Soon after Beijing’s last big confrontation with Washington over Taiwan, Xi Jinping, then a rising official in a Chinese province that faces the disputed island, joined a reserve artillery division, and later had himself photographed in military greens, cap turned backward as he peered through the sights of an antiaircraft gun.
Looking tough toward the self-ruled island, Mr. Xi learned long before he became China’s top leader, is essential for political survival in the ruling Communist Party.
That lesson hangs over him as he weighs how to react if Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, travels to Taiwan during a tour of Asian nations that began on Monday in Singapore, as the White House expects she will. She would be the most senior U.S. official to visit the island since 1997, when a previous speaker, Newt Gingrich, visited.
Mr. Xi has cast himself as the standard-bearer of a sacred cause — unifying Taiwan with China — and Beijing regards visits to the island by American officials as an affront to that claim. China’s foreign ministry has warned Ms. Pelosi of “serious consequences” if, as expected, she goes to Taiwan, and China’s military has issued vague warnings of readiness to defend national sovereignty.
But Mr. Xi is also confronting a brittle economic and political moment, and careening into a crisis over Taiwan could damage him, even as he rallies nationalist support.
He is focused on a Communist Party congress later this year, when he is highly likely to secure backing for a third term as the party’s general secretary, bucking the two-term precedent set by his predecessor. He wants to orchestrate sweeping acclaim from officials to lock in that new five-year term and ensure he dominates decisions on the leadership lineup.
His record has attracted murmured doubts, however, as China’s growth has faltered under Covid outbreaks and shutdowns, and as Russia’s grinding war in Ukraine has prompted questions about Mr. Xi’s closeness to President Vladimir V. Putin. Now, Ms. Pelosi’s potential meeting with Taiwanese leaders could further challenge Mr. Xi.
If Ms. Pelosi follows through — she has not confirmed whether she will visit Taiwan — Mr. Xi is likely to use displays of military might to convey Beijing’s anger while seeking to avoid a volatile standoff that would spook markets and drag down China’s economy, experts said.
“There will be a very strong reaction, for sure, but it will not be out of control,” said Chen Dingding, an international relations professor at Jinan University in southern China.
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Mr. Xi appeared to signal his concerns last week, when he told President Biden in a call not to “play with fire” and risk self-immolation over Taiwan. It was ominous language, but the same wording that Mr. Xi used in a call with the U.S. president in November. Neither Mr. Xi nor Mr. Biden mentioned Ms. Pelosi in their public accounts of their conversation.
“This is really midlevel warning rhetoric, not high-level warning rhetoric signaling an appetite for war-level risks,” said David Gitter, the president of the Center for Advanced China Research, a nonprofit research institute. “It doesn’t suggest that they’re about to do something very crazy — like directly threaten the speaker’s safety.”
The Chinese government perhaps gave a foretaste of how it would respond if she visits when the military announced live-fire exercises in waters 80 miles from neighboring Taiwan’s coast. On Monday, the 95th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, Chinese military media unleashed more statements about defending sovereignty, as well as video of China’s Dongfeng-17 ballistic missile. Chinese television also issued an unflattering video profile of Ms. Pelosi.
“We once again sternly warn the U.S. side that China stands at the ready and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army will never sit idly by,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, told reporters in Beijing on Monday about Ms. Pelosi’s possible visit. “China will take resolute and vigorous countermeasures to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
But for now, at least, the Communist Party’s main newspapers have not published editorials about Ms. Pelosi’s possible visit that would signal a major escalation; nor has the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued anything like the authoritative statement that deepened a standoff over Taiwan in 1995.
While Mr. Xi seems not to want to court a crisis, said Bonnie S. Glaser, the director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, “if P.L.A. aircraft approach Taiwan in ways that differ from the past, and if they enter into Taiwan’s territorial airspace, an incident could happen, whether Xi wants one or not.”
In the rolling Taiwan crisis of 1995-96, China held military exercises off Taiwan, and the United States sent naval ships to deter China. Beijing was irate after the Clinton administration allowed Taiwan’s president, Lee Teng-hui, to visit the United States, and Chinese leaders conducted menacing missile tests in what appeared to be an effort to hurt Mr. Lee in Taiwan’s 1996 presidential election. Instead, he won.
Back then, Mr. Xi was an official in Fujian Province, facing Taiwan, and often courted investors from the island. He became the top political officer of a People’s Liberation Army reserve antiaircraft division there in 1996, after he had become deputy party secretary of the province.
“We must clearly understand the severe direction of struggle in the Taiwan Strait,” Mr. Xi told division officers in 2001, according to a China News Service report at the time. “Only by really preparing to fight is peace possible.”
Even if Ms. Pelosi cancels her visit or it passes without crisis, many experts believe that rising tensions over the future of the island make conflict increasingly likely in coming years.
Mr. Xi has laid out eventual unification with Taiwan as one of his guiding goals for China’s “national rejuvenation” as a modern, unified superpower. He has said he wants to absorb Taiwan peacefully at some unspecified time in the future, but does not rule out force. China’s military modernization is approaching a point where an invasion of the island is conceivable, though still daunting and risk filled.
“The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation won’t be an effortless task achieved just by fanfare of gongs and drums,” he told officials in Beijing last week in a theme-setting speech for the party congress.
Mr. Biden told reporters last month that “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now” for Ms. Pelosi to go to Taiwan, and administration officials are said to have tried to persuade her not to visit. After Mr. Biden’s phone call with Mr. Xi last week, the U.S. account of the exchange “suggested that Biden made clear he is not looking for a fight with China over Taiwan right now,” said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former director for China on the National Security Council.
Even so, Mr. Hass says in a new paper, Beijing and Washington have grown increasingly distrustful over the other’s intentions toward Taiwan, and “communication channels for managing tensions have collapsed.”
Washington officials, and many people in Taiwan, say that China’s efforts to exclude the island from international forums have deepened Taiwanese frustration with Beijing. They also say that increasing Chinese military activities around the island have only intensified residents’ misgivings about Mr. Xi.
Policymakers in Beijing fault the United States. They say Washington increasingly pays only lip service to its “one China” policy, and has expanded military and political ties with Taipei far beyond what was agreed when Beijing and Washington established diplomatic relations in 1979.
“The Biden administration has continued the Trump administration’s strategy of ‘using Taiwan to contain China,’” Cao Qun, a researcher at the state-run China Institute of International Studies, wrote in a recent assessment. “The chances of a clash between China and the United States in the Taiwan Strait are growing.”
Mr. Xi’s options to retaliate include holding menacing military exercises, perhaps in seas and skies closer to Taiwan. He could also send more planes and ships near Taiwan, including by crossing the median line in the Taiwan Strait, an informal boundary that Chinese forces cross only infrequently.
After other American politicians and foreign delegations have visited Taiwan, Beijing has escalated flights into Taiwan’s “air defense identification zone,” an area that goes well beyond the island’s sovereign airspace, said Gerald Brown, a military analyst in Washington who collects and analyzes data on those flights. In November, China sent 27 military planes into the zone soon after U.S. lawmakers visited Taipei.
At an extreme, China could also fire missiles near Taiwan, as in 1996. Back then, though, China’s military was too weak to seriously threaten American forces across the region. If Mr. Xi did the same now, the global shock waves could be much bigger.
“I don’t think that up to now there have been any signs that China will launch major military operations,” said Kuo Yu-jen, a political science professor at the National Sun Yat-sen University in southern Taiwan. “If China overreacts, bringing countermeasures from the U.S. or Japan, for Xi Jinping, the losses would outweigh the gains.”
Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.