When the two most powerful men on Earth talked last week, Chinese strongman Xi Jinping had a chilling warning for US President Joe Biden.
Ruthless Xi calmly and coldly told him, “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” in a sinister swipe at American “provocations” over the disputed isle of Taiwan.
China claims the democratically-run island state, just 160km off its coast, is its sovereign territory – despite US pledges to defend its right to stay free.
Nancy Pelosi, the third most powerful political figure in America, has inflamed China’s fury by “playing with fire” and visiting the island.
Veteran anti-China crusader Pelosi, 82, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, is the first major US politician to visit for 25 years – and she blasted Xi’s government while meeting with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen.
China’s response was swift, with 21 of its fighter jets crossing the Taiwan Strait as Pelosi’s plane arrived, triggering air raid sirens across the powder-keg state.
Hundreds more war jets and battleships and thousands of troops will now take part in six days of exercises at six exclusion zones nearby — some as close as 16km from the coast.
Military analysts have warned that the risk of a disastrous miscalculation and terrifying global escalation will be huge during the war games.
So how great is that risk?
Charles Parton, a former British diplomat, believes the threat of economic armageddon will help to ward off the greater peril of a nuclear clash.
He said: “The depths of involvement, in both directions, between China and the rest of the world, is so much deeper than it is with Russia.”
Analysts said only a major miscalculation by China, such as a bloody blitz of capital Taipei, could trigger a major response that could escalate into global conflict.
The US is far more likely to ship military hardware to defend Taiwan rather than commit troops – and the UK will follow suit.
A US State Department official said: “The question is whether Beijing will try to use the Pelosi trip as some kind of excuse to take steps that could somehow produce conflict. If any escalation or crisis were to somehow follow her visit, it would be on Beijing.”
Defence analyst Paul Beaver told The Sun: “The situation has the capacity to become very dangerous. If it kicks off in Taiwan, Ukraine is going to look like a tea party.
“We have to hope that common sense prevails, because the stakes are simply too high.
“The Chinese have the obvious advantage of proximity and huge numbers but it would be the quality, not the quantity, of the hardware which counts, should the worse happen.
“And the Americans have the ability to supply that from their Japanese bases in Yokohama and Okinawa.
“But it will be economic pressure that will keep fingers off triggers on both sides, should this escalate.
“The cost to global trade would be simply incalculable, with the potential to impact on everyone’s lives at a time when markets are already reeling.
“The hope is that these pressures will be enough to stop the unthinkable becoming possible.”
What’s the history?
Taiwan is an island, roughly 160km off the coast of south east China.
It sits between Japan and the Philippines in the so-called “first island chain” of US-friendly territories crucial to the White House’s foreign policy.
Taiwan is also seen as crucial for containing China’s growing military menace. In particular, if China were to seize the island, it could use it as a jumping-off point to make claims against other nations in the region.
Taiwan first came under full Chinese control in the 17th Century, then passed to Japanese rule in 1895 after the first Sino-Japanese war.
After Japan’s defeat in World War II in 1945, the Republic of China, led by 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 vanquished nationalist forces fled to Taiwan and formed an alliance with the US.
Why is Taiwan so important?
Taiwan’s economy has become a technological linchpin 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 sophisticated chips produced on an incredible scale by the 23-million-strong island nation.
A Chinese takeover in Taiwan would give China global control over one of the world’s most important industries, enabling it to ramp up prices everywhere.
Recognising its significance, US links with Taiwan have remained close, even after Washington cut official ties in 1979 and pledged to respect the “One China” policy which views Taiwan as Chinese.
US Congress passed a bill soon after pledging to supply arms to Taiwan to allow it to defend itself from Chinese attack.
An uneasy truce has held ever since, but tensions were ramped up two years ago when Xi said China has the right to “reunify” Taiwan by force.
What if China takes it?
What do American military commanders fear could happen if China takes Taiwan?
Strategists believe if Taiwan falls, the island will become a vast military staging post to expand China’s territorial claims against neighbours including Vietnam and Malaysia.
In recent months, China has stepped up activity in the Taiwan Strait, stoking fears it may try to blockade the island or that it is honing plans for an invasion by sea.
What are the US ‘provocations’?
President Biden stoked Chinese fury by declaring publicly that he would commit American firepower to defend its ally on China’s doorstep.
White House officials later tried to suggest his words had been misinterpreted.
Pelosi’s visit – in which she blasted China’s “disregard for the rule of law” – has now rocketed tensions to new heights.
Chinese military jets made hundreds of incursions into Taiwan’s defence zone after Biden vowed to come to the US ally’s aid, but experts fear Pelosi’s visit has raised the stakes even higher.
How serious are military moves?
Beijing last staged military drills amid tensions during the previous major Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996.
But this week’s action goes much further and closer to the disputed territory.
Six “live fire” war game zones have been declared by China to the north and south of Taiwan, including three which clearly encroach on the island’s 12-mile coastal limit.
The US Navy’s powerful USS Ronald Reagan carrier battle group was said to be monitoring the progress of the Chinese exercises last night in the nearby Philippine Sea.
Taiwan has recently staged its own military exercises simulating response to a Chinese invasion of the island.
Sanctions on China?
Would economic sanctions against China – like those used against Russia over Ukraine – be effective?
Sanctions may be self-defeating if Western firms quit China in protest.
Days after the Ukraine conflict erupted, Apple, BMW, McDonald’s and other Western giants lined up to announce they were pulling out of Russia.
That decision cost iPhone maker Apple less than 1 per cent of its global sales, while other multinational firms sold off worthless Russian interests for a single rouble.
But many of the West’s biggest businesses take a huge chunk of their profits from China, including Apple, which rakes in 19 per cent of its sales there.
British Covid drug firm AstraZeneca also relies on China for 16 per cent of its sales, worth a whopping $AUD8.7bn.
What are chances of an invasion?
Analysts say a Chinese invasion, or serious military action, had been at a 20 per cent chance but is now at 50 per cent since Pelosi’s visit.
But it is thought only a major misstep by China, such as attacking Taipei, could escalate into a global conflict, and the US and Britain are far more likely to supply military hardware than troops.
This article originally appeared on The Sun and was reproduced with permission.