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The US military is making plans in the Indo-Pacific in case Nancy Pelosi travels to Taiwan

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A possible trip by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan may well loom over a call planned between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping this week. Photo: AP

US officials say they have little fear that Beijing would attack Nancy Pelosi’s plane if she flies to Taiwan. But the US House speaker would be entering one of the world’s hottest spots where a mishap, misstep or misunderstanding could endanger her safety. So the Pentagon is developing plans for any contingency.

Officials told Associated Press that if Pelosi went to Taiwan – still an uncertainty – the military would increase its movement of forces and assets in the Indo-Pacific region. They declined to provide details, but said that fighter jets, ships, surveillance assets and other military systems would likely be used to provide overlapping rings of protection for her flight to Taiwan and any time on the ground there.

Any foreign travel by a senior US leader requires additional security. But officials said this week that a visit to Taiwan by Pelosi – who would be the highest-ranking US elected official to visit the island since 1997 – would go beyond the usual safety precautions for trips to less risky destinations.

Asked about planned military steps to protect Pelosi in the event of a visit, US General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Wednesday that discussion of any specific travel was premature. 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”.

Beijing considers self-ruled Taiwan its own territory and has raised the prospect of annexing it by force. The US maintains informal relations and defence ties with Taiwan, even as it recognises Beijing as the government of China.

The trip is being considered at a time when China has escalated what the US and its allies in the Pacific describe as risky one-on-one confrontations with other militaries to assert its sweeping territorial claims. The incidents have included dangerously close fly-bys that force other pilots to swerve to avoid collisions, or harassment or obstruction of air and ship crews, including with blinding lasers or water cannons.

Dozens of such manoeuvres had occurred this year alone, Ely Ratner, US assistant defence secretary, said on Tuesday at a South China Sea forum by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. China denies the incidents.

The US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security issues, described the need to create buffer zones around the speaker and her plane. The US already has substantial forces spread across the region, so any increased security could largely be handled by assets already in place.

The military would also have to be prepared for any incident – even an accident either in the air or on the ground. They said the US would need to have rescue capabilities nearby and suggested that could include helicopters on ships already in the area.

Pelosi, a Democrat from California, has not publicly confirmed any new plans for a trip to Taiwan. She had planned to go in April but postponed the trip after testing positive for Covid-19.

The White House on Monday declined to weigh in directly on the matter, noting she had not confirmed the trip. But President Joe Biden last week raised concerns about it, telling reporters that the military considered her trip “not a good idea right now”.

A Pelosi trip may well loom over a call planned for Thursday between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, their first conversation in four months. A US official confirmed plans for the call to Associated Press on condition of anonymity ahead of the formal announcement.

US officials have said the administration doubts that China would take direct action against Pelosi herself or try to sabotage the visit. But they do not rule out the possibility that Beijing 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.

Security analysts were divided on Tuesday about the extent of any threat during a trip and the need for any additional military protection.

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 Defence Policy Centre at the Rand Corporation.

“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 Centre for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, scoffed at US 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.

They also said that a stepped-up US military presence to safeguard Pelosi risked raising tensions.

“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 Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Beijing had repeatedly expressed its “solemn position” over a potential Pelosi visit. He told reporters Beijing was prepared to “take firm and strong measures to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Milley said this week that the number of intercepts by Beijing’s aircraft and ships in the Pacific region with US and other partner forces had increased significantly over the past five years. He said Beijing’s military had become far more aggressive and dangerous, and that the number of unsafe interactions had risen by similar proportions.

Those include reports of People’s Liberation Army 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 PLA crew released a flurry of metal scraps that were sucked into the other plane’s engine.

US officials say the prospects of an intercept or show of force by PLA aircraft near Pelosi’s flight raises concerns, prompting the need for American aircraft and other assets to be nearby.

The US aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its strike group is currently operating in the western Pacific, and made a port call in Singapore over the weekend. The strike group involves at least two other navy ships and Carrier Air Wing 5, which includes F/A-18 fighter jets, helicopters and surveillance aircraft.

Before pulling into port in Singapore, the strike group was operating in the South China Sea. In addition, another navy ship, the USS Benfold, a destroyer, has been conducting freedom of navigation operations in the region, including a passage through the Taiwan Strait last week.