If Nancy Pelosi lands in Taiwan, China warned today, the US would “pay the price” for interfering in its internal affairs. But would Ukraine get left holding the bill? The escalation of rhetoric out of Beijing continued today, with its foreign ministry bluntly telling the US to stop playing “the Taiwan card,” or else:

Or else what? China’s not going to shoot down Pelosi’s plane or start a war over a functionary visit. They may, however, help perpetuate a war on the other side of the continent, Thomas Friedman warns in today’s New York Times. According to his sources, Joe Biden managed to keep China on the sidelines of the Russia-Ukraine war, which has allowed the West to provide a materiel advantage to Kyiv. That will end with a Pelosi visit, Friedman predicts:

To help create the greatest possibility of Ukraine reversing Putin’s invasion, Biden and his national security adviser Jake Sullivan held a series of very tough meetings with China’s leadership, imploring Beijing not to enter the Ukraine conflict by providing military assistance to Russia — and particularly now, when Putin’s arsenal has been diminished by five months of grinding war.

Biden, according to a senior U.S. official, personally told President Xi Jinping that if China entered the war in Ukraine on Russia’s side, Beijing would be risking access to its two most important export markets — the United States and the European Union. (China is one of the best countries in the world at manufacturing drones, which are precisely what Putin’s troops need most right now.)

By all indications, U.S. officials tell me, China has responded by not providing military aid to Putin — at a time when the U.S. and NATO have been giving Ukraine intelligence support and a significant number of advanced weapons that have done serious damage to the military of Russia, China’s ostensible ally.

Given all of that, why in the world would the speaker of the House choose to visit Taiwan and deliberately provoke China now, becoming the most senior U.S. official to visit Taiwan since Newt Gingrich in 1997, when China was far weaker economically and militarily?

Just how reliable is this information? It’s tough to take at face value, especially while China’s buying Putin’s energy on the cheap. A full-blown trade war with China sounds more like a bluff than a real threat too, and it’d be a safe bet that Xi sees it that way too. Would Biden risk a potential worldwide depression over Ukraine? China could be shipping materiel or at least components across its 4200-kilometer shared border without much oversight from the US or anyone else, and considering Xi’s decision to embrace Putin before the Ukraine conflict, it’s almost certain that he’s sending some relief.

That doesn’t mean that this threat is entirely empty. It’s one thing to send a smaller supply of materiel sotto voce to Russia, but another entirely to openly act as an arsenal of tyranny. China’s production capabilities have been temporarily sapped by the pandemic, but they can step up and become a formidable agent in the Russia-Ukraine War if they choose to act in that manner. And China’s clearly threatening something in response to Pelosi’s visit, which means (a) they have some reason to be extraordinarily angry over this minor stunt, and (b) are contemplating something significant. I’d bet that Friedman’s sources may not be entirely and precisely accurate about Xi’s restraint on Ukraine, but they’re close enough to recognize the betrayal that Xi is claiming now after some level of cooperation with Biden.

Friedman makes a stronger point about picking one’s fights:

In short, this Ukraine war is SO not over, SO not stable, SO not without dangerous surprises that can pop out on any given day. Yet in the middle of all of this we are going to risk a conflict with China over Taiwan, provoked by an arbitrary and frivolous visit by the speaker of the House?

It is Geopolitics 101 that you don’t court a two-front war with the other two superpowers at the same time.

As much as one has to discount this against Friedman’s long-standing Beijing fanboyism, he’s got a point here. Even if Xi hasn’t entirely restrained himself from boosting Putin during this war, he’s not yet gone all-in. And given our own limitations, we’d do better to calm the waters around Taiwan at this particular moment rather than pour gasoline and start striking matches around it.

That’s almost certainly what the Biden administration tried to tell Pelosi. And that’s why Biden’s team is now leaking this all over the place, including to Friedman, in an effort to either shame Pelosi out of her Taiwan visit or to at least distance Biden from Pelosi when it comes to Beijing.

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