With the US at a weak point, is Xi gearing up to echo Putin by tackling Taiwan?

The complicated dance of Taiwan diplomacy is becoming increasingly fraught, with a mooted August visit to the beleaguered territory by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi creating any number of potholes to trip up unwary politicians and unsettle the delicate balance of US-China relations. US President Joe Biden is expected to discuss these Taiwan tensions with China’s President Xi Jin-ping in a phone call on Thursday and he has already publicly noted that the US military thinks the trip is “not a good idea”.

Pelosi is not commenting on the trip at all, which was originally planned for earlier in the year and delayed or cancelled when she caught Covid. Reported by the Financial Times last week, this visit has been warmly endorsed by her ideological enemies, no doubt keen to back her into a diplomatic corner. Mike Pompeo, secretary of state under former US president Donald Trump, tweeted: “Nancy, I’ll go with you. I’m banned in China, but not freedom-loving Taiwan. See you there!” US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday ramped up the pressure, saying: “If she doesn’t go now, she’s handing China a sort of a victory of sorts”.

China, which sees self-ruled Taiwan as a breakaway province inevitably destined to return to the mainland sooner or later, is unsurprisingly bellicose about the matter, this week warning that a visit by the 82-year-old Democrat, who is second in line for the US presidency, would have “consequences”. “If the US side is bent on going its own way, China will take strong measures to resolutely respond and counteract,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday.

The spat is the latest expression of increasing tension in relations between the rising super-power and the US, long conducted on the principle of so-called “strategic ambiguity”. This policy deliberately fudges positions, allowing the US to accommodate Beijing’s assertion that Taiwan is a breakaway province while at the same time giving the US cover to treat Taiwan as an independent nation and sell it weapons systems for self-defence, primarily to use against China.

Meanwhile Taiwan is conducting annual week-long military exercises, including civil defence drills with wailing air-raid sirens and streets cleared of cars and people. President Tsai Ing-wen, a champion of the territory’s sovereignty who was re-elected in a landslide in 2020, tweeted on Tuesday that she witnessed Taiwan’s navy and airforce in action from the deck of a destroyer: “Their execution of a range of live-fire drills gives me confidence in our military’s ability & determination to respond to any contingency”. “Any contingency” covers a lot of ground, including military incursions.

Still, Taiwan is understandably on edge. Beijing has already reclaimed Hong Kong, many years ahead of schedule, and locked up democracy activists and protesters, while crushing civil society and freedom of the press. Many fear President Xi will take action on Taiwan some time after the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress in November, when it’s expected he will secure an unprecedented third term.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is playing into the mix. There are obvious parallels between Russia attempting to take over a nation it regards as an integral part of the motherland and China’s entrenched position on Taiwan. CIA director Bill Burns said last week at the Aspen Security Forum that he “wouldn’t underestimate President Xi’s determination to assert the People’s Republic of China’s control over Taiwan”, adding the risk has become higher as the decade progresses. However, he noted that China would draw a lesson from Russia’s experience in Ukraine: “You don’t achieve quick decisive victories with underwhelming force”.

The English-language Taipei Times newspaper warns in an editorial published on Wednesday that Biden’s fading popularity could tempt China into forcing the issue; striking while the US is at a weak point.

“Taiwan cannot afford to let its guard down,” the paper says. “With the danger of miscalculation by Xi a real possibility, Taiwan’s military and national security apparatus must remain vigilant.”