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White House scrambles to avoid crisis amid Pelosi visit to Taiwan

The House speaker’s stop in Taiwan makes her the highest-ranking U.S. visitor there in recent years, prompting threats, anger and military maneuvers from Beijing

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) landed in Taipei, Taiwan, on Aug. 2, defying Chinese warnings against visiting the self-ruled island. (Video: The Washington Post)
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TAIPEI, Taiwan — The White House worked urgently to de-escalate tensions with China as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met Wednesday with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and other officials during a high-profile visit to the self-governing island against the administration’s wishes, hoping to head off a geopolitical crisis amid threats and military maneuvers by Beijing.

White House officials warned that China is preparing itself for possible aggressive actions in response to Pelosi’s visit beyond this week, and they reiterated forcefully that the Chinese Communist Party should not use the visit as a pretext to increase military activity in and around the Taiwan Strait.

“We’ve seen a number of announcements from the [People’s Republic of China] in just the last several hours that are unfortunately right in line with what we had anticipated,” White House spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday afternoon. “China has positioned itself to take further steps, and we expect that they will continue to react over a longer-term horizon.”

Pelosi’s plane landed at Taipei Songshan Airport in Taipei just before 11 p.m. local time Tuesday. Wearing a face mask, she was greeted by Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, and staffers from the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto U.S. Embassy in Taipei.

Speaking during the meeting with Tsai on Wednesday, Pelosi said she had traveled to Taiwan to deliver an “unequivocal message,” adding, “We will not abandon our commitment to Taiwan. We are proud of our enduring friendship.”

In a short ceremony, Tsai presented Pelosi with a medal, the Order of Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon, for her work promoting U.S.-Taiwan ties.

Pelosi’s visit has deeply angered China, which for years has sought to diplomatically isolate the island and considers any visit by a high-level foreign dignitary as an expression of support for Taiwanese independence. The Chinese Communist Party claims Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that is home to 23 million people, as its territory, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping has pledged to “reunify” Taiwan with China, by force if necessary.

Virtually all the senior members of President Biden’s national security team have privately expressed deep reservations about the trip and its timing, said a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. They are especially concerned because U.S.-China tensions are already high, and Washington is seeking China’s cooperation on the war in Ukraine and other matters.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, spoke with his Chinese counterpart to defend Pelosi’s right to visit — as did other high-ranking officials — but even so did not think the trip was a good idea, the White House official said. Sullivan expressed concerns about Pelosi’s trip to multiple administration officials and asked for suggestions on how to dissuade her from traveling to Taiwan.

Just after Pelosi’s arrival Tuesday, China’s official Xinhua News Agency released an announcement from the People’s Liberation Army that “important military training operations” and live ammunition drills would take place in six maritime locations surrounding Taiwan between Thursday and Sunday, directly after the House speaker’s visit.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs added of Pelosi’s trip that “China firmly opposes and sternly condemns this, and has made serious démarche and strong protest to the United States.” A démarche is a complaint through diplomatic channels.

Pelosi, who is second in line to the presidency, is the highest-ranking American government official to visit Taiwan in a quarter-century. The last House speaker to visit the island was Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1997, thought that arguably took place under different circumstances, when China was not the global superpower it is today.

In a statement moments after her arrival, Pelosi said that “our congressional delegation’s visit to Taiwan honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant Democracy.”

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)

The speaker, who was accompanied by several other members of Congress, dismissed the notion that her trip was unduly provocative. She stressed that it did not alter America’s approach of “strategic ambiguity,” which neither supports Taiwan’s independence nor opposes it, and she cited a variety of long-standing American policy positions on China and Taiwan.

“Our visit is one of several congressional delegations to Taiwan — and it in no way contradicts longstanding United States policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, U.S.-China Joint Communiques and the Six Assurances,” she said in her statement. “The United States continues to oppose unilateral efforts to change the status quo.”

Kirby, the White House spokesman, added that the United States is not looking for conflict with China. The United States “will not seek and does not want a crisis,” he said. “We are prepared to manage what Beijing chooses to do. At the same time, we will not engage in saber rattling.”

Pelosi: Why I'm going to Taiwan

In a statement, AIT said Pelosi would be leading the congressional visit in Taiwan through Wednesday, focusing on U.S.-Taiwan relations, security, trade, the covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, human rights and other issues of “mutual interest.”

White House warns China not to overreact to expected Pelosi visit to Taiwan

For the island’s residents, Pelosi’s visit was clearly significant and hardly a run-of-the-mill event. Taipei 101, Taiwan’s tallest skyscraper, was lit up with a welcome message for Pelosi in English and Chinese. At Songshan airport, a small group of supporters waited to greet her.

“I’m very happy that Speaker Pelosi came to show her support,” said Liu Yueh-hsia, 72, holding a banner that read, “Speaker Pelosi, welcome to the Republic of Taiwan.”

