The Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force has mobilized aircraft over the Taiwan Strait. Credit: PLAAF

SEOUL – US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to arrive in Taiwan this evening (August 2), just as South Korea and the US kick off two months of joint military drills on the Korean peninsula.

With Taiwan being a hyper-sensitive touch point for China, Beijing has been issuing dire warnings ahead of the rumored Pelosi trip, which wary US officials have declined to confirm. And North Korea has fumed about the upcoming military drills – even threatening nuclear annihilation – which are back to full scale after four years of minimization.

These threatening East Asian developments come at a time when an old-school, big war is blazing on Europe’s doorstep, following Russia’s status quosmashing invasion of Ukraine.

But though China and the US fought a war in Korea between 1950-53 that killed millions, few – if any – Asians are diving into bunkers. Despite a major convergence of military forces across the region, de-escalatory precedents and mechanisms are in place.

Yet the current tensions are emblematic of bigger picture developments.

The Ukraine War continues to fuel global tensions and widen the fault line between the West and an emerging China-Russia axis. This is leading to concerns among some Asian pundits that America’s Eastern allies are being pressured to take sides against their largest trade partner.

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has roiled US-China relations with her plan to visit Taiwan. Photo: AFP / Nicholas Kamm

Tinderboxes heating up

US officials have refused to confirm whether Pelosi’s Asian tour – to Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan – includes a stopover in Taiwan, and Taipei officialdom is maintaining radio silence.

However, Taiwanese media are confidently reporting that Pelosi will arrive on the flashpoint island thing evening.

A Taiwanese person, citing open-source flight intelligence, told Asia Times late this afternoon that a US flight had already left Kuala Lumpur, en route to Taiwan. The source expected that US carrier aircraft would converge on her plane to escort it over the South China Sea and into Taiwanese airspace – though the US Naval Institute has denied any escort role. There is also a possibility that the flight is a decoy.

Taiwanese media have stated that, after arriving tonight, Pelosi will tomorrow morning meet President Tsai Ing-wen, then local legislators. There are also rumors that she will meet executives from semiconductor colossus TSMC, before proceeding onward to Seoul and Tokyo.

The ever-combative 82-year-old is a well-known China critic.

She famously unfurled a banner in 1991 in Tiananmen Square memorializing those who took part in the 1989 uprising and has met prominent anti-China activists including Tibet’s Dalai Lama and Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong.

Despite her stormy relationship with former Republican President Donald Trump – who oversaw a steep downturn in Beijing-Washington relations – she urged him to take a strong stand against China on trade.

Pelosi’s trip is being reported as the highest-profile visit by US officials to Taiwan since then-Speaker of the House Newt Ginrich landed in 1997.

Chinese rhetoric has been predictably furious.

“Those who play with fire will perish by it,” Xi Jingping has said of the visit. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Monday said, “the PLA will not sit idly by” and will take “resolute and strong countermeasures.”

And a much-quoted message that appeared on the Weibo page of China’s 80th Army Group read, “Get ready for war” – accompanied by an image of the Chinese flag, crossed swords, and the flags of Taiwan and the US.

Pelosi’s timing is a mystery. She may have personal reasons for making the trip now.

November’s US mid-term elections will require heavy lifting by all sitting politicians. And given the possibility that the Democrats will lose their House majority in the November polls, Pelosi may want to make the trip while holding her current high-profile title.

Or, she may sense weakness. The brouhaha is coming at a bad moment for Xi, too.

China’s president is facing economic and political disruptions related to “zero-Covid” lockdowns, a real estate and mortgage crisis, and fast-slowing GDP growth. All this, as he prepares for a Communist Party Congress where he is expected to receive an unprecedented third term as China’s leader. 

Given these issues, “…it may be more difficult for him to secure his third term than we thought,” Haruko Satoh, a professor of international relations at Osaka School of International Public Policy told Asia Times. “He has a lot on his plate.”

The Pelosi crisis is coming at a bad time for Chinese President Xi Jingping. Photo: AFP / Greg Baker

Meanwhile, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is also not in his strongest positon.

On July 27, the anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953, Kim talked of mobilizing his nuclear forces and “eliminating” South Korea.

This month, Seoul and Washington are kicking off multiple rounds of joint military drills. The drills had been downsized or halted since 2018 – first to “give diplomacy room to work,” more latterly due to Covid-19.

