Why has Nancy Pelosi’s surprise trip to Taiwan generated so much interest online?

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Thousands of people went online on Tuesday night to monitor a flight carrying the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan.

Flight tracking website Flightradar24 said more than 708,000 people followed the airplane’s course making it the “most tracked live flight of all time”.

FlightRadar were forced to create a waiting room to ensure that the website would not crash due to the increase in online traffic.

Meanwhile millions of people watched livestreams of the event on Weibo, the popular Chinese social media platform.

Why did Nancy Pelosi’s flight generate so much attention? Firstly, she is the first high-ranking US politician to visit Taiwan in over 25 years.

Moreover, this visit was omitted from an official press release detailing the countries her congressional delegation would visit in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Following Pelosi’s visit Beijing said its government would respond with “resolute, forceful and effective” action.

China considers Taiwan as part of its own territory and insists that the democratic island accepted its contention that it is a part of China, whose sole legitimate government sits in Beijing.

In the face of China’s military threats and relentless campaign to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, islanders overwhelmingly support the status quo of de facto independence.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the trip “has had a severe impact on the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and seriously infringes upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

China says it has begun exercises involving warplanes, navy ships and missile strikes in six zones, as little as 20 kilometres off the island’s coast, potentially infringing on Taiwan’s territorial waters.

The exercises are thought to be the largest and most threatening toward Taiwan since Beijing launched missiles into waters north and south of the island in 1995 and 1996 in response to a visit to the U.S. by then-President Lee Teng-hui.

China regularly sends warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone and has at times crossed the middle line of the Taiwan Strait dividing the sides, but has stopped short of direct incursions or attacks that could spark a regional conflict.

Pelosi’s visit came at a particularly sensitive time; the Chinese President and head of the armed forces, Xi Jinping is preparing to seek a third five-year term as leader of the ruling Communist Party.

Xi has warned that Taiwan’s fate cannot remain unsettled indefinitely while US military officials have said China may seek a military solution within the next few years.

Beijing has also imposed trade curbs, banning fish and fruit imports from Taiwan to the mainland since the visit.

These moves have angered Taiwanese officials who are accusing Beijing of “vicious intimidation”.

“PRC announcing air-naval live-fire drills around Taiwan is self-evidently apparent that they seek a cross-strait resolution by force instead of peaceful means,” tweeted the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defence.

What’s more, some Taiwanese government websites have been the target of cyberattacks, and went offline for a few minutes on Tuesday.

Taiwan has put its military on alert and are staging civil defence drills.

While its air force, navy and 165,000-member armed forces are a fraction of the size of China’s, they have been bolstered by high-tech weaponry and early-warning systems intended to make a potential invasion as difficult as possible.

Russia’s assault on Ukraine, which China has tacitly supported, has also served as a wakeup call to Taipei, which is now looking to overhaul training and tactics.

Numerous US naval and other military assets are currently deployed in areas close to Taiwan, including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its battle group.

Washington has comprehensively rejected China’s claims that the Taiwan Strait is sovereign Chinese territory and maintains the right to sail past Chinese outposts in the South China Sea, despite Chinese protests.

This visit was so controversial that even the White House advised against it.

According to Politico, US President Joe Biden said the military believed it was “not a good idea”.

However, the 82-year-old politician defended her visit before leaving Wednesday evening, tweeting that the trip “honours America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant Democracy.”

Pelosi said that the US would not abandon Taiwan despite condemnation from the mainland.