Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and a delegation of Washington officials have left for a scheduled trip through Asia with a possible visit to Taiwan bringing already high tensions with China to a boil in recent days.
"One of the sources who reviewed the itinerary Thursday afternoon said it listed a Taiwan visit as “tentative.” The trip will include visits to Asian allies Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore... Bloomberg News first reported that Pelosi’s delegation is departing Friday, the last day the House is in session before its monthlong August recess."
Flight trackers have been watching what is suspected to be her flight, two special air mission aircraft, a C-37B and a C-40C, both of which are commonly used for these missions. They have flown to Hawaii, a usual first stop in the Pacific for these types of trips. While these tracks would fit the timing perfectly, we cannot confirm this is indeed her flight.
Reports began last week that White House and U.S. military officials pressured Pelosi to cancel the trip to Taiwan over concerns U.S. military aircraft would be challenged by Chinese warplanes. Pelosi is no stranger to confronting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as CNN file footage of her and two other representatives unfurling a pro-democracy banner in Tiananmen Square in 1991 made the rounds on Twitter this weekend.
Pelosi previously planned to visit Taiwan in April before testing positive for COVID-19, and she would be the first Speaker of the House to visit the island since Newt Gingrich in 1997. It remains uncertain when and if Pelosi will actually visit Taiwan on the trip. She will reportedly attend an event in Singapore on August 1. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Xinping discussed the potential trip and other issues in a more than two-hour phone call on July 28, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal.
Of obvious concern were the many encounters between Chinese jets and U.S., Australian, and Canadian aircraft in recent years. We wrote about the most severe of these, a May 26 incident where a Chinese J-16 Flanker damaged a Royal Australian Air Force P-8A Poseidon by dumping chaff countermeasures that the patrol aircraft’s engines ingested.
Apart from confrontations with patrol and surveillance planes, Chinese aircraft have made routine flights into Taiwan’s Air-Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, in the last two years with the ROCAF reporting numerous intercepts at sea. China has continued to expand its installations along the strait to support these operations, including the fighter base at Longtian, the closest to Taiwan’s capital of Taipei. It recently returned to operation after a lengthy expansion.
Those concerns became much more serious when Hu Xijin, a mouthpiece of the CCP’s Global Times tabloid, tweeted that a U.S. fighter escort for Pelosi into Taiwan would mean “invasion,” and that Chinese jets would be entitled to shoot them down.
This is far from the first time Hu took such a firebrand stance on U.S.-Taiwan cooperation, most recently after reports of U.S. troops training Taiwanese forces last fall. Twitter has since taken down Hu’s tweet, but the remarks further stirred fears of a miscalculation near the strait.
China separately announced live-fire exercises on short notice at Fujian Province’s Pingtan Island, immediately opposite the Taiwan Strait from Taipei. Videos reportedly show the exercises with nighttime multiple rocket launchers and anti-aircraft fire into the sea. Taiwan spent much of July conducting its own large-scale military drills and exercises, as well.
Alongside the live-fire exercise came reports of Chinese military equipment on the move within and toward Fujian Province, with large-caliber PHL-16 rocket artillery and armored vehicles seen on trains.
There’s also this unsettling analysis from Thomas Shugart III with the Center For A New America Security, highlighting how three of China’s newest roll-on/roll-off (RO-RO) ferries are off normal routes and headed for the Taiwan Strait. One of them was used to transport tanks and armored vehicles in a 2021 exercise.
Despite the worrying signs in the Western Pacific, National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby said Friday that the U.S. has no indication of a potential Chinese military action against Taiwan.
That doesn’t mean America isn’t watching closely, though, as an E-8C JSTARS surveillance aircraft operated near the Taiwan Strait on Saturday. The JSTARS features synthetic-aperture imaging and ground-moving-target-indicator functions, an ideal platform for tracking vehicles’ movement, namely armor and other military equipment, as well as vessels. It can also take high-quality radar images of key areas, showing what forces are being built-up and where. In other words, if the Chinese are redeploying ground and amphibious forces en masse near the Taiwan Strait, JSTARS could be quick to spot it, that is if it flew close enough to the Chinese mainland to acquire these intelligence products.
How this plays out from here is the furthest thing from predictable. A full-scale invasion really is not possible at this time, but the intelligence community remains more concerned about the 2027 timeline for such actions. A major amphibious demonstration is possible and there have been many concerns that China could try to seize one of Taiwan's islands very close to Chinese shores as a first step of what would be potentially a years-long operation to regain control over the island. With that in mind, Beijing may see this situation as a test of exactly how far the U.S. is willing to go, or more acutely whether China can unilaterally influence what the U.S. can and cannot do there.
China deterring a major U.S. diplomatic visit to the island, be that through threat or outright military action, would be a huge win in its ongoing row with Taiwan. If they can exert pressure and stop a lone diplomatic visit, Beijing may do more to dissuade future cooperation. Then again, Beijing could try to shape U.S. policy after the fact, by making the visit too costly to repeat.
Regardless, this sort of U.S.-China brinksmanship will likely be the norm, not the exception, in the years ahead.
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