US downplays tensions with China amid fears of military escalation

File – In this photo released by the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, center, walks with Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, left, as she arrives in Taipei, Taiwan, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. Pelosi arrived in Taiwan on Tuesday night despite threats from Beijing of serious consequences, becoming the highest-ranking American official to visit the self-ruled island claimed by China in 25 years. ( Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs via AP)

Following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) high-profile trip showing solidarity with Taiwan, Washington and Taipei are taking drastically different tracks toward China’s retaliatory military drills encircling the island.

In an unprecedented show of force, China has sent warships and aircraft through the Taiwan Strait and fired missiles into waters surrounding the island it views as its own territory under its “One China principle.” 

Taiwan has since accused Beijing of not only rehearsing for an invasion of the self-governing island, but of signaling its ambitions to control large swaths of the western Pacific.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, has largely played it cool when addressing the war games.

“I’m concerned they are moving as much as they are,” President Biden told reporters on Monday. “But I don’t think they’re going to do anything more than they are.” 

The Pentagon’s top policy official, Colin Kahl, also offered a measured response to reporters on Monday when asked if China was gearing up to militarily seize Taiwan in the next few years. 

“Clearly the PRC [People’s Republic of China] is trying to coerce Taiwan, clearly they’re trying to coerce the international community, and all I’ll say is we’re not going to take the bait and it’s not going to work,” Kahl said.

The Chinese drills, which began Thursday in retaliation for Pelosi’s trip and were extended on Sunday, are Beijing’s largest ever war games in the Taiwan Strait and have included a dozen missile exercises that bracketed Taiwan. Beijing also upped the pace of naval and air activities in the waterway, including those that crossed over the median line between mainland China and Taiwan. 

Though crossing the center line was a rare move for Beijing before 2019 — when it sent aircraft over the divider for the first time in 20 years — the country has done so several times since. 

Even Chinese state media called the exercises “unprecedented” last week, noting that the drills demonstrate the “mainland’s absolute control over the Taiwan question.” 

The implications of the war games have rippled outward, disrupting flights and shipping in a key region for global trade. Commercial ships and aircraft stayed clear of several “closure zones” in the waters around Taiwan and the air above after the Chinese defense ministry revealed them on a map in a warning not to enter the exercises.   

The drills have also reached beyond that. Five missiles that China launched as part of the exercises landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone last week — the first time such an event has happened — setting off strong protests via diplomatic channels, according to Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi. 

Taiwan has sounded the alarm over the exercises, with Foreign Minister Joseph Wu warning that China looks to control more of the western Pacific. That dominance would include the East and South China Seas and the Taiwan Strait, as well as a blockade to keep the U.S. and its allies from helping Taipei should Beijing attack, according to The Associated Press

Wu also said China’s claim that its war games were prompted by Pelosi’s trip is simply cover for undertaking long-planned military posturing.   

But the Biden administration has remained outwardly cool, with the Pentagon in the past several weeks looking to quell any perceived aggression that may arise from U.S. military movement. 

On Thursday, the Defense Department for a second time held off on a planned intercontinental ballistic missile test launch to reduce “the risks of miscalculation and misperception” amid China’s posturing, according to White House national security spokesman John Kirby.

Defense officials have also stayed silent on if they’ll move any U.S. aircraft or Navy vessels closer to Taiwan should the situation grow more tense for Taipei.  

The U.S. military already has four warships in the Indo-Pacific on what it said are routine operations, including the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, the USS Higgins destroyer and the USS Antietam and USS Chancellorsville guided-missile cruisers.

“What’s important for us right now is to make sure that Beijing understands that our forces in the region will continue to operate, to fly, to sail wherever international waters allows. That includes the Taiwan Strait,” Kahl said.

While Washington does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, it is legally bound to come to the island’s aid in defending itself under the Taiwan Relations Act. 

So far, the biggest criticisms seem to come from lawmakers including Pelosi, who on Tuesday said that Chinese President Xi Jinping is behaving like a “scared bully” and is in a “fragile crisis” in the wake of her trip to Taiwan.

“I think that he’s in a fragile crisis … he has problems with his economy. He’s acting like a scared bully,” Pelosi said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” when asked what she had learned by Xi’s reaction to her trip. 

Pelosi became the highest-ranking U.S. official in 25 years to visit Taiwan with her stop last week, drawing China’s ire as the country interprets international leaders’ visits to the island as recognition of its sovereignty. 

And Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) on Sunday said Xi chose to “manufacture a crisis” over a Pelosi’s visit, arguing the U.S. needs “to be very clear that China doesn’t get to dictate which U.S. officials go to Taiwan and when they go to Taiwan.” 

Still, the Pentagon has allowed that “it’s clear that Beijing is trying to create a kind of new normal, with the goal of trying to coerce Taiwan but also, frankly, to coerce the international community, given the importance of the Taiwan Strait to the global economy,” Kahl said Monday.

He added that the U.S. military will continue to transit the Taiwan Strait in the coming weeks, continue freedom of navigation operations elsewhere in the region and “continue to stand by our allies and partners.” 

Tags Biden Colin Kahl Donald Trump Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi Nancy Pelosi Taiwan US-China relations

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