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.
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.
The speaker framed the trip as part of a broader mission at a time when “the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.”
Her visit comes after she led a congressional delegation to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in the spring, and it serves as a capstone to her many years of promoting democracy abroad.
“We must stand by Taiwan,” she said in an opinion piece published by The Washington Post on her arrival in Taiwan. She cited the commitment that the U.S. made to a democratic Taiwan under a 1979 law.
“It is essential that America and our allies make clear that we never give in to autocrats,” she wrote.
Soon after Pelosi’s arrival, China announced a series of military operations and drills, which followed promises of “resolute and strong measures” if she went through with her visit.
“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.
WATCH | Pelosi’s visit triggers fiery response:
The People’s Liberation Army said the manoeuvres would include the firing of long-range ammunition in the Taiwan Strait.
In an image the news agency released, the drills were to take place in six different areas in the waters surrounding Taiwan.
The Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will launch a series of joint military operations around the Taiwan Island starting from Tuesday night <a href=”https://t.co/2z7WqDZqR1″>https://t.co/2z7WqDZqR1</a> <a href=”https://t.co/iIE1WApW52″>pic.twitter.com/iIE1WApW52</a>
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.
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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.
Senators are considering legislation to bolster Taiwan’s defences as a direct response to China’s rhetoric. The Taiwan Policy Act, which has support from both parties, will be discussed Wednesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The package would bolster Taiwan’s defence capabilities with nearly $4.5 billion US ($5.6 billion Cdn) in security assistance over the next four years and provide other support for Taiwan’s democratic government and civil society. The measure would also designate Taiwan as a “major non-NATO ally,” which opens the door to more security and trade benefits.
Backers call it the most comprehensive restructuring of U.S. policy toward Taiwan since the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.
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 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.
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.