If Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, goes ahead with a planned visit to Taiwan, there should not on the face of it be any cause to link her trip with a conflict between China and the US in the South China Sea. But there is, because that is where China might kinetically express its displeasure with the visit.
The South China Sea is where the two countries’ national-security interests and concepts of “the international order” – as well as their strategies to further them – grind against each other like two tectonic plates. Something has to give, and a visit to Taiwan by Pelosi could trigger a political earthquake.
Overall US-China relations are now the worst since the late Richard Nixon opened modern relations in 1972. At the June Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe warned US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, “If you want confrontation, we will fight to the very end.”
Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province that must be reunited with China. It is obvious that President Xi Jinping is not bluffing in regard to his desire to do so, in his lifetime, whatever it takes. It is just as obvious that some US leaders – such as Pelosi – either do not get the depth and breadth of China’s angst and yearning for reunification, or are determined to prevent it – even if it risks war.
China’s ruling Communist Party is preparing for its 20th National Congress, and Xi will likely seek an unprecedented third term as president. In the present environment, a visit by the third in line to the US presidency will be seen by Xi as an “in your face” challenge that must be answered.
The question is not whether China will respond, but how and where.
A likely venue for expression of its displeasure is the South China Sea. It is currently a nexus of the US-China contest for regional hegemony. It is there that their strategic trajectories converge.
Beijing is developing what Washington calls an “access/area denial strategy” designed to control China’s “near seas” and prevent access by the US in the event of a conflict. The US response is a plan of action intended to cripple China’s command, control, communications, computer and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems.
Thus ISR is the “tip of the spear” for both, and both are trying to dominate this sphere over, on and under China’s near seas.
More important to Beijing, the South China Sea provides relative “sanctuary” for China’s retaliatory-strike nuclear submarines based in Yulin on Hainan. These submarines are its insurance against a first nuclear strike – something the US, unlike China, has not disavowed.
The US wants to deny China this “sanctuary.” It uses ISR probes to detect and determine the capabilities of China’s submarines, as well as to track and if necessary target them.
Incidents result when China challenges US ISR probes that it thinks directly threaten its security. The US now thinks that China has made it a policy to be more aggressive in its military encounters with US probes and freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs).
The US military now undertakes an average of four ISR missions a day over the South China Sea. That’s about 1,500 a year. Some come as close as 25 nautical miles to Chinese territory, and Beijing understandably sees this as threatening. In June, a Chinese warplane made an “unsafe” intercept of one of them. This raises the specter of another event like the EP-3 incident in 2001 that brought the two countries to the brink.
To China, it is the US that is being more “assertive” in the South China Sea, beginning with its 2011 “pivot” followed by stepped-up FONOPs, ISR probes and more frequent projections of the epitome of power: aircraft-carrier strike groups and nuclear-capable bombers and submarines.
The administration of Donald Trump increased the tempo of US military activities there, challenging what it saw as China’s attempts to undermine the US-led “international order.” The situation became so fraught that Beijing thought the US was going to attack its installations in the South China Sea. President Joe Biden’s administration has continued and even worsened the situation.
Right now the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft-carrier strike group is in the South China Sea, and the USS Benfold just completed FONOPs challenging China’s claims in the Paracels and the Spratlys. Adding insult to injury, Benfold then transited the Taiwan Strait.
The situation could hardly be more dangerous. The two areas of confrontation, Taiwan and the South China Sea, are beginning to feed on each other.
High-ranking US officials have parroted the US line that China’s “provocations” in the South China Sea are increasing and warned that such “aggressive and irresponsible behavior” could result in a major incident. Indeed, this smoldering tinderbox could burst into flames at the slightest provocation.
A visit to Taiwan by Pelosi would be much more than a “slight” provocation. High-ranking Chinese officials have privately warned the Biden administration in much starker terms than usual that Beijing’s reaction to such a visit by Pelosi would be significant and could even include a military response.
As leading Australian analyst Carl Thayer says, “Xi Jinping may have no recourse but to provoke a crisis to demonstrate China’s resolve.” This in turn would test the Biden administration’s resolve.
A prominent commentator on US-China relations, Shi Yinhong, thinks Beijing may be able to mount a military response that avoids a larger conflict. It may try to do so in the South China Sea rather than confronting the US military around Taiwan, which could well trigger war.
At the least some US officials and leading analysts think that in response to a Pelosi visit China will become even more aggressive in military encounters there.