The fallout over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan escalated sharply Friday as China reacted angrily to having its ambassador summoned to the White House, said it would cancel or suspend dialogue with the United States on several issues and sanctioned Pelosi and her family.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking to reporters in Cambodia, delivered an equally sharp message to China. “There is no justification for this extreme, disproportionate, and escalatory military response,” he said, adding, “These provocative actions are a significant escalation. . . . They’ve taken dangerous acts to a new level.”
Like other U.S. officials, Blinken sought to balance a message that the United States does not seek confrontation with a signal that it will not back down to aggressive actions from China. “We will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” he said.
The fast-moving events have forced President Biden to manage potentially volatile confrontations between the United States and two other world powers. Even as tensions bubble between the United States and China over Pelosi’s trip, Biden is striving to keep Beijing from aiding Russia in its scorched-earth war against Ukraine.
But the meeting with Qin did not appear to deter China. On Friday, China said it is canceling or suspending dialogue with the United States on issues including climate change, military relations and anti-drug efforts. Beijing also announced unspecified sanctions on Pelosi and her immediate family in retaliation for what it called a “malicious and provocative” insistence on visiting Taiwan over Beijing’s strong opposition.
Since 2020, China has deployed sanctions against former U.S. officials with increasing frequency, often as retribution for criticism of human rights abuses, but Pelosi (D-Calif.) is one of the most senior sitting U.S. politicians to be personally censured by Beijing.
The White House criticized China’s actions against it on Friday, with Kirby calling China’s actions “fundamentally irresponsible.” Said Kirby: “China’s not just punishing the United States for these actions, but they’re actually punishing the whole world.” On climate, for instance, he said, “the world’s largest emitter now is refusing to engage on critical steps necessary to stand up to combat the climate crisis, which actually impacts our partners from rising sea levels in the Pacific islands to fires across Europe.”
At the same time, he said, China has pulled such stunts before. “So as irresponsible as we find it, as unfortunate as it is, to the international community, especially with respect to climate, it is a piece of their playbook.”
Kirby also said that “the United States condemns China’s enactment of sanctions against Pelosi and her family members. I’ll say it again, I’ve said it many times: She had every right to go.”
Kirby also noted that not all channels of military communications were shut down. “We still believe that we’ll be able to communicate military-to-military at very senior levels,” he said.
A senior Chinese Embassy official fired back Friday at the White House’s decision to summon its ambassador. “Ambassador Qin Gang totally rejected the so-called condemnation of Chinese military countermeasures,” Minister Jing Quan said in a statement read to reporters.
“We have pointed out that it is the U.S. side that is the troublemaker to peace and stability of the Taiwan Straits and the region,” Qin said. “The only way out of this crisis is that the U.S. side must take measures immediately to rectify its mistakes and eliminate the grave impact of Pelosi’s visit.”
He added that “Taiwan is one of the very few issues that might take China and the United States into conflict — or even war.”
Even as the rhetoric escalated, some former U.S. officials noted that China was showing some restraint in its responses to Pelosi’s visit in a way that could avoid a more volatile conflict. For instance, it does not appear to have fired missiles or sailed ships into the 12-nautical-mile zone that Taiwan claims as its territorial waters, analysts said.
Beijing appears “unwilling to do anything of substance to the United States” at this point, said Ivan Kanapathy, a former Asia expert on the National Security Council, for fear of retaliation. China’s actions so far, such as sanctions on Pelosi and suspending dialogues on climate and counternarcotics, are “mostly symbolic political gestures,” he asserted, in that “very few U.S. objectives have been accomplished” through such dialogues anyway.
Danny Russel, who was assistant secretary of state for East Asia in the Obama administration, said the Chinese are being careful and “trying to use a scalpel for specific political effect in Taiwan.” Beijing will not, for instance, jeopardize the flow of semiconductors from Taiwan that are essential to the Chinese economy, Russel said.
During Qin’s meeting at the White House, he spoke with Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council, officials said. Campbell reiterated that nothing has changed about the United States’ one-China policy, which recognizes the administration in Beijing as the sole government of China.
