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I was reading a New York Times article today and was struck by a particular passage.

Here is a quote:

Then, as Ms. Pelosi’s plane was touching down in Taiwan late Tuesday night, some social media users commented on how disappointed they were with Beijing’s lame response.

No military action in the Taiwan Strait, as they felt they had been led to expect. No shoot-down, no missile attack, no fighter jet flying next to Ms. Pelosi’s plane. Just some denunciations and announcements of military exercises. [Emphasis added]

In my reading of the sentence, the author is suggesting the target of such a shoot-down expected by social media users would be Speaker Pelosi.

Obviously, the Times is free to report on any random internet user's expectations. Ms. Yuan, the author, is a columnist for the Times, but this is not an opinion piece.

Was there a meaningful possibility that the People's Liberation Army would assassinate Ms. Pelosi? Did any branch of the US government address this issues publicly?

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    A lot of answers here benefiting from hindsight
    – Justas
    Aug 6 at 12:30
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    @Justus The Chinese-Taiwanese tensions aren't solved yet. So hindsight about the willingness of China to use deadly force may not be fully existing yet.
    – Trilarion
    Aug 6 at 20:16
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    It's pointless to judge anything from "some social media users." Some social media users wish harm to Pelosi because they don't like her political views. Some other social media users said it wasn't shot down because China likes what she's doing to USA. Some other social media users who don't like her are unable to come up with a substantive criticism, so they just post unflattering photos of her.
    – WGroleau
    Aug 7 at 7:06

3 Answers 3

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When you ask if there's any possibility, the answer is always 'yes': politics entails risk. But if you ask whether it's likely the answer is a definitive 'no'. China's tactics over the last few decades has been slow pressure campaigns. It asserts some disputed fact as 'true' and then complains loudly and angrily if anyone contradicts it, hoping that sheer attitude will win the day. They don't seem to want a war if they can avoid it, and shooting down the plane of a congressperson would almost certainly be interpreted as an act of war.

Pelosi's trip was posturing; China's complaints and military displays were posturing. Everyone got to strike dramatic poses and rattle their sabres menacingly, but everyone knew just where to draw the line to keep things from spiraling out of control. There was always the chance that someone's trigger-finger would slip, but China was not going to intentionally provoke war with the US over this.

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    "China was not going to intentionally provoke war with the US over this" They might still want to provoke a war with Taiwan in the near future in the hope that the US backs out. But also then it would not be wise to start shooting at the US.
    – Trilarion
    Aug 4 at 14:23
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    It's very unlikely the Chinese would fire an air to air or surface to air missile with the goal of shooting down this plane. However they recently are alleged to have had one of their fighters deploy chaff so close to an Australian military plane that it was ingested by that plane's engine. That seems like proof that China isn't just in the business of rhetoric but are trying to edge as close as they can to an attack presumably without crossing the line. If they will order that where exactly do they think the line is? bbc.com/news/world-australia-61696973
    – Eric Nolan
    Aug 4 at 14:36
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    @Trilarion : indeed, the most ideal scenario for China would be if they managed to provoke a war with Taiwan in such a way that the USA stays out of it. Or at least make the international community believe that the USA started it, not them. Firing the first shot at an US airplane is contrary to this goal.
    – vsz
    Aug 5 at 6:02
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    IMHO the use of the word "posturing" is debatable since I assume you are using it in the sense (to quote Merriam Webster) of "to assume an artificial or pretended attitude". The US government pursues a policy of strategic ambiguity" regarding Taiwan. This permits maintenance of diplomatic relations with the PRC while Taiwan can obtain US weaponry to resist a Chinese invasion. This has functioned well for decades but the current Putin-allied Chinese leadership might cross the line and invade. In contrast to the Executive Branch, Pelosi judged it was time to send a clearer signal of US support.
    – bvanlew
    Aug 5 at 10:00
  • @bvanlew: No, I meant 'posturing' in the sense of 'adopting a posture to convey a message'. The implication of falsehood or artificiality is misleading; the aim was to inform the Chinese government that (a) certain high-ranking members of US government are not intimidated by the possibility of aggression, and (b) there is vocal US support for an independent Taiwan. Pelosi effectively said: "Attack me if you dare, and suffer the consequences." The Chinese heard that loud and clear, which is why they are so aggressively responding; anything less would be seen as capitulation to the US. Aug 7 at 8:08
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"Was there a meaningful chance"? No.

China would have had the capability, and there is always the risk (to use China's metaphor) when one plays with fire, that one gets burnt.

Had China wanted to, it could have sent a fighter escort to guide Pelosi's jet away from Taiwan. And when a jet carrying civilians is instructed to do something by a fighter, the jet complies, just as you would if a soldier commanded you to walk away with a gun pointed at your head.

There are scenarios in which the fighters shoot first. There are scenarios in which a local SAM battery takes matters into its own hand. There are scenarios in which Pelosi's plane decides to ignore the threat from fighters. These are militarily possible (and no doubt someone in the military has planned for them, since that is what officers do) However there is not a "meaningful chance" of China deliberately shooting down a non-military plane without giving it the opportunity to change course.

But the clincher is this. Pelosi, her team, and her pilot have access to far better intelligence than I do. The pilot will have had to make an assessment of the risk, they would have had to answer exactly your question: "Is there a meaningful possibility that the People's Liberation Army will assassinate Ms. Pelosi". If there had been intelligence or any other evidence that there was a meaningful risk of being shot down, the pilot would not have flown. So, in the assessment of the pilot of this aircraft, it was sufficiently safe to fly to Taiwan.

