Pelosi’s Taiwan trip spurs new military activity in Pacific

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan this week has prompted a flurry of U.S. military activity in the region as the Biden administration looks to bolster its defenses in the face of a bellicose China. 

Pelosi confirmed her arrival in Taipei on Tuesday, making her one of the highest-ranking U.S. officials to visit the independent island in decades. But the trip has sent tensions soaring between Washington and Beijing, which considers Taiwan part of Chinese territory. 

Ahead of the travel, the U.S. Navy has positioned several warships — including an aircraft carrier and an amphibious assault ship carrying F-35 fighter jets — in waters near Taiwan, a move the service called part of routine operations. 

China has responded in kind, placing two of its own aircraft carriers in the South China Sea since Monday and flying its planes near the median line dividing the Taiwan Strait from the sea on Tuesday morning, Reuters reported. 

Experts, however, are calling China’s moves a calculated effort to show force rather than a real threat of direct military conflict. 

“There’s a lot of chance for misperception and accident and I am concerned about forces in close proximity, but my interpretation is that this is probably not a real use of force,” Lyle Goldstein, the director of Asia engagement at Defense Priorities, told The Hill. “I don’t think either Beijing or Washington wants a war over Taiwan.” 

While the visit will “unquestionably increase tensions” in the short term, the likelihood of direct military conflict “is still quite remote as I suspect neither side has a particular appetite right now for war,” said Allen Carlson, director of Cornell University’s China and Asia-Pacific Studies program. 

The United States is no stranger to cycles of escalation with Beijing over Taiwan, as the two have long gone tit-for-tat with shows of force in the region over disagreements over the island.  

Though a self-governing state since 1949, Taiwan is viewed by China as part of the mainland through its one-China policy. 

The United States, meanwhile, has pledged to indirectly defend the democratic island under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act but has also promised Beijing it will adhere to its one-China policy. 

That skewed viewpoint between the two nations has caused several major flashpoints, the most recent in 1997 when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan. 

Now, 25 years later, the U.S. government is again taking necessary precautions to ward off a confrontation. 

The Navy on Tuesday confirmed to The Hill that the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group — to include USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, USS Higgins destroyer, and guided-missile cruisers USS Antietam and USS Chancellorsville — “are conducting routine operations in the South China Sea and the Philippine Sea,” according to U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Marissa Huhmann. 

The amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli was also in the area, according to Reuters, which was the first to report on the Navy’s movements.  

Beijing, for its part, this week announced new “live-fire drills” and military exercises in the water and airspace around Taiwan for four days beginning Thursday, and released a statement condemning Pelosi’s trip as “gravely” undermining peace and stability in the region. 

The travel “sends a seriously wrong signal to the separatist forces for ‘Taiwan independence,’” the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. 

“China will definitely take all necessary measures to resolutely safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity in response to the U.S. Speaker’s visit.” 

The Biden administration ahead of Pelosi’s visit also warned of the possibility that China would likely conduct high-profile war drills but said there was no reason for the situation to escalate. 

“Put simply, there is no reason for Beijing to turn a potential visit consistent with long-standing U.S. policy into some sort of crisis conflict or use it as a pretext to increase aggressive military activity in or around the Taiwan Strait,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday.

He noted, however, that China is laying the groundwork for potentially more provocations and “appears to be positioning itself to potentially take further steps in the coming days, and perhaps over a longer time horizon,” to include “firing missiles in the Taiwan Strait or around Taiwan.” 

The administration, which has sought to balance and maintain a delicate relationship with China, does not appear to be pleased with Pelosi’s trip, with President Biden last month saying that “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now” for her to make the visit. 

The sentiment was shared by Max Baucus, the former ambassador to China under President Obama, who called Pelosi’s trip a “provocation” and a “silly” action. 

“This is a provocation because the Chinese government is very opposed to this. Don’t forget, she’s Speaker, she’s not just an ordinary member of Congress. Add on that, she’s a very strong hawk, she’s very critical of China,” Baucus said on CNN Tuesday.   

Like Baucus, Goldstein felt that the trip was misjudged and had recommended against it publicly, calling it “unnecessarily rocking the boat,” and dangerous due to a chance of miscommunication between the two sides.

“I think it’s quite reckless,” said Goldstein, who served for 20 years as a research professor at the Naval War College. He noted that “we don’t want this delicate Taiwan issue to let us get pulled into a conflict.”

Carlson, meanwhile, said Pelosi’s bet appears to be taking the short-term uptick in tension as worth it to demonstrate “a clear American resolve to support Taiwan.” 

“In the end, one would hope that the Speaker has made her point and will be restrained in speaking directly about independence while in Taiwan . . . while China will not go beyond previous shows of force,” he told The Hill in a statement.  

“The problem is that we do not yet know what is going to unfold and so the situation remains quite volatile, and it is within such volatility that the danger lies.”