He also highlighted to Qin a statement from the Group of Seven industrialized democracies stressing that China should not use Pelosi’s visit as a pretext for aggressive action, and cited a message from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, calling on all sides to de-escalate tensions and engage in dialogue.
Pelosi, for her part, remained defiant about the trip earlier this week that sparked Beijing’s strong anger. China “may try to keep Taiwan from visiting or participating in other places, but they will not isolate Taiwan,” she said in Tokyo, the final stop on her Asia tour.
She added that Beijing could not dictate who could visit the island. “They are not doing our traveling schedule. The Chinese government is not doing that,” she said. Pelosi is a longtime critic of Chinese leaders, who view her with particular hostility.
China’s missile launches, which came shortly after Pelosi departed the island, increased military tensions in the Taiwan Strait to the highest level in decades, raising fears of a dangerous miscalculation in one of the world’s most charged geopolitical flash points. They came at a time when U.S.-China relations were already strained by disputes over trade, human rights and other issues, and Biden has made countering China’s influence a central pillar of his foreign policy.
Qin, the ambassador, charged in a column published in The Washington Post that Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was a willfully provocative act. He noted that it included “full-protocol treatment” by authorities of Taiwan’s governing Democratic Progressive Party, “who make no secret of pursuing independence in their party platform.” He said Pelosi’s visit thus violated a long-standing U.S. commitment not to develop official relations with Taiwan.
The White House had sought to de-escalate tensions with China ahead of and during Pelosi’s visit, which the speaker undertook against the administration’s wishes. White House officials warned earlier this week that China was preparing for possible aggressive actions that could continue well beyond the speaker’s trip to Asia.
Some of those actions could include short-term economic punishment on business and trade from Beijing and an acceleration of the general worsening of economic relations that has been underway for some time, economists and China experts said.
In the near term, “there’s a pattern that’s pretty clearly established in these things. There’s always fallout, the Chinese always react, they always retaliate,” said William Reinsch, a top trade official in the Clinton administration now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Virtually all the senior members of Biden’s national security team privately expressed deep reservations about the trip and its timing, a White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations. Top administration officials outlined for Pelosi’s offices the likely consequences of her visit, officials said, and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, personally briefed Pelosi.
But when it became clear that Pelosi — who is the country’s third highest-ranking official, behind Biden and Vice President Harris — was determined to make the trip, administration officials began publicly defending her right to do so, emphasizing that she is entirely independent of the White House, and warned China against overreacting.
They argued that nothing had changed in U.S.-China relations and stressed that many members of Congress have previously visited Taiwan, including then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1997. However, the landscape has shifted significantly since then, as China is increasingly influential on the world stage and its rivalry with the United States has grown more pointed. Pelosi is also a member of Biden’s political party, whereas Gingrich visited while a Democratic president was in office.
The Chinese Communist Party claims Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that is home to more than 23 million people, as its territory, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping has pledged to “reunify” Taiwan with China, by force if necessary.
Xi is facing additional pressure to show he is a strong leader, since he is expected to secure an unprecedented third term as leader at an upcoming congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese leaders fear that visits by foreign dignitaries to Taiwan could give it added legitimacy as a potentially independent country, and have been anxious that Pelosi’s visit does not set a precedent to be emulated by leaders from other countries.
The United States maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to Taiwan, or being vague about whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked militarily by China.
At a news briefing Thursday, Kirby said the United States will conduct standard air and maritime transits through the Taiwan Strait over the next few weeks, and will take “further steps” to stand with its allies in the region including Japan, although he did not specify what they were. The aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan and its battle group will remain near Taiwan to monitor the situation.
Bonnie Glaser, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Asia program, said it’s critical that the two sides have private conversations to prevent the dispute from erupting further.
“At this juncture, what is needed urgently is more candid, closed-door dialogue between the United States and China to understand each other’s intentions and manage risk,” Glaser said. “Beijing’s decision to suspend and halt numerous bilateral dialogue channels is extremely unhelpful.”
She added: “At this moment, the United States is showing restraint. There is a lot of blame to go around for this crisis: the United States, Taiwan and China did not handle the Pelosi visit well.”
Lily Kuo and Christian Shepherd contributed to this report.