US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi dominated global headlines on Tuesday with her much-anticipated trip to Taipei, becoming the most senior American official to visit Taiwan in 25 years and triggering a barrage of threats and verbal attacks from China.
The risk of further escalation that could destabilise the Indo-Pacific region is a looming concern for national security watchers.
Allen Carlson, an associate professor in Cornell University’s Government Department and a leading academic on US-China relations, saw the risks of conflict as real — but stressed that both Washington and Beijing have an interest in containing the situation.
Mr Carlson spoke to The National about the visit.
How do you view the visit?
The visit is a good idea, but it is badly timed.
On the one hand, it demonstrates to China that America's resolve to support its allies appears to be needed, and also wanted by many in Taiwan.
What are the ramifications of China's military exercises beginning August 4?
This depends on two issues.
First, how forceful will Beijing's response to the visit be. Second, how will those in Taiwan respond.
In the past, when China has acted too forcefully towards the island, from Beijing's perspective, it has counterproductively produced a coalescence of Taiwanese identity. One can imagine the same scenario playing out now should Beijing turn to bellicose measures towards the island.
This, then, maybe the biggest deterrent to China — even more than the US. Although, until 2019 it seemed the same rationale would stay Beijing's hand vis-a-vis Hong Kong, and in the end it did not.
How do you see this visit affecting US-China relations?
In regard to US-China relations, I would argue that both sides still have an interest in avoiding outright confrontation, and so, while the visit will lead to increased tension between Beijing and Washington, I suspect this will not go much further than sabre-rattling and largely symbolic military exercises on China's part, and additional arm sales from Washington to Taiwan.
The real danger then lies not in intentional engagement, but in the possibility that brinkmanship between the two sides will lead to unintended contingencies that could pull both countries into war.
Could this draw China closer to Russia on Ukraine?
No. I think that China’s President Xi Jinping is likely to continue to keep a bit of a distance between himself and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
What should happen next to contain this situation?
There are two things to watch for here. First, what will Ms Pelosi say while in Taiwan and will she — or the Taiwanese — cross any of China's red lines on the island?
Second, will Beijing escalate the situation in a way that goes beyond rhetoric and the largely symbolic use of force?
The hope would be that the Speaker has made her point and will not go much further now, and that Beijing will then show some restraint — even if it unleashed a barrage of verbal attacks. President Joe Biden's administration will then sit back a bit until things settle down.
If this is the scenario that plays out, to return to the first question, the visit will have been a good idea. The problem is that there is a great deal of risk it will not — and a distinct possibility that things could spiral out of control.