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Chinese leader asked Biden to prevent Pelosi from visiting Taiwan

The trip exposed tensions between the House Speaker and administration officials, who had warned of China’s potential response. Pelosi felt the trip was an important statement to make.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrives at the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, Taiwan, on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022. (AFP/Getty Images)
12 min

Just days before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was expected to visit Taiwan, Chinese President Xi Jinping had a request of President Biden: Find a way to keep Pelosi from visiting.

Xi’s request in a July 28 call with Biden, described by a senior White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive conversation, followed myriad warnings Chinese officials made to U.S. counterparts of what China might do in retaliation for Pelosi’s visit to the self-governing island that Beijing considers part of its territory.

But Biden told Xi he could not oblige, explaining that Congress was an independent branch of government and that Pelosi (D-Calif.), as with other members of Congress, would make her own decisions about foreign trips, the official said. Biden also warned Xi against taking provocative and coercive actions if the House speaker were to travel to Taiwan, the official said.

Even as they defended Pelosi’s right to visit, however, top U.S. officials harbored deep concerns about the trip, according to several senior administration and White House officials, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly. The United States had seen indications over the last several months that China was considering unprecedented military activity across the Taiwan Strait, and officials had seen signs that China would use Pelosi’s visit as a pretext to act, the senior officials said.

U.S. officials also worried about the timing of Pelosi’s visit, which would come shortly before Xi sought to secure his third term in power, and the geopolitical ramifications that could follow.

Despite the Defense Department, the United States Indo-Pacific Command and White House national security officials laying out the risks, Pelosi proceeded with the trip, which prompted an unprecedented military response from China that included firing missiles into the waters around Taiwan and over the island — some missiles landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone — and military drills that crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) plans to visit Taiwan may disrupt the careful relationship between China, Taiwan and the United States. (Video: Julie Yoon, John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Pelosi’s Taiwan trip a culmination of decades of challenging China

Pelosi’s visit, which some analysts criticized as a legacy-burnishing move for her, frustrated administration officials and deepened tensions between the administration and the powerful House speaker responsible for securing the president’s legislative agenda.

Yet Pelosi was unmoved by White House officials’ arguments. Administration officials told her China was likely to escalate its action in the region regardless of whether she visited but could move up the timeline for doing so, two people briefed on the conversations said. Pelosi defended the trip as necessary to demonstrate support for Taiwan, as well as democracy over autocracy, and hit back at critics who said she was focused on her legacy. Taiwanese officials had also made clear they were eager for Pelosi to visit and welcomed her arrival with fanfare.

“The support for preventing Taiwan from being isolated and preserving the status quo is bipartisan and bicameral,” Pelosi said in a statement to The Washington Post. “This respect for Taiwan and rejection of violence is shared by the President as witnessed by his recent statements.”

She added: “Any attack on me personally is not associated with the President but with some smaller anonymous voices within the administration who endangered the security of our visit by leaking the trip even before it was determined that we would indeed visit Taiwan. These small anonymous voices cannot be allowed to indicate any division between the White House and the Congress on Taiwan.”

White House officials denied sharing with the media details about the trip and several officials said they found the pre-trip publicity unhelpful, particularly because they were having private conversations with the speaker at the time about the potential risks and did not want word of her visit to get out before it was finalized.

“Members of Congress have gone to Taiwan for decades and will continue to do so. Speaker Pelosi had every right to go and her visit is consistent with our long-standing one-China policy,” said Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.

China’s anticipated reaction to Pelosi’s trip prompted intensive diplomacy by the White House and State Department to reassure allies the United States was not seeking a conflict with China nor changing its longstanding policies. Administration officials assured allies in the region they would not respond in kind to China’s bellicose military exercises and would defend allies in the Indo-Pacific. But the trip has created additional challenges in the U.S.-China relationship, which was already at one of its lowest points in decades, as China said it would cancel or suspend dialogue with the United States on issues including climate change, military relations and anti-drug efforts. U.S. officials have said China is punishing the world by halting climate talks, including vulnerable nations in the Indo-Pacific.

So far, administration officials have successfully aligned partners in the region and elsewhere — including in Europe — in condemning China’s reaction to the trip, which the U.S. and its allies have said was outsize and unprecedented. U.S. officials briefed allies on how they expected China to react and the live-fire exercises it could execute to intimidate Taiwan and how the United States would respond, a White House official said, to ensure the U.S. and its allies were “prepared to speak with one voice” when China did escalate.

Officials said they will conduct “robust diplomatic engagement” in the coming weeks and months “to preserve peace and stability across the Strait and continue our work to align with allies and partners on China,” said the White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Chinese officials made clear they saw Pelosi’s visit as an unprecedented provocation and viewed it as a U.S. attempt to erode the one-China policy, a long-standing agreement in which the United States acknowledges — without recognizing — Beijing’s claim that there is only one China. While Biden and other White House officials stressed to Beijing that Congress is a separate branch of government and the trip was not state-sanctioned, Chinese officials viewed Pelosi — a member of Biden’s political party and second in line to the presidency — as a part of Biden’s political apparatus. They also noted she traveled on U.S. military aircraft, which would not have been possible without sign-off from the administration.

