TAIPEI – US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Chinese-claimed Taiwan late Tuesday aboard a US military plane, the first such visit in 25 years and one that risks bringing Washington-Beijing relations to a new low.
Pelosi and her delegation were received by Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, and Sandra Oudkirk, the chief US official in Taiwan, after disembarking from a US Air Force cargo plane at Songshan Airport in downtown Taipei.
“Our congressional delegation’s visit to Taiwan celebrates America’s unshakable commitment to Taiwan’s flourishing democracy,” Pelosi said shortly after arriving in a statement.
“America’s support for Taiwan’s 23 million people is more crucial than ever, as the world faces a decision between despotism and democracy.”
Pelosi was on a trip to Asia that included stops in Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan. Her visit to Taiwan had not been publicised, although it was widely expected.
Chinese warplanes circled the Taiwan Strait line before her arrival on Tuesday, as China’s leadership cautioned against Pelosi’s visit, who is second in line to the US presidency and a long-time critic of Beijing.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Tuesday that US lawmakers who “play with fire” on the Taiwan issue will “come to no good end.”
The United States declared on Monday that it would not be intimidated by Chinese “sabre-rattling.”
According to a person familiar with Pelosi’s agenda, the majority of her planned meetings, including one with President Tsai Ing-wen, were slated for Wednesday. According to four sources, she was planned to meet with a group of activists who are vocal against China’s human rights record on Wednesday afternoon.
Pelosi, 82, is a close ally of US President Joe Biden, both of whom are Democrats, and has played a significant role in shepherding his legislative agenda through the US Congress.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry said it had no comment on Pelosi’s visit plans, and her office similarly remained silent.
Taiwan’s tallest building, Taipei 101, lit up with inscriptions such as “Welcome to Taiwan,” “Speaker Pelosi,” and “Taiwan (love) USA” on Tuesday night.
Reuters reported that four Chinese jets flew close to the median line dividing the Taiwan Strait on Tuesday morning before departing later that day. Several Chinese vessels have also been sailing along the unofficial dividing line since Monday, according to the source.
The Chinese aircraft frequently “touched” the median line before circling back to the opposite side of the strait, the person added, as Taiwanese planes stood by nearby.
Normally, neither side’s aircraft crosses the median line.
Four US warships, including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, were on normal deployments in waters east of Taiwan, according to the US Navy. According to Reuters, the carrier had transited the South China Sea and was currently in the Philippines Sea, east of Taiwan and the Philippines and south of Japan.
It was working with the guided missile cruiser USS Antietam and destroyer USS Higgins, as well as the amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli.
In a show of Chinese military strength, China’s People’s Liberation Army has been conducting numerous exercises, including live-fire drills, in the South China Sea, Yellow Sea, and Bohai Sea since last week.
Visits by US officials to Taiwan are seen as a positive signal by China to the pro-independence side on the democratic, self-governed island.
“Provocateur of the state”
Russia, which is embroiled in a conflict with the West over its invasion of Ukraine, has also commented on Pelosi’s scheduled visit. Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said the visit was a reckless US attempt to add pressure on China, with which Russia has formed a strong alliance in recent years.
“The United States is a state provocateur,” Zakharova stated. “Russia confirms the principle of ‘one China’ and opposes the island’s independence in whatever form.”
Pelosi had already visited Malaysia on Tuesday, having begun her Asia journey in Singapore on Monday. Her office stated that she would also visit South Korea and Japan, but made no mention of a trip to Taiwan.
Taiwan’s Defense Ministry stated that it was fully aware of military activity near Taiwan and that it will respond accordingly to “enemy threats.”
Requests for response from China’s defense and foreign ministries were not returned.
Residents in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen, which borders Taiwan and has a major military presence, reported seeing armored vehicles.
Chinese social media was ablaze with both fear of impending conflict and patriotic zeal.
“In the face of the United States’ reckless disregard for China’s repeated and serious representations, any countermeasures taken by the Chinese side will be justified and necessary, as is the right of any independent and sovereign country,” foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a daily briefing in Beijing.
During a phone chat last Thursday, Chinese President Xi Jinping cautioned Biden that the United States should follow the one-China principle and that “those who play with fire will perish by it.”
Biden informed Xi that the United States’ position toward Taiwan has not changed and that Washington strongly opposes unilateral moves to change the status quo or threaten peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
According to White House national security spokesman John Kirby, Beijing’s retaliation might include firing missiles near Taiwan, large-scale air or naval operations, or other “spurious legal arguments,” such as China’s claim that the Taiwan Strait is not an international waterway.
“We will not take the bait or engage in sabre-rattling. At the same time, we will not be intimidated,” Kirby said.
Bonnie Glaser, a Taiwan expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, warned reporters over the phone that the Pelosi visit would be difficult to repair.
“We all know how bad this relationship has been in the past year. And I just think that this visit by Nancy Pelosi is just going to take it to a new low,” Glaser said. “And I think that it’s going to be very difficult to recover from that.”