Pelosi’s much-watched flight to Taipei took a detour. This is why.


Nancy Pelosi’s plane departing from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for Taipei on Tuesday evening, was one of the best-tracked flights of all time. It was also unusually cumbersome, with a three-hour detour.

The reason: to avoid an area where many Chinese military personnel are present.

The US Air Force plane carrying Ms. Pelosi flew through a roundabout that experts say was designed to prevent one of the most controversial and high-profile diplomatic visits by a US official to Taiwan in recent history from escalating.

Data following the flight showed that Ms Pelosi’s plane took off from Kuala Lumpur and headed southeast to the Indonesian part of Borneo, then turned north to fly past the eastern part of the Philippines. A more direct – and shorter – route would have been to fly northeast via a direct route across the South China Sea to Taiwan.

The journey took seven hours — the unusual path added an extra three hours to a journey that would normally take four hours and 15 minutes, said Ian Petchenik, director of communications at FlightRadar24, the website that tracks Ms. Pelosi’s plane.

The flight path was a clear indication that the possibility of a military conflict between the United States and China is all too real in the South China Sea, where China has built its military presence with bases in recent years.

“This move to allow the plane to pass through the South China Sea is a way to show a genuine interest in managing the crisis and de-escalating the situation,” said Collin Koh, a research associate at the S. Rajaratnam School of International. Studied at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Flying over Chinese military bases “would have given the Chinese an opportunity to disrupt the flight and give them a chance for aircraft interference,” Mr Koh said. “The risk of such close encounters was too great.”

Officials have described ties between the United States and China as at their lowest point since 1972, when President Richard Nixon traveled to Beijing to resume diplomatic relations between the two countries. In June, US Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III warned China of “provocative and destabilizing activities” near Taiwan.

The decision by House speaker Ms. Pelosi to visit Taiwan – and her reaffirmation of America’s “unshakable” support for Taiwanese democracy – has set Pelosi on fire, claiming the island for itself. For weeks it was unclear whether she would even go through with the stop in Taiwan during her planned trip to Asia. When her flight was airborne Tuesday, more than 2.9 million people logged in to view the flight path on FlightRadar 24, a popular flight-tracking site. The heavy traffic load caused the site to falter at one point.

It was the most tracked flight of all time, FlightRadar24 said in a blog post, even surpassing the return flight to Russia by Aleksei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, after a near-fatal nerve gas attack.

When Ms. Pelosi left Taiwan on Tuesday evening, interest in her travels was somewhat muted. Only 92,000 people watched.

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