watch and do nothing,” Tan said. “It will take strong measures to thwart any external interference and separatist plans for ‘Taiwan independence’ and resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Tan referred to Pelosi as “No. 3 in the U.S. government,” after her place in the line of succession to become president. That suggests Beijing sees her as President Joe Biden’s subordinate, instead of his equal as head of one of three independent branches of the government.
Biden told reporters the American military thinks a visit is “not a good idea right now.” But, possibly in deference to her position, the president hasn’t said Pelosi shouldn’t go. U.S. officials told The Associated Press that if Pelosi goes, the American military would likely use fighter jets, ships and other forces to provide protection for her flight.
Chinese rhetoric about that is “quite disturbing,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “If we’re asked, we’ll do what is necessary in order to ensure a safe visit.”
U.S. officials have said the administration doubts China would take direct action against Pelosi herself or try to sabotage the visit. But they don’t rule out the possibility that China could escalate provocative flights of military aircraft in or near Taiwanese airspace and naval patrols in the Taiwan Strait should the trip take place. And they don’t preclude Chinese actions elsewhere in the region as a show of strength.
Taiwan and China split in 1949 after a civil war that ended with a communist victory on the mainland. Both governments say they are one country but disagree about which is the national leader. The two sides have no official relations but are connected by billions of dollars of trade and investment.
The United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 but has extensive commercial and unofficial ties with the island. U.S. law obligates Washington to make sure Taiwan has the means to defend itself.
Beijing hasn’t hesitated to try to intimidate Taiwan with shows of force.
The ruling party’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, fired missiles into the sea near Taiwan to drive voters away from then-President Lee Teng-hui in the island’s first direct presidential election in early 1996. That backfired by allowing Lee to talk tough about standing up to Beijing in front of cheering supporters. He was elected with 54% of the vote in a four-way race.
The U.S. responded by dispatching two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area, a move that forced China to acknowledge it couldn’t stop Washington from coming to Taiwan’s aid, which helped propel Beijing’s massive military upgrading in the years since.
The following year, Gingrich led a delegation of American lawmakers to Taiwan following a three-day visit to the mainland. That followed a visit to Beijing the previous week by Vice President Al Gore.
Previously one of Beijing’s fiercest critics in Washington on human rights and Taiwan, Gingrich praised China’s economic development. He talked sympathetically about the challenges Beijing would face running Hong Kong after 150 years of British rule. He said Congress supported China’s claim to Taiwan so long as unification was peaceful. He expressed hope the two sides might evolve to become one state.
Gingrich said he told Chinese leaders that “we will defend Taiwan” but said they responded that Beijing had no intention of attacking.
After Gingrich’s comments, China’s foreign ministry said it was confused about U.S. policy. “What the U.S. government and the leaders of some government branches say and what they promised are not the same,” a ministry spokesman, Shen Guofang, said at the time.
In the quarter-century since then, Beijing’s stance toward Taiwan has hardened and its military resources have grown. And the mainland has warned it will invade if talks on uniting the two sides fail to make progress.
China passed Germany and Japan to become the second-largest economy behind the United States. Its military spending also is No. 2 after Washington at $293 billion in 2021 following a 27-year string of increases, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The political landscape also has been changed by the rise of Xi, who has amassed more power over the past decade than any Chinese leader since at least the 1980s and wants to be seen as restoring the country to its historic greatness. That includes being more assertive abroad and stepping up pressure on Taiwan.
The ruling party has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to develop fighter planes, submarines, an aircraft carrier and other high-tech weapons. It is working on “carrier killer” missiles that are believed to be meant to block the U.S. Navy from defending Taiwan in the event of an attack. The PLA sends growing numbers of fighters and bombers to fly near Taiwan.
Beijing’s bigger economy and global role also give it more diplomatic tools to show its anger to Washington. The Biden administration wants Chinese cooperation on climate, fighting the coronavirus and other global challenges, all of which Beijing could disrupt.
Washington and Beijing already are mired in conflicts over trade, Hong Kong, Beijing’s treatment of Muslim minorities and Chinese claims to large sections of the South China and East China Seas.
Pelosi is hardly new to irking Beijing. As a rookie member of Congress in 1991, she unfurled a black-and-white banner on Tiananmen Square that said, “To those who died for democracy.” This came two years after the bloody crackdown in which hundreds, perhaps thousands were killed. Diplomatic protocol prevented Chinese police from detaining Pelosi.
A visit to Taiwan could cause long-term harm to U.S.-Chinese relations, said Liu Jiangyong, an international relations specialist at Tsinghua University.
Allowing a visit to go ahead “will affect the credibility of recent promises the Biden administration has made,” Liu said. Dialogue between Biden and Xi about other issues “may all be seriously affected.”