SYDNEY—Nancy Pelosi hasn’t said if she’s going to Taiwan, but if she does she’d be entering one of the world’s hottest and most contentious spots. While U.S. officials say they have little fear that Beijing would attack the U.S. House speaker’s plane, they are aware that a mishap, misstep or misunderstanding could endanger her safety. Therefore, the Pentagon is preparing for any eventuality.
Officials told The Associated Press that if Pelosi goes to Taiwan — still an uncertainty — the military would increase its movement of forces and assets in the Indo-Pacific region. Although they declined to give details, officials said that aircraft, fighter jets and ships as well as surveillance systems and other military equipment would be likely to protect Pelosi’s flight to Taiwan.
Extra security must be taken when a high-ranking American leader travels abroad. But officials said this week that a visit to Taiwan by Pelosi — she would be the highest-ranking U.S. elected official to visit Taiwan since 1997 — would go beyond the usual safety precautions for trips to less risky destinations.
U.S.Gen. Mark Milley (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) was asked Wednesday about military measures to safeguard Pelosi, D-Calif. in case of a possible visit. But, he added, “if there’s a decision made that Speaker Pelosi or anyone else is going to travel and they asked for military support, we will do what is necessary to ensure a safe conduct of their visit. And I’ll just leave it at that.”
Pelosi will be the American lawmaker with the highest ranking to visit the country’s close ally. This is a 25-year-old trip by Newt, R-Ga. (previous speaker).
China regards Taiwan as its territory, and is considering annexation. Even though it recognises Beijing’s government, the U.S. has maintained informal and military ties with Taiwan.
This trip will be considered in a moment when China is increasing what it calls dangerous one-on-one encounters with other militaries. Some of the incidents involved dangerous fly-bys. These have forced other pilots into a swerve in order to avoid collisions.
Ely Ratner from the U.S. Assistant Defense Secretary said that there have been dozens of similar maneuvers this year. He spoke Tuesday at a South China Sea Forum organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. China denied the incident.
Officials from the United States spoke under anonymity in order to talk about sensitive security concerns. They described the necessity to establish buffer zones around the speaker’s plane and the speakers. As the U.S. has substantial military forces throughout the region, any increase in security could be largely handled by those assets.
The military would also have to be prepared for any incident — even an accident either in the air or on the ground. According to them, the U.S. must have nearby rescue capability and that might include aircraft on ships.
Pelosi did not confirm any other plans to visit Taiwan. Although she had originally planned to visit Taiwan in April, her plans were canceled after receiving good news from COVID-19.
Monday’s White House response was not direct. It noted she has not yet confirmed the trip. But President Joe Biden last week raised concerns about it, telling reporters that the military thinks her trip is “not a good idea right now.”
Pelosi may be on the horizon for a Thursday call between Biden, President Xi Jinping of China. This will be their first contact in four months. The Associated Press was informed by a U.S. official that the calls were planned under anonymity.
U.S. officials stated that they doubt China would directly take action against Pelosi, or try to stop the visit. But they don’t rule out the possibility that China could escalate provocative overflights of military aircraft in or near Taiwanese airspace and naval patrols in the Taiwan Strait should the trip take place. And they don’t preclude Chinese actions elsewhere in the region as a show of strength.
Tuesday’s meeting was a split between security analysts who were divided on the threat posed by a traveler and whether additional military protection is necessary.
The biggest risk during Pelosi’s trip is of some Chinese show of force “gone awry, or some type of accident that comes out of a demonstration of provocative action,” said Mark Cozad, acting associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corp. “So it could be an air collision. It could be some sort of missile test, and, again, when you’re doing those types of things, you know, there is always the possibility that something could go wrong.”
Barry Pavel, director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, scoffed at U.S. officials’ reported consideration of aircraft carriers and warplanes to secure the speaker’s safety. “Obviously, the White House does not want the speaker to go and I think that’s why you’re getting some of these suggestions.”
“She’s not going to go with an armada,” Pavel said.
A heightened U.S. presence in Pelosi’s defense would increase tensions, they added.
“It is very possible that … our attempts to deter actually send a much different signal than the one we intend to send,” Cozad said. “And so you get into … some sort of an escalatory spiral, where our attempts to deter are actually seen as increasingly provocative and vice versa. And that can be a very dangerous dynamic.”
On Wednesday, China’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the presidential phone call. However, spokesperson Zhao Lijian reiterated China’s warnings over a Pelosi visit. “If the U.S. insists on going its own way and challenging China’s bottom line, it will surely be met with forceful responses,” Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing. “All ensuing consequences shall be borne by the U.S.”
Milley stated this week that intercepts of Chinese ships and aircraft in the Pacific area with U.S. forces and partners has increased dramatically over the last five years. He said Beijing’s military has become far more aggressive and dangerous, and that the number of unsafe interactions has risen by similar proportions.
Those include reports of Chinese fighter jets flying so close to a Canadian air security patrol last month that the Canadian pilot had to swerve to avoid collision, and another close call with an Australian surveillance flight in late May in which the Chinese crew released a flurry of metal scraps that were sucked into the other plane’s engine.
U.S. officials say that the prospects of an intercept or show of force by Chinese aircraft near Pelosi’s flight raises concerns, prompting the need for American aircraft and other assets to be nearby.
USS Ronald Reagan is an aircraft carrier. It and its strike unit are currently active in the Pacific. The ship made a weekend stop at Singapore. At least two additional Navy ships are part of the strike group, as well Carrier Air Wing 5, with F/A-18 fighters jets, helicopters, and surveillance planes.
The South China Sea was where the strike group had been operating before it arrived in Singapore. Another Navy destroyer, the USS Benfold (a Navy ship), has also conducted freedom of navigation in the area, including an entry through the Taiwan Strait.
Knickmeyer was based in Washington.
Here are more must-read stories from TIME