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    The aircraft transporting Speaker Pelosi and others is a US Air Force C-40C "a VIP transport aircraft often used to carry members of the Cabinet and Congress." In other words, a military aircraft.
    – Rick Smith
    Aug 4 at 18:38
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    Its was not a military aircraft flying a sortie. So no not "military" except in some technical sense. re MH17 "There are scenarios in which the fighters shoot first. There are scenarios in which a local SAM battery takes matters into its own hand." I stand by the main answer: "No, there was never a meaningful chance". If there had been (and Pelosi has better access to intelligence than us) the pilot would not have flown.
    – James K
    Aug 4 at 20:32
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    @Trilarion That probably wasn't deliberately shooting down a non-military plane. The shooting was deliberate, but they didn't intend to shoot down a non-military plane; they probably did think it was a military plane. Aug 5 at 1:19
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    >>"China could have sent a fighter escort to guide Pelosi's jet away from Taiwan"<< and that is really worth examining. They could have stopped Pelosi from visiting Taiwan, had they wanted to badly enough. It might have been a brouhaha, but it wouldn't have started a war and I doubt there would have been any real repercussions other than harsh words. So if they didn't do that, then they probably wanted to yell very angrily and conduct some military exercises instead, and Pelosi was more or less a convenient excuse. Aug 5 at 1:56
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    @Trilarion That was flying over a very active warzone. As much as China are threatening action (and have been for some time), they are not actively attacking. The situations aren't similar. Non-military airplanes being shot down by a SAM battery without active military action in progress has not (to my knowledge) ever happened. Hell, even military airplanes being shot down is only a possibility if they go into the other country's airspace. And no aircraft has been shot down in the China/Taiwan conflict since 1967.
    – Graham
    Aug 5 at 8:19
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The problem for any serious shoot-down attempt is how this played out.

  1. Pelosi's trip is leaked to the press
  2. China did not like that

    "Public opinion cannot be defied. Those who play with fire will perish by it. It is hoped that the US will be clear-eyed about this," the statement [by Xi Jinping] said.

  3. Biden appeared to demur on it

    Biden said that “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now,” but he noted that he was not sure “what the status of it is.”

  4. A Chinese official suggested the plane could be shot down (Twitter removed the post in question)

    “If U.S. fighter jets escort Pelosi’s plane into Taiwan, it is invasion. The PLA has the right to forcibly dispel Pelosi’s plane and the U.S. fighter jets, including firing warning shots and making tactical movement of obstruction. If ineffective, then shoot them down,” Hu Xijin, an analyst for the Chinese state-controlled Global Times, said on Twitter Friday in a post that has since been removed by the platform.

  5. Pelosi goes to Taiwan anyway

Would the Chinese shoot down a US head of state? Probably not. In fact, if anything, their statement made it less likely she would get shot down. In brinkmanship, you want to do things that irritate your counterparts without provoking a response. Xi's comments were just vague enough to be understood, but not viewed as a direct threat. Threats as blunt as the one issued later are pretty rare because China does not want a military confrontation with the US. The US has a significant military presence in the area, so it would be hours, not days or weeks, before any response could be taken.

Moreover, let's say someone else (North Korea, Russia, etc) decided to try and sent an asset to shoot her plane down. China would immediately be blamed, regardless of whomever did the deed. The Chinese, thus, had a powerful incentive to make sure nobody else interfered with her trip.

A shoot-down would also dramatically shift public opinion for both the US and China. China uses Taiwan to help build nationalistic pride

China’s official position, which it has repeated almost by rote for decades and drilled into its citizens, is that Taiwan has always been part of China and therefore its separation from the mainland is intolerable. This has given the pursuit of political control of the island an unquestionable, almost divinely ordained quality. For a nation whose governing ideology of communism is strongly at odds with its economic realities, nationalism has increasingly become the go-to binding force in public life—and with cynicism about the country’s system running high, especially among educated urbanites, pursuit of the absorption of Taiwan still spurs a unified sense of purpose, acting as a kind of nationalist catnip.

While the downsides of war are obvious, the current political climate allows Beijing to use Taiwan as a way to distract from domestic problems (in much the same way Russia's war with Ukraine does). Actually capturing Taiwan would be far from an easy thing (as Ukraine has recently proved), and would leave leaders without an easy target to keep national problems focused on. People would naturally drift to other subjects, which could lead to discontent. Better to let Pelosi have her trip and then beat the drum of your state-run media, than to shoot her down and harm your economy (sanctions would be the minimal response they could expect), and drive discontent with the government.

Remember also that Pelosi is a Democrat, and Democrats tends to favor less overseas wars. Killing her would divide the Democrats, and leave room for a new, potentially more hawkish, leader. Republicans would almost certainly be united in supporting any actions taken. Remember, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, support for the US entering World War II hit 97%. This wouldn't be as galvanizing, but it would galvanize the US sentiment, nonetheless.

TL;DR

There would be no obvious benefit to shooting down Speaker Pelosi's plane, while the downsides would be very dire, including possible open war with the US.

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    This is a much more detailed analysis than the other answers, so I'll go ahead an accept it for now.
    – Ian
    Aug 5 at 15:31
  • @Ian The other answers don't even mention the threat from the Chinese official. That's the only reason the Times mentioned it, not because anyone calculated some risk.
    – user44029
    Aug 5 at 21:30
  • I'm unsure why you think that Pelosi getting assassinated by fighter jet wouldn't lead to a nontrivial chunk of the GOP's base celebrating in the streets while their talking heads would make comments about how of course it's terrible but she had it coming etc etc.
    – Shadur
    Aug 6 at 8:38
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    @Shadur You're always going to have some foolish member of any party (especially these days) openly cheering for bad things to happen to the other side. I don't see GOP leadership doing that, nor do I see them balking at any sort of serious response for China. Again, this would shift public opinion against China.
    – Machavity
    Aug 6 at 12:29

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