US military makes plans in case Pelosi travels to Taiwan

SYDNEY (AP) – U.S. officials say they have little fear that China would attack Nancy Pelosi’s plane if she flies to Taiwan. But the speaker of the US House would be entering one of the world’s hottest places, where an accident, misstep or misunderstanding could jeopardize her safety. So the Pentagon is developing plans for any contingency.

Officials told The Associated Press that if Pelosi goes to Taiwan — still an uncertainty — the military will increase its movement of forces and assets in the Indo-Pacific region. They declined to give details but said 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 executive requires additional security. But officials said this week that a visit to Taiwan by Pelosi – she would be the highest-ranking US elected official to visit Taiwan since 1997 – would go beyond the usual security measures for travel to less risky destinations.

Asked about planned military steps to protect Pelosi in the event of a visit, U.S. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday that discussion of a specific trip is premature. But, he added, “if a decision is made that Speaker Pelosi or anyone else is going to travel, and they asked for military support, we will do whatever is necessary to ensure the safe completion of their visit. And that I’ll just leave it alone.”

China considers self-governing Taiwan its own territory and has raised the prospect of annexing it by force. The United States maintains informal relations and defense ties with Taiwan, although it recognizes Beijing as the government of China.

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

Dozens of such maneuvers have taken place this year alone, Ely Ratner, US assistant secretary of defense, said Tuesday at a forum in the South China Sea by the Center 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 significant forces spread across the region, so any increased security could largely be handled by assets already in place.

The military also had to be prepared for any eventuality – 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, D-Calif., has not publicly confirmed any new plans for a trip to Taiwan. She was supposed to leave in April, but she postponed the trip after testing positive for COVID-19.

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

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

U.S. officials have said the administration doubts China will take direct action against Pelosi herself or try to sabotage the visit. But they do not rule out the possibility that China could escalate provocative overflights by military aircraft in or near Taiwanese airspace and naval patrols in the Taiwan Strait, should the trip take place. And they do not rule out Chinese actions elsewhere in the region as a show of strength.

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

The biggest risk during Pelosi’s trip is that some Chinese show of force “goes awry, or some kind of accident that comes out of a show of provocative action,” said Mark Cozad, acting associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand Corp. “So it could be a mid-air collision. It could be some kind of missile test, and again, when you do that kind of thing, you know, there’s 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 US officials’ reported consideration of aircraft carriers and warplanes to ensure the speaker’s security. “Obviously the White House doesn’t want the speaker to go, and I think that’s why you get some of these proposals.”

“She will not go with an armada,” said Pavel.

They also said an increased US military presence to protect Pelosi risked increasing tensions.

“It’s quite possible that … our attempts at deterrence are actually sending a very different signal than what we intend to send,” Cozad said. “And then you get into … a kind of spiral of escalation, 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 that China is prepared to “take firm and strong measures to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

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

These include reports of Chinese fighter jets flying so close to a Canadian air safety 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, when the Chinese crew triggered a shower of metal debris that was sucked into the other plane’s engine.

U.S. officials say the prospect of an interception or show of force by Chinese aircraft near Pelosi’s plane raises concerns, prompting the need for U.S. aircraft and other assets to be nearby.

The US aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its strike group are currently operating in the Western Pacific and called at 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 calling at port in Singapore, the strike group operated in the South China Sea. In addition, another Navy ship, the USS Benfold, a destroyer, has conducted free navigation operations in the region, including a passage through the Taiwan Strait last week.


Knickmeyer reported from Washington.

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