Why Pelosi's visit to Taiwan crossed a line for China

For decades, Chinese leaders have vowed to bring Taiwan back into the embrace of their country and viewed visits by foreign dignitaries to Taiwan with disdain. But their especially heated response to a recent Taiwan trip by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggests that the stakes have risen. Here we take a look at the factors that have combined to bring tensions in the Taiwan Strait to boiling point.

When a US delegation led by Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan on August 2 as part of an Asian tour, China wasted no time issuing a rebuke. Its foreign ministry released a statement saying the visit sent the wrong signal to Taiwan's "separatist forces," and the Chinese military announced it would conduct drills in six areas that effectively encircled Taiwan.

Undeterred, Pelosi met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen the next day and declared, "Now more than ever, America's solidarity with Taiwan is crucial."

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was the highest-ranking US official to visit Taiwan in a quarter century.

On August 4, the Chinese military staged large-scale, live-fire drills around Taiwan. According to Taiwanese officials, they launched 11 ballistic missiles, four of them flying over Taiwan. Five went into Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone.

Taiwan's defense ministry says Chinese aircraft and vessels crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait, an unofficial buffer separating the two sides.

China conducted large-scale military exercises around Taiwan in August.

Why did Pelosi ignore China's warnings?

The administration of US President Joe Biden has been keen to avoid exacerbating tensions with China, but the House Speaker is a long-time critic of Beijing and has her eye on mid-term elections scheduled for this fall. She may calculate that supporting Taiwan and standing up to China will play well with her supporters.

Why was China so angry?

Beijing's position is that there is only one Chinese government, and that under the one-China principle, Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. The US has no official diplomatic relationship with Taiwan, but it retains strong unofficial ties that extend to arms sales, under the Taiwan Relations Act.

Previous visits by US delegates to Taiwan have prompted Beijing to voice "concern," but the visit by Pelosi, second in line to the presidency, appears to have crossed a line, coming shortly after Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke to Biden by phone and warned him to stop "interfering" with Taiwan.

Xi is also looking ahead to the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, a meeting held once every five years, that will take place this fall. He is expected to secure an unprecedented third term as party leader, but must show the public and the party that he is a leader worthy of such exceptional treatment. He cannot afford the perception that unification with Taiwan is becoming a more distant notion.

The Chinese Communist Party is expected to convene its National Congress this fall.

Xi needs a show of strength to distract from an unpopular zero-COVID policy and a slowing economy, and he may be calculating that highlighting the US as the foreign enemy and painting Taiwan as the nation's most important issue will help in that respect.

China's Taiwan fixation

Unification with Taiwan has been the Chinese Communist Party's goal since the days of Mao Zedong. It founded the People's Republic of China in 1949 after defeating the Kuomintang in a civil war. The Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan.

President Xi Jinping has repeatedly said "the historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled and will definitely be fulfilled."

Military pressure on Taiwan

The Chinese military announced on August 10 the end of its military exercises around Taiwan but said it would closely monitor any changes in the situation in the Taiwan Strait. It also said it would continue to carry out training and organize regular combat-readiness patrols to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Experts say China's show of force was about striking fear into Taiwan and normalizing military pressure on it. That means the drills could be a precursor to routine and increasingly aggressive action that may push the sides ever closer to the edge. And calming the crisis may be harder than ever now that it is not just a local stand-off but hinges on domestic politics -- in China and the US.