TAIPEI, Taiwan — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) arrived in Taiwan late Tuesday, defying Chinese warnings against visiting the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its territory and setting the stage for a sharp escalation in tensions between China and the United States.
Pelosi touched down at Taipei’s Songshan airport at 10:44 p.m. local time.
Pelosi’s visit has enraged China, which for years has sought to diplomatically isolate Taiwan and views such exchanges with high-level foreign dignitaries as support for the island’s formal independence. The Chinese Communist Party claims Taiwan, a self-governing democracy home to 23 million people, as its territory despite never having ruled it. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has pledged to “reunify” Taiwan with China by force if necessary.
Taiwan’s official Central News Agency reported that the island’s military forces reinforced their preparations Tuesday morning and said they would remain at a “strengthened” state of readiness through midday Thursday.
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 formal Taiwan independence for decades, added, “We have nothing to do with China. We don’t want to be unified with them.”
Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that the military is closely monitoring all airspace and naval activity to ensure the island’s security with “determination, capability and confidence.”
Chinese maritime authorities, meanwhile, announced additional military exercises in the South China Sea and live-fire drills in the Bohai Sea, near the Korean Peninsula, this week. 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, meanwhile, 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 on Tuesday 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 Tuesday 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.
Earlier, the White House, without confirming Pelosi’s trip, warned Beijing not to use it as a pretext for escalation and criticized China for overreacting to a visit that has precedent. Pelosi would be the first House speaker to travel to Taiwan since Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1997.
“China appears to be positioning itself to take further steps in the coming days and perhaps over longer time horizons,” White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday. He added: “Nothing about this potential visit — which, oh, by the way, has precedent — would change the status quo.”
Despite its fears that Pelosi’s trip could trigger a crisis in the Taiwan Strait, the White House has sought to avoid any impression that the president is pressuring Pelosi. And Kirby emphasized that if she did visit the island, that did not reflect any change in the U.S. approach to China or Taiwan.
“Nothing has changed — nothing has changed — about our Taiwan policy,” Kirby said. As for Beijing, he added, “What we would hope they infer from everything we’ve done, and everything we’ve said, including during the president’s phone call, is that we’re being consistent.”
But Pelosi’s visit takes on new significance at a time when 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
“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 Pelosi’s trip to 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.