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Pelosi's Taiwan trip leaves Asian countries nervously awaiting China's response

A plane carrying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her delegation departs Taipei on Wednesday.
Taiwanese Foreign Ministry/Handout
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
A plane carrying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her delegation departs Taipei on Wednesday.

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived late Tuesday night in Taiwan, its tallest building — iconic landmark Taipei 101 — lit up with words of welcome, blinking "Thank you" and "TW ♥ U.S."

While Pelosi's visit delighted people in Taiwan, it enraged Beijing and set the region on edge over what China might do in retaliation. From the Philippines to Singapore, countries are worried the status quo could turn from tension to conflict.

"What countries in this region know is that China cannot do nothing — it will look weak," says Singaporean veteran diplomat and academic Kishore Mahbubani. "China has no choice but to react," he says, adding, "at the same time, China doesn't want to start World War III."

China views Taiwan as a breakaway island that should be ruled by the mainland. The U.S. follows an intentionally vague "One China" policy, which views Taiwan as an independent entity that should eventually be integrated into China.

Pelosi has long been a critic of China and an advocate for Taiwan's democracy. She was the first House speaker to visit in 25 years, as U.S. officials generally avoid any moves that could touch off a military conflict — China versus Taiwan, and possibly, the U.S.

Southeast Asia especially feels the strain of living in the shadow of the U.S.-China rivalry. "Governments will be very cautious" talking about cross-Taiwan Strait relations, "for fear of how China will react," says Manila-based maritime expert Jay Batongbacal.

He says the region does not want to become "an arena of major power conflict," and countries would not like to be seen as taking sides.

For that reason, governments in Southeast Asia have stuck to mild statements about the importance of the U.S. and China avoiding "any miscalculation and further escalation of tensions," as the Philippines Foreign Affairs Ministry put it. Indonesia has called on "all parties to refrain from provocative actions that may worsen the situation."

China announced fresh live-fire drills in six locations near Taiwan within hours of Pelosi's arrival on the self-governed island of 23 million. Its military maneuvers have restricted air space and water routes around Taiwan, and an anxious region is watching.

Japan complained to Beijing that the area overlaps with its exclusive economic zone, while Taiwan called the move "a challenge to the international order."

The live drills — more aggressive than usual exercises — should have been anticipated, according to Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, a government research agency. She calls Pelosi's trip "dangerously provocative" and says it came at a time when tensions were already high in the region.

Anwar says with Russia invading Ukraine, "We are all very nervous." The prospect of China moving on Taiwan, replicating events in Europe, looms over Asia, she says.

Anwar says the Taiwan visit by such a high-ranking U.S. official flouted the one-China policy that many countries adhere to when they conduct business with Taiwan, but refrain from sending their senior-most figures. "It's a matter of face for China," she says, and this "is spitting in their face."

Anwar questions what the endgame is for the United States: "Does it want an open war with China over Taiwan?"

Because war is so "unthinkable," says De La Salle University international studies professor Renato Cruz de Castro in Manila, regional governments don't tend to game out the geostrategic significance of Taiwan. His own government focuses instead, he says, on more manageable issues like how to evacuate the 142,000 overseas Filipino workers from Taiwan in the event of armed conflict.

Across the South China Sea, Beijing is flexing its muscle, accused of intimidating fishers, interfering with other nations' ships and occupying islands claimedby its smaller neighbors, including Vietnam and the Philippines.

Being "dragged into a U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan is pretty high on the list of anxieties for most U.S. allies and partners," says Gregory Poling with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Pelosi's visit, he says "will be seen as, at best, unnecessarily risky to most regional governments."

That said, countries of the region "do not want the U.S. to seem a paper tiger" — which he says would only embolden further "bullying" by China.

But Batongbacal believes Pelosi's visit was neither reckless nor deserving of China's threat of military action, which he called "excessive" and "disproportional." Beijing, he says, is "hyping what should be a minor event."

Pelosi provided China "an opportunity to instigate" a confrontation, he says, and China's rhetoric sounded like "it was spoiling for a fight."

That's an outcome no one wants.

"There will be no winners in a military conflict," Anwar says. "We are much too integrated now. If you disrupt trade in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, the whole economy of Southeast Asia will be destroyed."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.