Pelosi’s Taiwan trip ratchets up US-China tensions

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) touched down in Taiwan on Tuesday, prompting a furious response from China as tensions ratcheted up between Washington and Beijing.

Within an hour of Pelosi landing in Taipei, Chinese state media Xinhua reported plans by the People’s Liberation Army to conduct live-fire military exercises from Aug. 4 to 7 around Taiwan. A cyberattack targeting Taiwan’s presidential office briefly disrupted its service, raising questions about the possibility Chinese hackers were responsible.

The Chinese foreign ministry characterized the Speaker’s visit as having a “severe impact on the political foundation of China-U.S. relations.”

“The Taiwan question is the most important and most sensitive issue at the very heart of China-U.S. relations,” the foreign ministry said. “These moves, like playing with fire, are extremely dangerous. Those who play with fire will perish by it.”

The U.S. earlier appeared to strengthen its defensive posture in the region, positioning at least four warships in waters east of Taiwan, according to Reuters. The Navy described it as a routine deployment.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby, who on Monday warned China against using the moment to create a “crisis,” said on Tuesday that Beijing’s actions thus far have been “consistent with the playbook we expected them to run.”

Pelosi became the senior-most U.S. official to travel to the self-governing island in more than two decades.

Beijing also sees her as a singularly provocative American official due to her demonstrations against Chinese human rights abuses stretching back decades, said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“I think the Chinese have a special dislike for Nancy Pelosi, that may be a factor as well, in their very strong response,” Glaser said.

Biden administration officials for months tried to discourage the Speaker from traveling to Taiwan, Glaser said. However, her visit received bipartisan backing from her colleagues in Congress.

Beijing views the trip as a challenge to its claims of ownership over Taiwan, a self-governed island separated from China by the Taiwan Strait.

The Speaker’s trip comes as U.S. and Chinese relations are dangerously tense — with the U.S. criticizing China’s government on a range of issues, from its oppression of its people at home to its aggression on the global stage and tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Yet Taiwan is the most potent flashpoint. Beijing views U.S. actions as supporting Taiwanese independence, which crosses a bright red line for the Communist government. President Biden as recently as May pledged to defend Taiwan if it faced an attack from China — an apparent step away from U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan.

The White House was adamant then that U.S. policy on Taiwan has not changed and in recent days has reiterated the U.S. does not support Taiwanese independence.

Biden sought to tamp down tensions with Chinese President Xi Jinping in a phone call last week, drawing a distinction between the actions of the Speaker and the administration while also warning Beijing against threatening security across the Taiwan Strait.

Kirby told reporters on Tuesday that Biden is intent on keeping lines of communication open with Beijing.

“It is particularly important to do that when there’s times of tension like right now,” he said.

Pelosi’s trip comes between two major events in Beijing, the 95th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army on Monday and an expected session this fall of the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress, the priority political conference where Xi is expected to secure a third five-year term as leader.

The Speaker’s August trip came after she postponed traveling in April over a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. Biden publicly stated last month that the U.S. military didn’t believe the trip to be a good idea, but he did not tell Pelosi not to move forward with it.

Kirby said Tuesday that Biden “respects the Speaker’s decision to travel to Taiwan.”

Pelosi landed in Taipei on Tuesday evening, local time, and said the trip was aimed at reaffirming America’s solidarity with Taiwan “as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy,” directly criticizing the Chinese Communist Party as “accelerating aggression.”

Taiwan’s foreign ministry released a statement welcoming the Speaker, calling it a demonstration of the “rock-solid support of the U.S. for Taiwan.”

At the same time, Pelosi spoke out against criticism she was provoking Beijing, citing precedent by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) trip to the island in 1997. Her visit also follows high-level visits by U.S. senators in April.

There is bipartisan support for Pelosi’s trip, with more than two dozen Republican senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), backing her visit in a statement released Tuesday.

The trip is among an increasing number of U.S. delegations going to Taiwan, of which China has taken notice, said Jacob Stokes, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security who served on Biden’s national security staff when he was vice president.

“We’re in a little bit of a tit-for-tat dynamic where the U.S. is trying to respond to pressure that China is putting on Taiwan by bolstering support for Taiwan, but China sees that as additional reason to put more pressure on Taiwan,” Stokes said.

U.S. officials warn that China is looking to potentially take over the island by force by 2030, while also using economic and diplomatic coercion to assume power over Taipei.

“I wouldn’t underestimate President Xi’s determination to assert … the People’s Republic of China’s control over Taiwan,” CIA Director William Burns said in a recent appearance at the Aspen Security Forum.

Glaser said that Xi likely doesn’t want a war with the U.S. but that he “has to demonstrate determination to defend China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

While Biden has maintained the U.S. adheres to its “One China” policy, the U.S. also views Taiwan as a key, democratic bulwark against China’s expansionist aims in the region.

“I think that they [Beijing] are increasingly worried that the U.S. will go too far with Taiwan, will continue with salami slicing, that ultimately its ‘One China’ policy will simply be a bumper sticker,” Glaser said.

“They use the term ‘hollowing out’ and ultimately the U.S. will support Taiwan independence and adopt a strategic clarity.”

Pelosi’s stop in Taiwan is part of what she described as a “high-powered” congressional delegation to the Indo-Pacific region. It follows visits to Singapore and Malaysia, with trips to South Korea and Japan coming next.

Other lawmakers on the trip include top House members on the committees on Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, Armed Services and Ways and Means, including Foreign Affairs Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Reps. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Andy Kim (D-N.J.).

The Speaker’s arrival in Japan will likely be met with caution, with the government led by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida advocating diplomacy with Beijing.

“There is a growing fear that the crisis between the U.S. and China will escalate before Taiwan and Japan can catch up with their preparations,” Washington-based Japanese journalist Masahiro Okoshi wrote in an op-ed for the news site Nikkei.

Still, Stokes said U.S. allies in the region likely view the trip positively, as a sign of U.S. resolve to stand up for rules-based order, even if they have reservations about its potential to stoke tensions.

“In general, there’s probably pretty significant support in the region for this trip but even more so for the broader goals,” he said.

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