A congressional delegation headed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to arrive in Taiwan this week despite blunt warnings from Beijing against the trip, as the White House warned that tensions between the U.S. and China could be reaching a tipping point.
Several media outlets and people familiar with Mrs. Pelosi’s itinerary have confirmed that the California Democrat will meet with Taiwanese government officials and others in Taipei on Tuesday evening and Wednesday, though some details remain fluid. The meeting is going ahead despite a fresh warning from China’s Foreign Ministry Monday that both the U.S. and Taiwan will face retaliation for what Beijing says is a grave violation of its sovereign rights.
Mrs. Pelosi, who is joined by five other House Democrats on her trip throughout Asia which began over the weekend, has yet to officially confirm her stop in Taiwan. As third in line for the presidency, she would be the highest U.S. official to visit the island democracy since former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich made a visit more than two decades ago.
Chinese officials, who say the visit is the latest in a series of moves by Washington to upend the “One China” policy in place since the Carter administration, have warned that the trip would cause serious harm to already tense bilateral relations. The Biden White House, which did not take a position on Mrs. Pelosi’s agenda, denies it would mark any shift in official U.S. policy.
“There is no reason for Beijing to turn a potential visit consistent with longstanding U.S. policy into some sort of crisis or use it as a pretext to increase aggressive military activity in or around the Taiwan Strait,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Monday. “Our actions are not threatening and they break no new ground. Nothing about this potential visit — which by the way has precedent — would change the status quo.”
But those words came after Mr. Biden himself late last month acknowledged that his own military leaders did not favor the Taiwan trip, viewing it as too provocative. “The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now,” Mr. Biden said July 21.
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Taiwanese officials would not confirm or deny a visit by the U.S. delegation, which is likely to take place after Mrs. Pelosi stops in Malaysia on Tuesday. Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang told reporters Monday only that Taiwan welcomed all foreign guests and promised to make the best arrangements when they arrive.
Beijing claims Taiwan as part of China and thus its own territory. The government sitting in Taipei, which formally calls itself the Republic of China, is denounced as an illegitimate renegade.
Following the delegation’s departure, China announced Saturday that it would conduct “live-fire exercises” off of its coast opposite of Taiwan, intensifying fears that Beijing harbors intentions of launching an attack on the self-governing island just 100 miles off the mainland.
China’s Foreign Ministry again on Monday warned Mrs. Pelosi and the congressional delegation of House Democrats against making the trip to Taiwan, on a day when Chinese President Xi Jinping and top officials of the People’s Liberation Army were observing celebrations to mark the 95th anniversary of the Communist Party-controlled army’s founding.
A visit by the House speaker would be a “gross interference in China’s internal affairs,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a regular press briefing in Beijing Monday.
“We would like to tell the United States once again that China is standing by, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army will never sit idly by, and China will take resolute responses and strong countermeasures to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said. Asked how China would respond, Mr. Zhao said only that the world would have to “wait and see.”
A posting by a unit of the People’s Liberation Army on China’s Weibo blogging service late last week read, “Prepare for war!” and has gotten nearly 2 million “likes,” the Singapore-based Straits Times reported.
Beijing is marking the annual August 1 “Army Day” celebration with speeches and demonstrations of new technology and weaponry from China’s military, the state-controlled nationalist Global Times reported Monday.
The PLA in recent days has “revealed new progress made in its advanced weaponry and equipment including its hypersonic missile, amphibious assault ship, aerial tanker and large destroyers, all of which are described by military analysts as having important roles to play if a conflict breaks out in the Taiwan Straits,” the Global Times said.
The White House warned on Monday that Beijing’s increasingly provocative posturing in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s anticipated visit to Taiwan runs the risk of “miscalculation.”
“China appears to be positioning itself to potentially take further steps in the coming days, and perhaps over longer time horizons,” Mr. Kirby told reporters Monday. “These potential steps from China could include military provocations, such as firing missiles in the Taiwan Strait or around Taiwan.”
He added that the skyrocketing tension “raises the stakes of miscalculation and confusion which could also lead to unintended consequences.”
The White House has refrained from commenting on the trip, noting that the speaker, a longtime critic of China and its human rights record, makes her own travel decisions.
The administration has continued to underscore the U.S. commitment to the “One China” policy, a diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing as the sole government of all “China,” a term which includes the island of Taiwan.
But despite the White House’s attempt to downplay the visit, the heightened tensions have begun to leave a scar on the relationship.
In a more than two-hour phone call last week Chinese President Xi Jinping warned President Biden that “those who play with fire will perish by it,” according to Beijing’s readout of the call.
“It is hoped that the U.S. will be clear-eyed about this,” Mr. Xi said.
Foreign policy analysts say both sides are under pressure not to back down in the standoff. Congressional Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Mrs. Pelosi cannot be seen calling off the Taiwan visit because of threats from China. Many U.S. China hawks say American credibility is on the line now that the dispute over her trip has become so public.
But Mr. Xi himself is under pressure to take a tough line as well; He faces a major Communist Party congress this fall that he hopes will ratify giving him an unprecedented third five-year term in office, and does not want to be seen as weak going into the gathering.
“Broadly speaking, China believes the United States is hollowing out its ‘One China’ policy,” said Jacob Stokes, a China analyst at the Center for a New American Security, recently told Foreign Policy.com. “At the same time, Taiwan is really looking for signals of international support.”
Mr. Xi “is going to view [the Pelosi visit] as a personal affront,” Heino Klinck, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia during the Trump administration, told the foreign policy website. “On top of all of the domestic issues that he’s already fighting, whether it’s zero-COVID, the mortgage crisis, … this is just adding fuel to the fire — and he’s going to interpret this as a part of a deliberate strategy.”