Pelosi arrives in Taiwan, increasing U.S.-China tension

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan on Tuesday for an unannounced but widely anticipated and controversial visit sure to deepen U.S.-China tensions and fears of military conflict between the two superpowers.

Pelosi (D-San Francisco), an outspoken critic of Beijing, is the highest-ranking elected U.S. official to visit Taiwan in 25 years. Even before her arrival during an official tour of Asia, the prospect of a stop in Taiwan drew the ire of Beijing, which sees the trip as a challenge to its claim of sovereignty over the self-governed island.

“Our delegation’s visit to Taiwan honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant Democracy,” Pelosi tweeted within minutes of touching down at the airport in Taipei. The closely watched flight from Malaysia took a long route around the South China Sea and landed shortly after 10:40 p.m., where Pelosi was greeted by officials including Taiwanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu.

In a dig at China, she added that supporting Taiwan “is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy,” but she also insisted that her visit “in no way contradicts” the U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan that has held for decades.

Pelosi was scheduled to meet with President Tsai Ing-wen at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Chinese officials have been quick to threaten reprisal, warning that the country’s military is ready to act and that “those who play with fire will perish by it.” The aggressive rhetoric has stoked concerns over military escalation, fueling a debate over the wisdom of Pelosi’s trip and the potential backlash to it.

After Pelosi landed in Taiwan, China’s Ministry of Defense condemned the visit and said it would launch a series of targeted military operations. The military’s Eastern Theater command began a series of naval and air exercises and long-range live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait on Tuesday night, state media said.

According to Chinese state media, the country’s People’s Liberation Army planned to conduct military drills from Thursday through Sunday all around the island, after Pelosi is scheduled to leave.

The democratically ruled island of 23 million has become a central point of contention in the deteriorating U.S.-China relationship. With mistrust growing between the two countries, analysts said Pelosi’s visit could lead to miscommunication and a military clash, though neither side wants war.

“The risk of an unintended crisis as a result of large-scale military posturing by China is uncomfortably high,” said Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst at the think tank International Crisis Group. “It’s very possible for policymakers on the two sides to radically misread each other’s intentions.”

A lengthy call between President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week on issues including Taiwan failed to defuse tensions over the visit. Given the heightened animosity, the U.S., China and Taiwan will need to tread carefully to avoid aggravating the situation, Hsiao said.

China’s global power and influence have grown since the last such visit by a U.S. official of Pelosi’s rank, when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, traveled to Taiwan in 1997 to meet with then-President Lee Teng-hui. Although some experts in the U.S. warned that Pelosi’s trip, while offering little material benefit, could prompt a saber-rattling response from Beijing that mushrooms into a larger crisis, others worried that a cancellation would be seen as bowing to Chinese pressure and undermine faith in U.S. support for Taiwan.

While the Biden administration is reluctant to look soft on China, it also has little interest in antagonizing the country’s leadership, particularly with war raging between Russia and Ukraine. The U.S. has warned China against providing material support to Russia, and would be hard-pressed to confront challenges from both countries at once.

Prior to Pelosi’s trip, Biden said the Pentagon advised against it but was taking steps to ensure her safety. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the visit did not contravene long-standing U.S. policy and should not be a reason for China to increase military activity.

Analysts said that though Beijing is under pressure to follow through with its warnings, it would want to stop short of actions that could draw it into a war with the U.S., which is bound by federal law to ensure that Taiwan can defend itself. Biden has previously said the U.S. would intervene militarily if China attacked Taiwan, though the administration has walked back the comments each time. China’s countermeasures, which include missile tests, expanding military exercises and more aggressive air and sea excursions, are a step up from normal military activity around Taiwan and indicate a more provocative stance.

More dire possibilities might include a naval blockade directed at the key southwestern port city of Kaohsiung, no-fly zones over the Taiwan Strait and military exercises targeting the north, near the capital, Taipei, and the east, cutting off Taiwan’s conduit to the outside world. Those scenarios would mark significant escalation and pose grave danger for the Taiwanese military, which would have to respond by scrambling warplanes and naval assets.

“The Chinese military will not target the U.S.,” said Yujen Kuo, director of the Institute for National Policy Research at National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan. “China will punish Taiwan.”

China also suspended food imports from more than 100 companies in Taiwan, local media here reported Tuesday. China has previously banned Taiwanese products such as pineapple and grouper, seen as an attempt to exert economic pressure on the island.

China has long considered Taiwan part of its territory, though the Communist Party has never ruled the island. After losing the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the Chinese Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan with the goal of one day retaking the country. In 1979, Washington switched diplomatic relations to the Communist Party, and adopted a policy of acknowledging Beijing’s claim over Taiwan, without endorsing it. Meanwhile, Taiwan transitioned into democratic rule, and increasingly its citizens view their cultural and political identity as separate from mainland China.

As Beijing has ramped up calls for unification and buzzed the island with record numbers of warplanes, the growing tensions have led some officials to warn that an attack is possible in the next few years.

Xi, who is expected to break Chinese political norms by securing a third five-year term as president later this year, considers unification with Taiwan of utmost importance under his broader goal of “national rejuvenation.” The Chinese leader is juggling domestic challenges ahead of the anticipated term extension, including a property crisis and the economic impact of COVID-19 lockdowns. A weak response to Pelosi’s visit could undermine his leadership at a politically sensitive time.

How aggressively China chooses to push is entirely up to Xi, Kuo said. But if he “doesn’t react strongly to Pelosi’s visit, he will face tremendous challenges from other factions within the Communist Party.”

Here in Taiwan, few appear to be paying as close attention to Pelosi’s visit as those overseas.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised awareness of the potential for conflict with mainland China, spurring initiatives to bolster defenses in the Taiwanese military and among civilians. However, many locals are skeptical that Pelosi’s visit will lead to a substantive change in China’s military approach toward Taiwan.

“The visit should not be interpreted as a provocation but rather as support for maintaining the cross-strait status quo,” said Wen Lii, director of the Matsu Islands chapter of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party. “I think it’s important for Taiwan to continue to receive public gestures of support from fellow democracies.”

Yang reported from Taipei and Pierson from Singapore.