U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan late Tuesday, becoming the highest-ranking American official in 25 years to visit the self-ruled island claimed by China, which quickly announced that it would conduct military manoeuvres in retaliation for her presence.
Pelosi arrived aboard a U.S. air force passenger jet and was greeted on the tarmac at Taipei’s international airport by Taiwan’s foreign minister and other Taiwanese and American officials. She posed for photos before her motorcade whisked her unseen into the parking garage of a hotel.
In a statement issued just after her arrival, Pelosi said the visit “honours America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant democracy.”
Pelosi’s visit has ratcheted up tension between China and the United States because China claims Taiwan as part of its territory, and it views visits by foreign government officials as recognition of the island’s sovereignty.
Soon after Pelosi’s arrival, China announced a series of military operations and drills, which followed promises of “resolute and strong measures” if Pelosi went through with her visit.
The People’s Liberation Army said the manoeuvres would take place starting Tuesday night in the waters and skies near Taiwan and include the firing of long-range ammunition in the Taiwan Strait.
“This action is a solemn deterrent against the recent major escalation of the negative actions of the United States on the Taiwan issue, and a serious warning to the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces seeking ‘independence.'”
Taiwan’s Defence Ministry said early Wednesday that China had sent 21 planes flying toward Taiwan, 18 of them fighter jets. The rest included an early warning plane and an electronic warfare plane.
China’s official Xinhua News said the army planned to conduct live-fire drills from Thursday through Sunday across multiple locations. In an image the news agency released, the drills were to take place in six different areas in the waters surrounding Taiwan.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Washington’s actions “on the Taiwan issue is bankrupting its national credibility.”
“Some American politicians are playing with fire on the issue of Taiwan,” Wang said in a statement. “This will definitely not have a good outcome … the exposure of America’s bullying face again shows it as the world’s biggest saboteur of peace.”
Beijing sees official American contact with Taiwan as encouragement to make the island’s decades-old de facto independence permanent, a step U.S. leaders say they don’t support.
Pelosi, head of one of three branches of the U.S. government, is the highest-ranking elected American official to visit Taiwan since then-Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997.
The Biden administration did not explicitly urge Pelosi to call off her plans. It repeatedly and publicly assured Beijing that the visit would not signal any change in U.S. policy on Taiwan.
On Tuesday, following Pelosi’s arrival in Taiwan, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters at the White House that China had positioned itself to take further actions against Taiwan, including possible “economic coercion.”
A day earlier, Kirby noted that members of Congress have routinely visited the island over the years — in April, Sen. Lindsey Graham led a delegation of six lawmakers from both parties to Taiwan, while the U.S. health secretary at the time visited in 2020.
U.S. officials have said the U.S. military would increase its movement of forces and assets in the Indo-Pacific region. Four U.S. warships, including an aircraft carrier, were positioned in waters east of Taiwan on what the U.S. navy called routine deployments, a U.S. navy official told Reuters on Tuesday.
Bipartisan support for Pelosi’s visit
Back in the United States, 26 Republican lawmakers issued a statement of rare bipartisan support for the Democratic speaker, calling trips by members of Congress to Taiwan routine.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said he backed Pelosi’s visit as a display of support for Taiwan’s democracy and said any allegations that her itinerary was provocative are “utterly absurd.”
“I believe she has every right to go,” McConnell said in a Senate speech.
Pelosi has sought for decades to focus attention on Chinese democracy movements. She travelled to Tiananmen Square in 1991, two years after China crushed a wave of democracy protests.
In 2009, she hand-delivered a letter to then-President Hu Jintao calling for the release of political prisoners. She had sought to visit Taiwan’s island democracy earlier this year before testing positive for COVID-19
Taiwan and China split in 1949 after the Communists won a civil war on the mainland.
The U.S. maintains informal relations and defence ties with Taiwan even as it recognizes Beijing as the government of China. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which has governed U.S. relations with the island, does not require the U.S. to step in militarily if China invades, but makes it American policy to ensure Taiwan has the resources to defend itself and to prevent any unilateral change of status by Beijing.
China has been steadily ratcheting up diplomatic and military pressure on Taiwan. China cut off all contact with Taiwan’s government in 2016, after President Tsai Ing-wen refused to endorse its claim that the island and mainland together make up a single Chinese nation.
Beijing sees official American contact with Taiwan as encouragement to make the island’s decades-old independence permanent, a step U.S. leaders say they don’t support, despite some imprecise statements in recent years by both President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump, whose administration opened a de facto embassy in Taiwan.
Russia warns U.S.
The Philippines, which maintains relations with both the U.S. and China, urged them to be “responsible actors” in the region.
Russia, meanwhile, strongly warned the United States against provoking China with the trip.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov warned that such a visit would be “extremely provocative,” adding that it would “exacerbate the situation in the region and fuel tensions.”
Peskov’s comments reflected close ties between Moscow and Beijing, which have grown stronger since Russia sent its troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24. China has refused to criticize Russia’s action, blaming the U.S. and NATO for provoking Moscow, and has blasted punishing sanctions imposed on Moscow.
Russia and China have held a series of joint war games in recent years, including naval drills and patrols by long-range bombers over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea. Last year, Russian troops for the first time deployed to Chinese territory for joint manoeuvres.
Pelosi kicked off her Asian tour in Singapore on Monday and is also expected to meet with officials in South Korea later in the week.