“The U.S. claims that China is escalating the situation, China is overreacting, and China is using Pelosi’s visit as a pretext to establish a ‘new normal.’ But a basic fact is, the U.S. side took the first step to provoke China on the Taiwan question,” Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang said in a briefing with reporters this week, noting China officials expressed opposition to the visit through various channels. “We had warned that if Pelosi made the visit, there would be very serious consequences. China would firmly and forcefully respond. To our regret, the United States chose not to listen.”

Separation of powers at play

Pelosi had made clear to White House officials that she was willing to reconsider her trip under two conditions: if the president directly asked the 82-year-old lawmaker not to go or if Taiwan’s president withdrew her invitation. She would consider acquiescing to a request from Biden, she told officials, but Pelosi also made clear she would publicize that she was scuttling her trip to Taiwan at the president’s behest.

That put Biden — who served 36 years in the Senate and believes strongly in the separation of powers — in a difficult position. If it became public that he did not want Pelosi to visit, it would risk making Biden and the United States look weak on China, experts said. In the end, Biden never spoke to Pelosi about her trip despite Xi’s request that he prevent it from happening. In an offhand comment, Biden told reporters shortly before Pelosi’s expected visit that military officials believed the trip was not a good idea.

Opinion | Nancy Pelosi: Why I’m leading a congressional delegation to Taiwan

White House officials declined to elaborate on the specifics of the Biden-Xi conversation, but they pointed to comments John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, made shortly before Pelosi traveled to Taiwan.

“The president, in his conversation with President Xi, made clear that Congress is an independent branch of government and that Speaker Pelosi makes her own decisions, as other members of Congress do, about their overseas travel,” Kirby said.

The last House speaker to visit Taiwan was Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1997, though arguably that took place under different circumstances. China was not the global superpower it is today, and Gingrich was not the same political party as then-President Bill Clinton.

Many members have visited Taiwan in recent years, and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) led a congressional delegation to Taiwan this week.

On Aug. 7, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers decried China’s military escalation in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) recent visit. (Video: The Washington Post)

Even so, Chinese officials made clear they saw Pelosi’s trip as a provocation from the U.S. government.

“She went there with the connivance and arrangement of the U.S. government,” Qin said during his briefing. “This has seriously violated the one-China principle, gravely infringed on China’s sovereignty, greatly interfered in China’s internal affairs, seriously violated the commitments made by the U.S., and severely undermined peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Yet Biden himself has at times made comments on Taiwan that have put Chinese officials on edge. He has not always struck the delicate balance that the United States’ “strategic ambiguity” requires when it comes to the question of Taiwan’s defense. In May, while making his first presidential trip to Asia, Biden told reporters the United States would defend Taiwan militarily if China attacked.

“The idea that it can be taken by force, just taken by force, is just not appropriate,” Biden said. “It would dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine. And so it’s a burden that’s even stronger.”

White House officials quickly clarified that the U.S. position on Taiwan and the one-China policy had not changed. But Biden’s comments in May were not the first time he suggested the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked.

Pelosi’s legacy on China

Pelosi has defended her trip to Taiwan, arguing there is ongoing “struggle between autocracy and democracy in the world,” a favorite phrase of the president, and the trip was “to show the world the success of the people of Taiwan, the courage to change their own country, to become more democratic.”

Taiwanese officials condemned China’s actions and said it needed to be held accountable. They said Taiwan would not be intimidated and welcomed Pelosi’s visit as well as other signals of support from the U.S. and other countries.

On Wednesday, the U.S. and Taiwan announced they are set to begin formal trade negotiations, and if the trade talks are a success, it will further bolster ties between the two nations while rankling China.

Pelosi has a long and contentious history with China and has long prided herself on standing up to Beijing. Yet critics of the visit said her trip ended up creating more problems for Taiwan and the United States.

Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, said Pelosi “had wanted to visit Taiwan before her retirement as part of her personal legacy.” Pelosi has said she is running for reelection in November, but she is widely expected to step down soon.

“The outcome of the Pelosi trip, which in my view did not accomplish anything for the United States, ended up being the Chinese working to marginally improve the balance of forces between the West and China over Taiwan in Beijing’s favor and I don’t think anyone wants that,” Bremmer said.

Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, said: “The Speaker’s legacy on China needs no enhancement.”

The rising tensions following her trip, however, have created anxiety for many countries in the region, said a senior Asian diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. The uncertainties surrounding the U.S.-China relationship are a significant cause for concern for countries in the region, the diplomat said, pointing to the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministerial meeting in Cambodia, the first in-person meeting of the group in three years, where the agenda was “hijacked” by the escalating tensions between U.S. and China.

“There is a danger, even though I know you do not want to go to war, but there is a danger of accidents and miscalculations,” Singapore’s minister for foreign affairs Vivian Balakrishnan told reporters after the ASEAN meeting. “For what it is worth, we repeat the appeal that for the rest of us in Southeast Asia, we actually want temperatures to come down. It is actually very important for Southeast Asia for China and the United States to get along.”

Marianna Sotomayor and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.