But despite Kim’s invective, his economy is believed to be in tatters due to strict border closures which halted trade with China, as well as internal travel restrictions.

More recently, his largely unvaccinated populace has suffered a late wave of Covid infections.

But he has been engaging in his most active year of missile tests ever – fortified by China and Russia who, at the UN Security Council in May, vetoed a new round of US-proposed sanctions. He is widely expected to conduct a nuclear test – his seventh – in the near future.

This should not dissuade Seoul and Washington from conducting the drills, one expert said.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol is “…focused on strengthening the Korea-US alliance and one way to do this is joint exercises,” said Kim Jeong-ro of civic group the Council on Diplomacy for Korean Reunification.

As Pyongyang is likely to conduct a nuclear test to his own timetable, “There is no reason to suspend the exercises,” Kim told Asia Times.

Escalation fears, de-escalation mechanisms

Some worry that by raising its voice over Pelosi, Beijing may have backed itself into a corner.

“They have kind of set up a commitment trap for themselves,” Daniel Pinkston, an international relations professor at Troy University told Asia Times. “The bluster and statements they are making are consistent with ‘wolf warrior’ rhetoric, but what are they going to actually do?”

Credibility is less problematic for North Korea, which is infamous – and sometimes ridiculed – for its apocalyptic rhetoric.

“Internationally, if you are a big power, you should not misrepresent or bluff,” Pinkston continued. “Weaker powers like North Korea do that and maybe have a greater incentive to do that: They project an image of strength when they are weak.”

Multiple forces have gathered in the region. There are two US flat tops – the USS Ronald Reagan in the Philippine Sea, and the USS Tripoli south of Okinawa – operating near Taiwan, according to the US Naval Institute.

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, has been conducting live fire drills near Taiwan, while Chinese aircraft have approached the flashpoint “median line” in the Taiwan Strait. According to China’s Global Times, more live-fire drills are planned and some civil flights in Southern China have been canceled.

One fear is that an incident or accident could trigger the dreaded spiral of escalation.

“The biggest concern is some kind of unintended accident – like Chinese pilots hot-dogging for intimidation purposes,” said Pinkston, a veteran of the US Air Force. “The US and Soviets in the Cold War reached agreements on those kinds of things, but the Chinese [and US] have not really done that.” 

Even so, there are precedents and mechanisms in place to de-escalate.

China and the US are reportedly in consultation. And deploying strategic ambiguity, US President Joe Biden reportedly distanced himself from Pelosi’s trip during a two-and-a-quarter hour telephone conversation with Xi last week, and reportedly called for communication channels to be kept open.

Moreover, it emerged last year that working hotlines are in place between the highest officers of the two militaries.

Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley told a congressional hearing in September 2021 that he called his Chinese counterpart on the Defence Telephone Link twice to inform him that there were no plans by the Trump administration to launch an attack on China.

Deadly incidents between Chinese and US forces– such as an airborne collision between a Chinese fighter and a US spy plane in 2001, and the US missile strike on China’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999 – were managed without leading to hostilities.

Likewise, multiple deadly incidents across the Korean DMZ – such as the capture of the US intelligence ship USS Pueblo in 1968, the Panmunjom ax murders of 1976, the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in 2010, and the shelling of Yeongpyong island in the same year – were crisis-managed without igniting war.

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is better known for rhetoric than warfare. Photo: AFP / STR / KCNA VIA KNS

Nevertheless, voices in the region warn that the big powers are acting irresponsibly by widening a dangerous cleavage across regional and global geopolitics.

“I think this is a general trend and it is a very worrisome trend,” Moon Chung-in, an advisor to previous South Korean presidents and a professor emeritus at Seoul’s Yonsei University told Asia Times. “We hope that China and the US can play a constructive role, but neither Beijing nor Washington seems to be working toward peace and stability.”

This is particularly true given that both Japan and South Korea do the bulk of their trade with China.

“In Japan and [South] Korea, we are more about stable bilateral relations with China, we are more pragmatic – ‘Don’t rock the boat too much,’” added Satoh. “We are waiting for a more stable posture from the US toward China – this is a hope –  so we can get out of this cycle of US mishandling, as we [Japan] get sucked into these happenings.”

Still, she warned that the hoped-for outbreak of stability will be unlikely until after both the US mid-terms and the China leadership contest take place – both in November.

“Come December, we will have a new Congress and Senate and whoever is going to be the new leader in China,” Satoh said. “There are so many moving parts to watch.”

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