WASHINGTON — China warned top US diplomats and national security officials, members of Congress and even President Joe Biden himself that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could not set foot in Taiwan. He did anyway.
As the California Democrat made her week-long trip, becoming the highest-ranking US official to visit Taiwan in a quarter-century, the question remained: Why now.
For Pelosi, 82, the historic visit to Taiwan marks the culmination of a long and storied political career that could be coming to an end — one focused on women’s issues, human rights, democracy and national security. With speculation rampant that this could be her last year in public office, the trip to Taiwan allowed her to shine the spotlight on all four critical issues and strengthen her legacy.
In 1991, before she took the leadership, Pelosi and two House colleagues traveled to Beijing, stood in Tiananmen Square and unfurled a small black-and-white banner honoring “THOSE WHO DIED FOR DEMOCRACY IN CHINA” two years earlier.
Chinese officials, unmoved by the public act, quickly intervened and chased the trio of MPs out of the square and then began arresting the journalists who documented the event.
More than three decades later, Pelosi once again angered China, but this time provocative act takes place on the international stage with millions of social media users and online flight trackers watching her every move.
The significance of Pelosi and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen — both the first women to hold their positions — standing shoulder to shoulder on the world stage in defiance of a male-dominated superpower was not lost on Pelosi. She broke the glass ceiling in 2007, becoming the first woman ever to hold the office of Speaker of the House – a position she has now held twice.
“We are so proud of your leadership — a woman president in one of the freest societies in the world,” Pelosi told Tsai on Wednesday. “From a crucible of challenge, you forged a thriving democracy — one of the freest in the world — proudly led by a female president.”
When met with silence, Pelosi added, “That’s a round of applause,” prompting people in the room to begin clapping.
Tsai presented Pelosi with a turquoise sash, the Order of Propitious Clouds, Taiwan’s highest political honor, saying, “I have great admiration for President Pelosi, who has long stood firm in safeguarding freedom, democracy and of human rights”.
Pelosi “never hesitates to confront rhetoric and activities that are said to undermine democratic values,” she continued.
The unannounced visit by the Pelosi delegation to the self-governing island, which China claims as part of its territory, exacerbated already high tensions in the region. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman accused Pelosi of “grandiosity.” Beijing summoned the US ambassador in the middle of the night and launched military exercises in protest, promising more to come.
Undaunted by Beijing’s warnings, Pelosi didn’t just leave for a brief getaway — her six-member delegation stayed overnight in Taipei, meeting top political, business and human rights leaders and even touring a human rights museum.
Taipei 101, the island’s tallest building, sent a personal welcome message for Pelosi and “TW hearts US” as he landed in the capital.
The trip allowed Pelosi, once again, to play the role of the main antagonist of China, whose political leaders she has repeatedly called out for human rights abuses, from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre to the persecution of the Uighur people. .
“She’s had a long-standing involvement with Taiwan and has always been consistent in speaking out about human rights and democracy,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a close Pelosi ally who served on her leadership team when he was in Parliament. “I see this journey as part of her dedication to these important issues. … I think it will help her cement her legacy in this area.”
But while Pelosi has publicly bashed Beijing, she has reached out to the complicated and highly flammable China-U.S. relationship with care too.
In the days leading up to the Asia trip, Pelosi — who was the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee before ascending to leadership — convened countless meetings in her office with lawmakers invited on the trip and top aides, a source said. Whether she would go to Taiwan loomed large as State and Defense Department officials privately expressed concern to lawmakers that a visit could trigger a military attack on Taiwan. Biden himself said Pentagon leaders didn’t think it was a good idea.
In the end, Pelosi made the trip, saying it symbolized America’s unwavering support for Taiwan’s democracy, as China’s threats to take back the island, by force if necessary, grow louder. But he also tried to dial back the rhetoric, taking to the pages of the Washington Post to send one clear message to Beijing that the visit “in no way contradicts the long-standing one-China policy” or the status quo that has prevailed since the Carter administration.
“I know her well enough to know that she is very thorough and has spent a lot of time looking at all the relevant security issues and the significant policy implications,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who, like Pelosi, welcomes from a democratic family dynasty. Their families have known each other for decades.
Asked to sum up her ground-breaking political career, Casey replied, “It’s hard to list all the firsts she’s accomplished. She is so capable, so determined, so effective in the work she has done.”
Praise for Pelosi was bipartisan, with top Senate Republicans such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Roy Blunt of Missouri defending her right to travel to Taiwan.
“I’m going to use four words in a row that I haven’t used in this way before, and those four words are: Chairman Pelosi was right,” Blunt told reporters Tuesday.
While Pelosi has led dozens of congressional delegations around the world, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Europe and Central America, her legacy on Capitol Hill is more closely aligned with issues at home.
He helped steer the landmark Affordable Care Act through Congress during the Obama administration, led Democrats to impeach President Donald Trump twice, and is now fighting to pass Biden’s massive reconciliation package, which includes two of the her priorities for pets — lowering prescription drug prices and tackling climate change — before Republicans can win control of the House this fall.
“I remember the ACA. … It seemed to me that there was no way to do this, and he said, “We’re going to go ahead and do this,” and I thought, “That’s interesting. How do you do that;” Casey recalls. “But he had a strategy and he took the lead with Harry Reid” of Nevada, then the Senate majority leader.
The start of the Taiwan trip was a bit clumsy — news of it leaked to the media, and then Biden expressed concerns in a not-so-tired remark. All the while, Pelosi’s office declined to comment on any foreign travel, citing security concerns, even as preparations were underway.
But those who traveled with her to Taiwan and other Asian allies said Pelosi had a broader strategy and successfully conducted the high-risk visit without incident. Her trip included bilateral meetings with Tsai and Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, a visit to Taiwan’s parliament, a meeting with Taiwan’s largest semiconductor manufacturer and a stop at the National Museum of Human Rights.
“The speaker handled an extremely challenging situation with incredible determination and resolve,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., a member of Pelosi’s delegation, after their plane took off from Taiwan on Wednesday.
“She is an absolute rock star in Taiwan and her and the delegation’s show of unity will never be forgotten by their citizens.”