Liu, who has been advocating for Taiwan’s formal independence for decades, added, “We have nothing to do with China. We don’t want to be unified with them.”

Taiwan’s official Central News Agency reported that the island’s military forces reinforced their preparations Tuesday morning and would remain at a “strengthened” state of readiness through midday Thursday.

At the same time, Chinese maritime authorities this week announced additional military exercises in the South China Sea and live-fire drills in the Bohai Sea, near the Korean Peninsula. Reuters, citing an unnamed source, reported that Chinese fighter jets on Tuesday flew close to the median line of the Taiwan Strait, the unofficial military boundary.

Chinese carrier Xiamen Airlines announced disruptions to at least 30 flights because of air traffic restrictions in Fujian, the Chinese province directly across the strait from Taiwan.

Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, accused the United States of escalating tensions in the Taiwan Strait and warned of “disastrous consequences” if the United States mishandles the situation. “The United States should and must take full responsibility for this,” she said.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a meeting in Shanghai that U.S. politicians who are “playing with fire” on the issue of Taiwan will “come to no good end,” according to a transcript released by the Foreign Ministry.

U.S. officials said they conveyed clearly to China’s leaders that Pelosi is an independent actor and that her visit should not be interpreted as a provocative act by the United States or the Biden administration.

“We expect cross-Strait differences to be resolved by peaceful means,” Kirby said, adding that the administration does not support Taiwan’s independence. “And we have communicated this directly to the PRC at the highest levels.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Aug. 1 called on China not to escalate tensions in the event of a visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) (Video: Reuters)

U.S. officials repeatedly cited the Gingrich precedent to argue that Pelosi’s visit is nothing new and does not alter the fundamentals of the U.S.-China relationship. But experts said Pelosi’s visit has a greater resonance given that U.S.-China ties have reached new lows and Taiwan’s diplomatic profile has risen in recent years.

Pelosi visit is a test for Taiwan’s global status under Chinese pressure

China’s global aspirations and rivalry with the United States have only grown in the past 25 years. “Pelosi’s visit now has a very different meaning,” said Chu Shulong, professor of political science and international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, comparing it with Gingrich’s visit. “China is wary that, if the trip takes place, it will further strengthen U.S.-Taiwan relations and encourage U.S. allies to strengthen ties with Taiwan.”

The high-stakes situation poses a test for Xi, who faces a balancing act in responding forcefully but in a way that does not trigger an all-out conflict as he prepares for a crucial leadership meeting in the fall.

“Xi must show resolve. He has to shore up Chinese red lines and prevent further drift toward an unacceptable outcome — U.S. support for Taiwan independence,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund.

Kirby warned that China may escalate the dispute by firing missiles into the Taiwan Strait or near Taiwan or by sending military jets across the median line. In the last Taiwan Strait crisis, in 1995-1996, China fired missiles that landed near the island.

Other potential retaliatory measures include more frequent and larger-scale military exercises closer to Taiwan, as well as ramped up gray-zone tactics — coercive actions that stop short of outright conflict. China banned food shipments on Monday from more than 100 Taiwanese exporters, for example.

Chinese leaders, however, may be constrained by the country’s slowing economy, a need to avoid a total rupture with the United States and other Western countries, and international criticism over China’s ties with Russia after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We need to keep in mind that Beijing does not want a military conflict to break out with the U.S. Therefore, it will likely refrain from a response that could lead to an unintended military escalation,” said Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Administration fears a Pelosi trip to Taiwan could spark cross-strait crisis

While China has been forced into a difficult situation by Pelosi’s visit, some analysts said that Taiwan has benefited from the attention.

“Taiwan will be the biggest winner. When did Taiwan become a major focus of U.S. politics and midterm elections?” said Fan Shih-ping, professor at the Graduate Institute of Political Science at the National Taiwan Normal University. “The Taiwan issue has become completely internationalized, which is the last thing China and Xi Jinping want to see.”

The 82-year-old Pelosi, who has served in Congress since 1987, is a longtime critic of China’s human rights record and has spoken out in support of demonstrations in Hong Kong against Beijing’s crackdown on the former British colony, which China took over in 1997.

“She knows what had happened in Hong Kong, and she knows that many Hong Kong protesters who are fleeing from the Communist Party will come to Taiwan,” said Lam Wing-kee, a former Hong Kong bookseller who was detained in China and is now living in Taipei.

Traveling with Pelosi, according to the AIT statement, were House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), and Andy Kim (D-N.J.).

Senate Republicans, who often criticize Pelosi, commended her for this visit, saying it showed a refusal to cave to pressure from a cruel dictatorship. In a statement, a group of 26 Republicans cited some of the commitments the United States has made to Taiwan and China over the years.

“For decades, members of the United States Congress, including previous Speakers of the House, have traveled to Taiwan,” the statement said. “This travel is consistent with the United States’ one-China policy to which we are committed. We are also committed now, more than ever, to all elements of the Taiwan Relations Act.”

Vic Chiang and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.