The Current

Pelosi's Taiwan visit could spark future confrontation with China, warns expert

How is Nancy Pelosi's trip to Taiwan being received by the people there — and will it inflame tensions with China, even making a confrontation more likely?

U.S. House Speaker visited Taiwan Tuesday; stern response from China soon followed

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrives at parliament buildings in Taipei, on Tuesday. (Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images)

Read Story Transcript

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's trip to Taiwan could inflame tensions with China, and perhaps lead to a military confrontation between them down the line, says one expert.

"I think the confrontation will not be immediate, might not be in the next six months, or 12 months or even 24 months," said Lynette Ong, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, and author of Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China.

"But I think within [Chinese] President Xi's tenure, another five years, 10 years — some sort of military confrontation [is possible]," she told The Current's guest host Peter Armstrong.

"We have never ruled it out, but I think the likelihood has been ratcheted up, definitely."

WATCH | Pelosi's Taiwan visit triggers fiery Chinese response:

U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit triggers fiery Chinese response

9 days ago
Duration 3:51
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the first high-ranking American official to visit Taiwan in 25 years. The trip triggered a fiery response from China, including live fire military drills surrounding Taiwan.

Pelosi visited Taiwan on Tuesday. She's the highest-ranking U.S. politician to do so in 25 years. The stop was part of her tour of Asia, which she has framed around a choice facing the world today, "between democracy and autocracy."

"Our delegation came here to send an unequivocal message: America stands with Taiwan," Pelosi said during a meeting with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen. 

"Our solidarity with you is more important than ever as you defend Taiwan and your freedom, and offers a very strong contrast to what's happening in mainland China," she added. 

China had condemned the trip before she arrived, promising "resolute and strong measures" in response. Beijing views self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory, and argues any visit from a foreign government official is an endorsement of the island's sovereignty claim. 

Soon after Pelosi's arrival, China announced a series of military drills. Taiwan's Defence Ministry said China flew 21 planes toward the island, including 18 fighter jets, in the hours after Pelosi's arrival.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said "some American politicians are playing with fire on the issue of Taiwan."

"This will definitely not have a good outcome … the exposure of America's bullying face again shows it as the world's biggest saboteur of peace," Wang said in a statement. 

Before the trip, the White House sought to reassure China that its policy on Taiwan has not changed, but Ong said whether or not the trip was officially endorsed by Biden's administration "really doesn't make much of a difference."

"President Xi is under quite a lot of pressure domestically. The economy is in a lot of trouble. Unemployment rate is going up … economic growth has ground to an all-time low, and nationalism is high," she said.

Beijing could be provoked "to do something, either out of a pressure from its own people, or just to distract the people from really what is going on domestically within China."

Any military action taken by China would likely "be framed as one of taking back its territory, some sort of a rightful claim to a sovereign part of its territory," she said.

"I think we cannot … rule that out happening in the next couple of years."

A protester holds a banner that reads, 'American Get Out.'
A protester holds a banner criticizing Pelosi's visit, outside a hotel in Taipei, on Tuesday night. (Chiang Ying-ying/The Associated Press)

'Accident' could spark bigger conflict

Taiwan's government played down the trip in recent weeks in an effort to not provoke Beijing, said Wen-Ti Sung, a lecturer in Taiwan Studies at the Australian National University.

While both protesters and supporters gathered outside Pelosi's hotel, Sung said the public would be "generally happy to have a high-ranking official visiting."

"They see it as a sign of endorsement, of recognition of Taiwan's progress as a democracy," he told Armstrong.

But he said there are concerns that military posturing could lead to "accidents happening and things going out of control."

China's military drills could lead to "some kind of counter reaction, from the Taiwan side, to also show strength as well. So if you set that train in motion, accidents do happen," he said.

For the time being, Ong said she believes "the safest thing to do is not provoke Beijing."

"That is not to say that we do not support democracy in Taiwan; that is not what I'm saying," she told Armstrong.

"But we should just maintain the status quo and try to reduce the likelihood of a military attack by Beijing as far as possible, because, you know, the collateral damage will be so much higher."

Written by Padraig Moran, with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Randy Potash, Ben Jamieson and Anis Heydari.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?