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China says if Pelosi visits Taiwan, it would be met with very serious consequences


China's foreign ministry says a possible visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which could come later today, would be met with very serious consequences. Here to explain what those consequences could be is Shelley Rigger, a professor of East Asian policy at Davidson College in North Carolina and a leading authority on Taiwan and the region. Professor, why does China see a possible visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi as provocation?

SHELLEY RIGGER: China's been looking at U.S. and Taiwan kind of cooperative activities over the last few years and sees, rightly or wrongly, a pattern of rising support by the U.S. for Taiwan and kind of encouraging Taiwan to be more assertive in its own way. And I think that really troubles them. And they see this as kind of the latest event and a particularly serious event in that trend.

MARTINEZ: Would it feel like some kind of affirmation by the U.S. considering that Nancy Pelosi is the speaker of the House?

RIGGER: Yeah, definitely. It feels like, you know, the U.S. is sending - because from the PRC's point of view, it's very hard to imagine that President Biden hasn't OK'd at a minimum - and maybe quietly initiated at a maximum - an action that's being taken by a member of his own party and the person that the Chinese perceive as the third most important political figure in the U.S.

MARTINEZ: Now, Beijing has included warnings about possible military intervention. Taiwan says it will deploy force in response to what it calls enemy threats. Professor, saber rattling or is it something to take very seriously at this point?

RIGGER: I think it's probably saber rattling, although I think we should take it seriously. There's also the possibility that even if nobody intends to have an actual confrontation in the sky or on the sea, there are always the possibilities of various kinds of accidents or, you know, inadvertent confrontations, clashes. But the thing that really worries me is that it really pushes the U.S. and China much farther down the road to confrontation in the future. I think it will be hard to repair U.S.-China relations after this event.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, because I was going to ask you about this because, I mean, wondering how does Beijing view President Biden's pledge to defend Taiwan when he did not go that far with Ukraine when Russia invaded?

RIGGER: The U.S. has a longstanding commitment to Taiwan that is different from the commitment to Ukraine, right? Ukraine is not part of NATO. It's not an actual ally, and neither is Taiwan a formal ally. But the U.S. has said for many years that what it wants in the Taiwan Strait is a peaceful relationship. And so if that means that we have to deter the PRC from taking action against Taiwan, U.S. officials have said in the past, you know, we will do what it takes to make sure Taiwan is defended.

The difference is that usually in the past, that was accompanied by some kind of statement that said, we also want to make sure that Taiwan is deterred from provoking China. And that's the element that's been missing in the last few statements. And I think that's the thing that really troubles Beijing is the possibility that the U.S. is moving away from a conditional, you know, promise to Taiwan and toward something unconditional. And that really scares them.

MARTINEZ: That's professor Shelley Rigger of Davidson College. Professor, thank you very much.

RIGGER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.