The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S.-China tensions flare as Pelosi leaves Taiwan

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of her congressional delegation board a plane to leave Taiwan on Aug. 3, after a visit that enraged the Chinese government. (Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
4 min

TAIPEI, Taiwan — China escalated its rhetoric while U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited Taiwan on Wednesday, calling her trip “very dangerous and stupid” and blasting the Biden administration for not stopping it.

“The U.S. government had the responsibility to prevent her trip. Yet they say one thing and do another. They have no integrity at all,” the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, said Wednesday in a front-page editorial.

Pelosi defended her trip during a news conference Wednesday, arguing that there is “a struggle between autocracy and democracy in the world” and that one of the purposes of 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.”

She described Taiwan as a “model in this region,” adding that it “offers a very strong contrast to what’s happening in mainland China.” She said her visit “opens the door” to better economic exchanges and that several large Taiwanese companies already plan to invest in manufacturing in the United States.

Pelosi departed Taiwan just after 6 p.m. local time following a visit that included a meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. The U.S. delegation spent less than 24 hours in Taiwan, landing in Taipei just before 11 p.m. local time Tuesday amid a furious backlash from China, which considers the self-governing island its own and views foreign diplomatic visits as legitimizing the movement for Taiwan’s independence.

Despite the bluster from Chinese officials, China has limited its response to intensified military drills around Taiwan, as well as banning some imports of Taiwanese fish and fruit and barring Chinese exports of sand to Taiwan. China’s army is set to conduct drills around Taiwan between Thursday and Sunday.

Yet the fact that the visit happened — and went off without trouble — is a success for Taiwan. The visit was a test of Taiwan’s diplomatic mettle and an opportunity to signal to senior politicians around the world that they can show support for Taiwan’s democracy in person — despite vocal opposition from Beijing.

For Pelosi, who is third in line to the presidency and has served in Congress since 1987, the trip was a way to cement her legacy after a long and adversarial relationship with China that has often put her at odds with her Democratic colleagues. Her posture was at times viewed as unhelpful by those who saw her persistence as disruptive to U.S.-China relations.

Despite threats from Beijing and warnings from President Biden’s senior national security officials about the consequences that could follow a high-level visit to Taiwan, Pelosi remained undeterred.

Virtually all the senior members of 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.-Chinese tensions are already high, and Washington is seeking China’s cooperation on the war in Ukraine and other matters. They defended Pelosi’s right to visit the island and noted that other members of Congress have done so, but they still did not think the trip was a good idea, the White House official said.

White House officials warned this week that China could retaliate beyond Pelosi’s visit, including 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 to 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 has positioned itself to take further steps, and we expect that they will continue to react over a longer-term horizon,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday afternoon.

In a reflection of the complex dynamics surrounding Pelosi’s visit, many Taiwanese expressed support for it, but small-scale protests were also held on the island by groups that included supporters of unification with China.

During the meeting with Tsai on Wednesday, Pelosi said she and her delegation had traveled to Taiwan to deliver an “unequivocally clear” message: “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 ties between the United States and Taiwan.

Li reported from Seoul, Abutaleb from Washington, Timsit from Paris and Pannett from Sydney.