After weeks of silence ahead of a high-stakes visit to Taiwan, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was anything but subdued Wednesday during a day of high-profile meetings in which she offered support for Taiwan and angered China.
Ms. Pelosi met with Taiwanese lawmakers and then with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, offering full assurances of US support for the island republic that China claims as its own. In the whirlwind of events, she was greeted by crowds of banner-waving supporters and followed by media and protesters, her closely watched meetings and movements partially broadcast on the Internet.
In its wake, it set the stage for a new conflict between China and the United States over power and influence in Asia. Taiwan is now preparing for Beijing to launch live-fire military drills on Thursday – an escalation without recent precedent – that could encircle the island and fire missiles into seas just 10 miles off its coast.
“Today the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy,” Ms Pelosi said during a meeting with Taiwan’s president. “America’s resolve to preserve democracy here in Taiwan and around the world remains ironclad.”
The meetings, while light on substance, were widely hailed in Taiwan as a symbolic victory. Ms. Pelosi’s trip was a rare moment when a major foreign power publicly showed its support for the island in the face of fierce opposition from China. Ms Pelosi made the trip despite President Biden’s discouragement, creating a historic moment when she became the highest-ranking member of the US administration to visit the island in 25 years.
The events presented an insult to China and its leader, Xi Jinping.
Mr Xi has made Taiwan’s unification with China a primary goal of his administration, and his defense minister warned in June that Beijing would not hesitate to fight for the island. The Chinese government lodged a formal protest with the US State Department over Ms Pelosi’s visit.
Ms. Pelosi, who flew to South Korea late Wednesday afternoon, praised Taiwan’s leaders and met with human rights activists. Each moment conveyed an unmistakable message: Beijing can isolate Taiwan, but it cannot prevent American leaders from traveling there.
He also brought financial commitments, calling a trade deal between Taiwan and the United States hopefully imminent and holding a cordial meeting with the chairman of Taiwanese chip giant TSMC Arguably one of the most geopolitically important companies in the world, TSMC has been courted by the U.S. . officials hoping to increase domestic production of microchips.
The trip took place against a backdrop of increasingly vociferous warnings from Beijing. Along with the military exercises, a series of hacks hit Taiwanese government websites. China used its status as Taiwan’s biggest trading partner to attack, announcing new trade restrictions on Wednesday, including suspensions of imports of certain fruits and fish and a ban on exports of sand, a key building material.
Ms. Pelosi’s visit may also hurt the White House’s push to drum up support against China from key allies in the region, who analysts said felt sidelined by the trip and frustrated by spiraling tensions. With the recent attention drawn by the Chinese outcry over the visit, the allies suggested they wished they had been better consulted ahead of Ms. Pelosi’s trip.
As Ms. Pelosi toured Taipei, the capital, an almost carnivalesque atmosphere ensued at times. Hundreds turned out to watch her plane land, Taipei’s tallest building was lit up with messages of welcome and protesters and supporters crowded around her hotel, then on Wednesday followed her to the legislature and a human rights museum.
When Ms. Pelosi arrived at Taiwan’s legislature under a police escort, a support group on one side of the building held banners with messages such as “America-Taiwan are brothers” and “I love Pelosi.” A gathering of pro-China protesters on the other side held signs calling it an “arsonist” and accusing it of interfering in China’s internal affairs.
China’s live-fire drills in the strait would signal a direct challenge to what Taiwan defines as its coastline and territorial waters. The coordinates for the drills showed they could be carried out closer than previous tests during a showdown 26 years ago.
China’s military warned all ships and planes to avoid the areas it identified for 72 hours. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said the exercises amounted to a blockade. The drills, which are to be held in six areas around Taiwan, could temporarily disrupt access to some of Taiwan’s commercial shipping lanes and ports.
On Wednesday, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, said more retaliation for the United States and Taiwan would follow from Ms. Pelosi’s visit.
“As for the specific countermeasures, what I can tell you is that they will include everything that needs to be included,” Ms. Hua said. according to People’s Daily. “These measures will be firm, firm and effective, and the US side and Taiwan independence forces will continue to feel them.”
For Taiwan and the United States military, a key question will be whether they obey Beijing’s orders to avoid the zones or test China’s resolve by sending boats and planes into them. Analysts worry that a chance encounter in the fast-moving situation could spiral out of control.
The standoff is reminiscent of an incident in 1995 and 1996 called the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. During this crisis, China fired live ammunition and missiles into the waters around Taiwan to signal its anger over President Lee Teng Hui’s trip to the United States and to increase pressure ahead of the presidential election. The United States, in response, sent two aircraft carrier groups to the area.
Much has changed since then. China’s military is stronger and bolder under Xi Jinping. This summer, Chinese officials strongly argued that no part of the Taiwan Strait could be considered international waters, meaning they could move to intercept and block US warships transiting the area, one of the most busiest shipping lanes in the world.
Inside China, Beijing’s angry response found plenty of support among the Chinese. The question for many posted online seemed to be whether military exercises would sound a loud enough warning. Many wondered whether the lack of response so far would encourage Taiwan to formally seek independence.
“Pelosi ushered in a great era that naturally belongs to us” said a widely shared comment on Weibo, a social networking service. “We will take this opportunity to carry out sea and air patrols around Taiwan without any obstacles so that they will be steadily normalized and unification will come closer and closer.”
In Taiwan, joy stood alongside anxiety over what could be the most dangerous military confrontation with China in a generation. On Taiwanese social media, some posted photos of China’s military drills and expressed concern. Eric Liu, a sales manager at a food company in central Taiwan, said he felt both excitement and concern.
“It is unprecedented for Taiwan and my generation of Taiwanese,” Mr. Liu, 26, said in an interview. “I felt very excited and I sensed the danger.”
“I believe a war in the Taiwan Straits is inevitable, but I don’t want to see it happen anytime soon,” he added.
During the morning meeting with Taiwanese lawmakers, Ms Pelosi praised Taiwan’s record in dealing with Covid-19, human rights and climate issues, according to Lo Chih-cheng, a lawmaker from the Democratic Progressive Party who attended .
“Under China’s threats and warnings, her visit shows that the United States will not bow to China’s intimidation and has decided to stand by Taiwan,” he said. “He decided to stand by the allies of democracy.”
Ms. Pelosi’s afternoon program made that abundantly clear.
The speaker went to Taiwan’s National Human Rights Museum, where she met with a group of activists and civil society leaders that China considers a rogues gallery. They included a former leader of student protests in Tiananmen, a former political prisoner in China, a Tibetan activist and a bookseller in Hong Kong.
Kalsang Gyaltsen, the Tibetan activist, said those who attended the meeting told Ms. Pelosi about the worsening human rights situation in China and received support. “Taiwan’s human rights debate is the biggest slap in the face to a country like China that lacks human rights,” he said.
The visit and the global attention it received, he said, made clear the failure of China’s attention-seeking diplomats, who in recent years have taken to social media en masse to echo Chinese government propaganda points.
Chiu Ta, a retired art history professor, waited outside the museum for Ms. Pelosi to arrive. The 91-year-old noted that the site was a detention center for political dissidents during Taiwan’s long years of martial law.
Noting that many who were political prisoners in Taiwan became government officials after Taiwan’s democratic transition, he said he deeply empathized with many in China.
“Those persecuted by the Communist Party are friends of Taiwan,” he said.
Jane Perlage contributed to the report.