Nancy Pelosi is no stranger to a fight. But the Speaker of the House, known primarily for her skills as a legislator, now finds herself in the middle of an international standoff with profound implications for the future of the United States-China relationship.

Pelosi is planning to visit Taiwan next month in what would be the first trip to the island nation by a House Speaker since 1997. The visit comes as China ratchets up its military activity around the Taiwan Strait, which it considers to be its sovereign territory. China has for decades been sensitive about the United States’ posture towards Taiwan, and it has repeatedly spoken out against American diplomatic trips to the country. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has considered such trips to be a violation of the so-called “One China” policy, under which the United States has avoided formally recognizing Taiwan as a legitimate government. 

“If the United States insists on going ahead, China will take firm and resolute measures to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the U.S. will be responsible for all of the serious consequences,” Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said at a media briefing on Monday.

The Biden administration has reportedly grown increasingly concerned that China will back up those threats with economic and military action. “The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now,” President Biden said last week when asked about Pelosi’s trip. According to experts, the timing of Pelosi’s trip is sensitive in part because PRC President Xi Jinping, whose strict Covid-19 measures reportedly created resentment throughout the country, is preparing for a party convention later this year in which he is expected to seek a third five-year term. Stoking nationalist pride over Taiwan, the thinking goes, may help him solidify support.

At the same time, anxiety has been growing within the United States that China’s saber-rattling in the Taiwan Strait is laying the groundwork for a potential invasion. “[U.S.-China relations] are at their lowest point in decades amid growing concern that China might attempt to seize the self-ruled island by force,” Mike Chinov, a senior fellow at the U.S.-China Institute at USC, wrote on Tuesday in Foreign Policy magazine. 

Susan L. Shirk, who served as a top state department official in the Clinton administration and now runs the 21st Century China Center at UC San Diego, told the New York Times that Pelosi’s trip isn’t worth it. “The risk is that the visit by Speaker Pelosi will be perceived, including by Xi himself, as a humiliation of his leadership and that he takes some rash action to show his strength,” she said. “What’s more, in view of his recent misjudgments that have harmed the country and sparked internal controversy — the draconian approach to Covid management, aligning with Russia’s war in Ukraine, and the crackdown on private business — we can’t count on his prudence in his military response to Pelosi’s trip. Better to postpone rather than risk war.”

For her part, Pelosi has long been a prominent critic of China’s human rights record. In her early years in Congress, she developed a reputation as a China hawk. After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, Pelosi helped write a resolution condemning the government’s actions. Two years later, she traveled to China alongside a bipartisan congressional delegation. Standing in Tiananmen Square, Pelosi unfurled a banner that read “for those who died for democracy in China.”

For Pelosi and other congressional critics of China, including Sen. Mitch McConnell, canceling the trip now would look like caving to China on the highest of world stages. “If you cannot stand up for human rights in China because of commercial interests, you lose all moral authority to speak out for it in any place,” Pelosi said in an interview this week.

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