WHEN the two most powerful men on Earth spoke last week, Chinese strongman Xi Jinping had a chilling warning to US President Joe Biden.
The ruthless Xi calmly and coolly told him, “Those who play with fire will perish,” in a sinister swipe at American “provocations” over the disputed island of Taiwan.
Just days later, the two superpowers are now locked in an impasse that threatens to overshadow the Russian invasion of Ukraine and unleash World War III.
China claims that the democratically-run island nation, just 100 miles off the coast, is its sovereign territory — despite US commitments to defend its right to remain free. Nancy Pelosi, the third most powerful political figure in America, has fueled China’s anger by “playing with fire” and visiting the island.
Veteran anti-Chinese crusader Pelosi, 82, is the first major US politician to visit in 25 years — and she criticized Xi’s government. China’s response was swift, with 21 of its fighter jets crossing the Taiwan Strait when Pelosi’s plane arrived, setting off air-raid sirens over the powder keg state.
Hundreds more warplanes and battleships and thousands of troops will now participate in six-day exercises in six nearby exclusion zones – some even ten miles from the coast.
Military analysts warned last night that the risk of catastrophic miscalculation and terrifying global escalation will be huge during the war games.
How big is that risk then?
Charles Parton, a former British diplomat, believes the threat of economic Armageddon will help avert the greater danger of a nuclear clash.
He said: “The deep engagement, in both directions, between China and the rest of the world is so much deeper than with Russia.” Analysts said only a major miscalculation by China, such as a bloody blitz of capital Taipei, could trigger a major reaction that could escalate into a global conflict.
America is much more likely to ship military hardware to defend Taiwan rather than deploy troops — and the UK will follow.
A US State Department official said: “The question is whether Beijing will try to use the Pelosi trip as some sort of excuse to take steps that could somehow lead to conflict. If any escalation or crisis were to follow her visit, it would be in Beijing.”
Defense analyst Paul Beaver told The Sun: “The situation has the potential to become very dangerous. When it starts in Taiwan, Ukraine looks like a tea party.
“We have to hope common sense prevails, because the stakes are simply too high.
“The Chinese have the distinct advantage of proximity and sheer numbers, but it would be the quality, not the quantity, of the hardware that counted should things get worse.
“And the Americans have the ability to deliver that from their Japanese bases in Yokohama and Okinawa.
“But it will be economic pressures that will keep the fingers off both sides should this escalate.
“The costs to global trade would simply be incalculable, with the potential to impact everyone’s lives at a time when markets are already faltering.
“The hope is that this pressure will be enough to prevent the unthinkable from becoming possible.”
WHAT IS THE HISTORY?
TAIWAN is an island about 100 miles off the coast of Southeast China.
It lies between Japan and the Philippines in the so-called “first island chain” of US-friendly areas critical to White House foreign policy.
Taiwan is also seen as crucial to containing China’s growing military threat. In particular, if China were to capture the island, it could use it as a starting point to file claims against other countries in the region.
Taiwan first came under full Chinese control in the 17th century and then passed into Japan in 1895 after the First Sino-Japanese War. After Japan’s defeat in World War II in 1945, the Republic of China, led by the nationalist Chinese politician Chiang Kai-shek, took control of Taiwan.
But in 1949, Mao Zedong’s communists took power in China after defeating Chiang’s forces in a civil war, and Chiang and his defeated Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan and formed an alliance with the US.
WHY IS TAIWAN SO IMPORTANT?
TAIWAN’s economy has become a technology hub for Western economies – with a single Taiwanese company supplying half of the world’s computer microchips.
Phones, laptops, watches, cars and washing machines all depend on the advanced chips produced on an incredible scale by the 23 million people island nation. A Chinese takeover in Taiwan would give China global control over one of the world’s most important industries – allowing it to drive up prices everywhere.
Seeing its importance, US ties with Taiwan have remained close even after Washington cut official ties in 1979 and pledged to respect the “One China” policy that considers Taiwan to be Chinese.
The US Congress passed a bill shortly after the pledge to supply weapons to Taiwan to allow it to defend itself against Chinese attacks.
An uneasy truce has been in place since then, but tensions flared two years ago when Xi said China has the right to “reunify” Taiwan by force.
WHAT IF CHINA TAKES IT?
WHAT do US military commanders fear could happen if China takes Taiwan?
Strategists believe that if Taiwan falls, the island will become a massive military staging post to expand China’s territorial claims over neighbors, including Vietnam and Malaysia.
In recent months, China has ramped up activity in the Taiwan Strait, raising fears that it is trying to blockade the island or planning an invasion by sea.
WHAT ARE THE ‘PROVOCATIONS’ IN THE US?
PRESIDENT Biden fueled Chinese anger by publicly declaring that he would use US firepower to defend his ally at China’s doorstep.
White House officials later tried to suggest that his words had been misinterpreted.
Pelosi’s visit – in which she denounced China’s “contempt for the rule of law” – has now raised tensions to new heights.
Chinese military jets made hundreds of raids on Taiwan’s defense zone after Biden vowed to come to the aid of the US ally, but experts fear Pelosi’s visit has raised the stakes even higher.
HOW SERIOUS ARE MILITARY MOVING?
BEIJING last held military exercises amid tensions during the previous major crisis in the Taiwan Strait in 1996.
But this week’s action goes much further and closer to disputed territory.
Six “live fire” wargame zones have been declared by China in northern and southern Taiwan, including three that clearly exceed the island’s 12-mile coastal limit.
The US Navy’s powerful battle group USS Ronald Reagan is said to be monitoring the progress of last night’s Chinese exercises in the nearby Philippine Sea.
SANCTIONS ON CHINA?
WOULD economic sanctions against China – such as those against Russia in relation to Ukraine – be effective?
Sanctions can be self-defeating if Western companies leave China in protest.
Days after the Ukraine conflict broke out, Apple, BMW, McDonald’s and other Western giants lined up to announce their withdrawal from Russia.
That decision cost Apple less than one percent of its worldwide sales, while other multinationals sold worthless Russian interests for one ruble.
But many of the largest companies in the West derive much of their profits from China, including Apple, which makes 19 percent of its revenue there.
British Covid drug AstraZeneca also relies on China for 16 percent of its turnover – worth a staggering £5 billion.
WHAT CHANCE OF AN INVASION?
ANALYSTS say a Chinese invasion, or serious military action, had a 20 percent chance, but is now 50 percent since Pelosi’s visit.
But it’s believed that only a major misstep by China, such as an attack on Taipei, can escalate into a global conflict, and the US and Britain are much more likely to provide military hardware than troops.
WHAT IS THE UK’S POSITION?
Secretary of State Liz Truss yesterday criticized China’s “incendiary” response to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
The big favorite to become our next prime minister said Pelosi’s meetings there were “perfectly reasonable” and called on China to de-escalate its threats.
In a joint statement with other G7 countries last night, the UK condemned China, saying: “There is no justification for using a visit as a pretext for aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait. It is normal and routine for lawmakers from our countries to travel internationally.
“The PRC’s escalating response threatens to heighten tensions and destabilize the region.”
Truss has taken an aggressive stance on Taiwan, saying Western countries should do more to ensure it can protect itself and give it “the defensive capability it needs.”