By Paul D. Shinkman
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan on Tuesday and was met with a a furious screed from China’s Foreign Ministry, which blasted what it considers a “provocative” and “wrongful” act on behalf of the entire U.S. government and lashed out at warnings from President Joe Biden’s top advisers that Beijing not escalate an already precarious security situation.
“When the House Speaker, being the third-highest ranking figure in the US government, flies on US military aircraft and makes a provocative visit to the Taiwan region, it is by no means an unofficial action,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying wrote in a series of tweets on Tuesday morning as news broke that the California Democrat had arrived.
“Following a strategy of using Taiwan to contain China, the US has supported and connived at Taiwan-independence separatist forces and has made deliberate provocations against China on the Taiwan question. It has been pushing the envelope on China’s red lines,” Hua wrote. “The US & Taiwan have made provocations together first, whereas China has been compelled to act in self-defense. Any countermeasure to be taken by China would be a justified & necessary response to the US oblivion to China’s repeated démarches and the US’s unscrupulous behavior.”
Hua’s comments directly refuted repeated claims from National Security Council spokesman John Kirby and Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this week attempting to distance the controversial trip from the administration. They have claimed Pelosi decided to travel to Taiwan on her own while also stating that Beijing would be solely responsible for the military escalation it has pledged.
And Beijing wasted no time beginning to follow through on those pledges, which in recent weeks have even included allusions to shooting down the U.S. military plane carrying Pelosi and a handful of other Democratic members of Congress.
Minutes after news outlets confirmed Pelosi’s arrival, Chinese state news service Xinhua announced new “military exercises and training activities” beginning on Thursday, including a map showing the zones where it plans to operate encircling Taiwan, which Beijing considers nothing more than a renegade province of the mainland.
Chinese military aircraft have escalated operations in recent days into aerial zones Taiwan claims as its own, with some fears that its air force might interfere with Pelosi’s flight. Notably, Pelosi’s U.S. military aircraft traveled to Taiwan on a flight path that arrived from the east, avoiding the contested Taiwan Strait, in a move several analysts saw as a subtle attempt to defuse tensions with Beijing.
Pelosi designed her visit to show staunch congressional support for Taiwan against increased Chinese aggression – though no Republicans joined her – but it comes at a time of near unprecedented tensions between Washington and Beijing.
“Our delegation’s visit to Taiwan honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant Democracy,” she wrote on Twitter. “Our discussions with Taiwan leadership reaffirm our support for our partner & promote our shared interests, including advancing a free & open Indo-Pacific region.”
She blamed China for its “unilateral efforts to change the status quo.”
“We cannot stand by as the CCP proceeds to threaten Taiwan — and democracy itself,” she wrote in an accompanying op-ed in The Washington Post.
Several Republican senators, including some of Biden’s staunchest opponents, issued a joint statement in support of Pelosi’s trip.
“For decades, members of the United States Congress, including previous Speakers of the House, have travelled to Taiwan,” according to the statement, endorsed by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and 24 others. “This travel is consistent with the United States’ One China policy to which we are committed. We are also committed now, more than ever, to all elements of the Taiwan Relations Act.”
It remains unclear, however, whether the Biden administration approved of her trip as a method of deterrence against China’s territorial ambitions, though a growing number of reports indicate the president attempted to pressure Pelosi to back down.
Several anonymous officials told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that Biden and top aides had convinced China not to support Russia militarily in its attempted occupation of Ukraine, granting tenuous leverage to the military and intelligence support Western countries are providing to Kyiv.
“Given all of that, why in the world would the speaker of the House choose to visit Taiwan and deliberately provoke China now, becoming the most senior U.S. official to visit Taiwan since Newt Gingrich in 1997, when China was far weaker economically and militarily?” Friedman wrote.
Gingrich’s visit 25 years ago came at a time when the Clinton administration was engaging in outreach to Beijing with the intention of integrating it into the global economy with broader designs on encouraging its democratization.
That reality has changed sharply in recent years. Particularly acrimonious relations defined the Trump administration’s foreign policy and new questions have emerged about how far China is willing to go to achieve its military and diplomatic goals for its immediate neighborhood – particularly having witnessed the relatively restrained Western response to Russia’s ambitions in Ukraine.
“Basically, the fundamental problem here – from a bargaining point of view – is that the U.S. position that it will defend Taiwan in the face of a PRC attack is less and less credible over time,” says Tyler Jost, a professor at Brown University and an expert in Chinese national security decision-making.
“As Beijing’s military power grows, the costs of conflict for the U.S. go up,” Jost says. “So from Beijing’s perspective, the more power they have, the more the costs for the U.S. in a war go up, the more they think, ‘Well, maybe Washington just bows out rather than upholds its commitments to Taipei.’”
Others believe Pelosi’s presence sends a clear message to China that the U.S. indeed is prepared to honored its foreign commitments, in this case to help Taiwan – notably not a treaty ally – to defend itself against foreign aggression.
“What U.S. gains – at this point – it is to show that China does not get to decide our policy and visits to Taiwan,” says Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center think tank. “The Chinese reactions and coercion will lead to more U.S. support to Taiwan. But I doubt Taiwan will judge U.S. commitment from just one visit.”
Also in question is the American ability to defend Taiwan, regardless of its intention to do so.
Navy officials confirmed Tuesday morning that a group of ships led by the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier had returned to the region near Taiwan. Though they claimed the maneuvers were previously planned, they serve as a forward-staging effort to deter and perhaps defend against any actual military aggression from China in retaliation for Pelosi’s visit.
China, however, has pointed out that its mainland military prowess far exceeds anything the U.S. could deliver from the sea.
And it has escalated its military presence in the region in recent days, carrying out live fire drills in the South China Sea and showing off new military technology, to include hypersonic missiles. Though it has claimed the drills were previously scheduled, its state media has directly connected them to Pelosi’s planned visit.