China sends warships to surround Taiwan amid Pelosi visit

Chiang Ying-ying/AP Photo

China’s defense ministry announced Tuesday that its military would conduct “targeted” drills and missile tests around Taiwan in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s arrival there on Tuesday, in Beijing’s latest escalation since news emerged of the speaker’s highly anticipated trip.

The “targeted military operations” are designed to “safeguard national sovereignty” in response to Pelosi’s visit, the defense ministry said Tuesday, vowing to “resolutely thwart external interference and ‘Taiwan’s independence’ separatist attempts.”

Experts raised alarms over the exercise, with some noting that the drills would overlap with Taiwan’s territorial waters. M. Taylor Fravel, director of the MIT Security Studies Program, said the drills appear to be “unprecedented,” noting that they would be “the largest number of exercises to be conducted very close to the island of Taiwan itself, and the first to take place on all sides surrounding Taiwan.

The drills could also include Chinese missiles overflying the island, Fravel said.

In another provocation, 21 Chinese aircraft entered Taiwan's air defense zone on Tuesday, Taiwan's defense ministry announced.

U.S. officials, however, have concluded that China’s threats against Pelosi — including a suggestion that her plane could be shot down — are nothing more than an intimidation tactic.

The Pentagon earlier Tuesday deployed four U.S. warships, including an aircraft carrier, in waters east of Taiwan on what the U.S. Navy said were routine deployments. The carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, is positioned far from Taiwan, according to one U.S. official.

Pelosi, on a closely watched tour across Asia this week, has garnered much attention amid reporting that she would ignore warnings from China and become the highest-ranking elected U.S. official to visit Taiwan since then-Speaker Newt Gingrich visited in 1997. China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory, had threatened to launch an unspecified but forceful response should Pelosi visit the island.

“Our Congressional delegation’s visit to Taiwan honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant Democracy,” Pelosi said in a statement upon her arrival in Taiwan.

Pelosi’s arrival in Taipei on Tuesday evening confirmed the speaker’s decision to go ahead with her visit — which had been reported on for weeks without official confirmation from her office — despite China’s threats. The highly anticipated visit had also spurred weeks of wrangling between the United States and China over whether she should make the trip.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said earlier Tuesday that U.S. politicians are “playing with fire” on the issue of Taiwan.

“This will definitely not have a good outcome ... the exposure of America’s bullying face again shows it as the world’s biggest saboteur of peace,” he said in a statement.

China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs also released a statement Tuesday saying that Pelosi's visit “seriously infringes upon China's sovereignty and territorial integrity,” according to China's state-owned newspaper People's Daily.

“These moves, like playing with fire, are extremely dangerous. Those who play with fire will perish by it,” the statement said.

While the White House has publicly steered clear of taking a position on whether Pelosi should visit Taiwan, several Biden administration officials over the past few days have stressed that a potential visit from the speaker should not escalate tensions with China, warning the country against overreacting.

“The aggressiveness, the coercion, the increase in tensions in the last weeks and months have all come from the Chinese side. What we have said is that there is no reason that this visit should escalate tensions in any way whatsoever,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said on Fox News' “Fox & Friends” Tuesday morning.

Biden administration officials have also emphasized in recent days that the United States official position on Taiwan remains unchanged and that Pelosi would be one of many members of Congress that have visited Taiwan over the past few years. The White House said Monday that it has no interest in escalating tensions with China and that it “will not take the bait or engage in saber rattling.”

“We don't support Taiwan independence, but we absolutely do support the right and the prerogative of congressional leaders to include Speaker Pelosi to visit Taiwan if that's what she wants to do,” Kirby said on CNN after Pelosi touched down in Taiwan on Tuesday.

The House speaker said in her Tuesday statement that the delegation's discussions with Taiwan's leaders “will focus on our support for our partner and on promoting our shared interests, including advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” She also asserted that the visit “in no way contradicts longstanding United States policy.”

“America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy,” Pelosi said in the statement.

In a Washington Post op-ed published just after her arrival in Taiwan, Pelosi wrote that the U.S. must stand by its vow in the Taiwan Relations Act — signed into law by President Jimmy Carter — to support the self-defense of Taiwan. She said the island republic is “under threat” by Beijing and that China has “dramatically intensified tensions with Taiwan” in recent years by ramping up military patrols and launching cyberattacks on Taiwanese government agencies.

“In the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) accelerating aggression, our congressional delegation’s visit should be seen as an unequivocal statement that America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, as it defends itself and its freedom,” she wrote.

The House speaker’s Taiwan visit isn’t the first instance of Pelosi putting herself at odds with leaders in Beijing. A longtime critic of China’s government and human rights practices, she once unfurled a banner in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1991 dedicated to the pro-democracy activists massacred there. She also opposed China’s bid to host the 2008 Olympics and supported the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Local newspapers first reported that Pelosi would arrive in Taiwan Tuesday night and that she would spend the night there.