In the coming hours, Nancy Pelosi is expected to arrive in Taiwan. The plane that is thought to be carrying her is approaching the island from the east to avoid the Taiwan Strait and any attempt by the Chinese to fly close to her. As Speaker of the House of Representatives, she will be the most senior US figure to visit Taipei this century.
Beijing is furious about Pelosi’s decision to go. It has warned that its military ‘won’t sit idly by’ if she does touch down and is planning various displays of military strength. While no one expects the Chinese to actually attack the island, there is talk of buzzing the Taiwanese air defence zone and other intimidatory acts.
Taiwan is of huge importance. Its strategic location and the fact it is a natural fortress means that taking control of the island goes a long way to determining the balance of power in the region. It is also a vital part of the world economy as it is, by far, the leading manufacturer of the most advanced semiconductor chips. If those were cut off by a Chinese blockade, the economic effects would dwarf those of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
But perhaps the way in which Taiwan is most significant is as a barometer of Chinese-US competition. Xi Jinping has been explicit about his desire to bring Taiwan back into the fold. After the collapse of one country, two systems in Hong Kong, it is impossible to imagine that this can be done peacefully. The US has long tried to maintain strategic ambiguity on whether it would defend Taiwan if attacked. But if Taiwan were to fall to China, it would be seen in Asia as a symbol of a shift in the balance of power in the region.