NANCY PELOSI spent a few hours in Taiwan this week.
In response, China fired ballistic missiles, deployed attack helicopters, warplanes and gunships, and started a “military exercise” encircling the island, which it sees as its own. Such was Beijing’s rage that remnants of its rockets landed in Japanese waters, according to officials there.
The overblown sabre-rattling echoed the theatre of the purported offence.
Ms Pelosi’s trip served no purpose other than to make a point. At a time when there is concern about the rise of autocrats the world over, the US Speaker of the House of Representatives could not have cancelled her voyage, which had been planned since before April.
“America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy,” Ms Pelosi said, adding that, in her view, the visit did not contradict US policy.
Many disagree with that assessment. US President Joe Biden was reluctant to sanction the visit, and indeed discouraged it.
Still, contrary to assertions otherwise, the “One China” policy – which recognises only one Chinese government – hardly lies in tatters due to a single visit. Even colonies can host visiting leaders. The question of whether Taiwan is an annex of the mainland or a sovereign state hardly turns on the identity of who sleeps over.
While it is often said hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, in this instance, it is clearly China that protests too much. The cause might have more to do with factors in China itself.
President Xi Jinping, famous for consolidating his grip on power, is at the cusp of entering into a precedent-breaking third term in October.
Having backed Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Mr Xi may well sense his moment has come to close in on Taiwan. Some may ask whether Ms Pelosi has provided the perfect excuse.
The truth is, however, that China’s policies and manoeuvres are wholly matters controlled by its leader. If the country wishes to move in on Taiwan, it will do so under any number of pretexts. If not Ms Pelosi today, some other irritant or “provocation” will emerge tomorrow.
The last thing the world needs is a conflagration of tensions between key world powers.
But the reality is Taiwan, a democracy, does not regard China as having authority over it. China cannot micromanage the island. And it cannot determine unilaterally whom Taiwanese officials wish to meet or to host.
If Ms Pelosi, a longstanding ally of Taiwan long before this trip, has been provocative, so too has China, through its disproportionate response.
What the world has learned is just how far both sides might travel in the near future.