Kirby has not confirmed that Pelosi plans to stop in Taiwan, but his extensive comments to reporters suggested the White House is positioning itself for such a visit. Biden administration officials have personally said they are deeply concerned about the timing of her expected trip, but on Monday Kirby focused on criticizing China for overreacting.
Pelosi launched her Asia trip on Sunday without disclosing whether Taiwan is on the route. Beijing, meanwhile, has warned it would retaliate if she visits her, and an official Chinese statement warned the Biden administration against “playing with fire” on Taiwan.
That statement followed a more than two-hour conversation between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday. During that call, Biden made “very clear that Congress is an independent branch of government and Speaker Pelosi makes her own decisions,” Kirby said.
Despite fears that Pelosi’s trip could spark a crisis in the Taiwan Strait, the White House has tried to avoid the impression that the president would pressure Pelosi. And Kirby stressed that visiting the island did not reflect a change in the US approach to China or Taiwan.
“Nothing has changed – nothing has changed – about our Taiwan policy,” Kirby said. As for Beijing, he added: “What we hope they infer from everything we’ve done and everything we’ve said, including during the president’s call, is that we’re being consistent.”
Kirby presented possible responses from China in response to a visit to Pelosi, noting that China conducted a live fire drill this weekend. Kirby added that China could fire missiles into the Taiwan Strait or around Taiwan or conduct “highly publicized” military exercises. Or, he said, it could conduct operations that “break historical norms,” such as sending larger numbers of military jets over the midpoint that separates Taiwan from mainland China.
Responses “may also include actions in the diplomatic and economic space, such as further bogus legal claims such as Beijing’s public claims last month that the Taiwan Strait is not an international waterway,” Kirby said.
China’s claims about Taiwan are a core part of the ruling Communist Party’s ideology. Beijing sees official visits by high-ranking foreigners as support for pro-independence camps and belief in the idea of Taiwan as a sovereign nation. Pelosi would be the first speaker of the House to travel to the self-governed Democratic island since Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1997.
Government fears Pelosi trip to Taiwan could lead to strait crisis
The visit would also test Xi’s determination at a time when he cannot afford to look weak as he presides over a slowing economy and deteriorating relations between China and the West. And it comes ahead of a pivotal party congress in the fall, when Xi is expected to break the precedent and take on a third term.
All senior members of Biden’s national security team believed there were concerns about the timing of the trip, said a White House official, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. For example, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan expressed concerns to several government officials and asked for suggestions to prevent the speaker from traveling to Taiwan, even sending some officials to speak with Pelosi directly, according to two people familiar with the talks.
The White House official said Sullivan was no more concerned than others, and as other officials agreed, it was Pelosi’s decision whether she wanted to go. Sullivan “assertive defended” [Pelosi’s] right to go” in a conversation with his counterpart in China, the official said.
Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said Washington doesn’t want a major confrontation, “but if the Chinese take action intentionally or if there’s some kind of accident that leads to a real collision — if ships or planes hit each other, or if you get a radar lock on a plane or a missile flying very close over Taiwan – I think you’d see the United States feel they have to respond pretty forcefully to that.
And Beijing’s reactions are unlikely to end when Pelosi leaves Taiwan, he said, but would likely continue in the run-up to the party congress. “I don’t think this will be an isolated incident,” Cooper said. “I think we’ll see more action in the coming months.”
Matt Turpin, a guest visitor to the Hoover Institute and director of White House China in Donald Trump’s administration, said the Chinese leaders, not Pelosi, would be responsible for any escalation.
“Pelosi’s visit is not the driving force behind Beijing’s behavior,” he said. “This is what they choose. They will use whatever pretext they need to realize their plan – the eventual annexation of Taiwan.”
In his conversation with Biden last week, Xi called on Washington to adhere to its one-China policy, a long-standing agreement in which the United States recognizes – without acknowledging it – Beijing’s claim that there is only one China.
c She visited Tiananmen Square in 1991 at the beginning of her career, where she unfolded a banner in honor of those who died after a brutal crackdown by the Chinese government against protests there. The police chased Pelosi and the lawmakers who traveled with her into the square.
But members of both parties, including Republican members of Congress, have argued that China has no right to dictate where US officials are allowed to travel.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) was invited to travel with Pelosi a few weeks ago, and at the time the plan was to also visit Taiwan, his spokeswoman Leslie Shedd said. He was unable to visit due to a prior commitment, Shedd said, so his office doesn’t know what the final plan was.
“He also believes that the chairman — or any other US official — should be able to visit Taiwan if they wished,” Shedd said in a statement.
Pelosi Announces Asia Itinerary With No mention of Taiwan
Pelosi and lawmakers traveling with her have been briefed on the threat opportunities associated with the trip and the intelligence community’s understanding of the risks of escalation with Beijing, according to people familiar with the visit.
Pelosi kicked off her tour of Asia on Sunday with scheduled visits to Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan. In a statement prior to the trip, her office did not mention Taiwan. Pelosi had planned to lead a congressional delegation to Taiwan in April but postponed the trip after contracting the coronavirus.
For decades, China has tried to force Taiwan into diplomatic isolation by knocking out its allies and launching vociferous campaigns against any semblance of recognition of Taiwan as a nation, including visits by foreign dignitaries.
Beijing has repeatedly said it will use force if necessary to reunite Taiwan and its 23 million people with the motherland. However, Taiwan has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party and the people have shown no interest in being ruled by their authoritarian neighbor.
Since the election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-seeking Democratic Progressive Party, Beijing has stepped up its rhetoric and military threats. Last year, the Chinese Air Force repeatedly broke daily records for the number of fighter jets it sent near Taiwan’s airspace.
According to a report from the Pingtan Maritime Safety Administration, the People’s Liberation Army held “live-fire exercises” on Saturday off the Chinese coast, opposite Taiwan, near the Pingtan Islands. On Monday, maritime officials announced further exercises in the South China Sea between Tuesday and Saturday.
Taiwan Sharpens Invasion Response Amid China’s Threats Over Pelosi Trip
Last week, Taiwanese troops held military exercises to practice defending against an amphibious assault. Meanwhile, the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its strike group returned to the South China Sea.
The Biden administration is increasingly concerned about the risk of a full-scale crisis in the Taiwan Strait. Relations between the US and China are already at an all-time low as the two superpowers clash over everything from economic power to human rights to military influence, and a conflict between China and Taiwan could attract other powers, including Japan.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an unofficial US delegation of former defense and national security officials traveled to Taiwan to demonstrate Washington’s “determined” commitment to the island’s defense.
Increased engagement between US officials and Taipei has led Beijing to worry that Washington has taken steps to change the status quo. That realization is fueled by seemingly ready-made statements by Biden that deviate from Washington’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan’s defense. Biden has suggested three times since August that the United States should defend Taiwan militarily if attacked by China.” Yes,” he said in May, “that’s the commitment we made.” Each time, the White House has either backed down or toned down the comments.
During the last Taiwan Strait crisis in 1995-1996, China launched missiles that landed near Taiwan and the United States sent two aircraft carriers to the region east of Taiwan, said Evan Medeiros, a professor of Asia studies at Georgetown. university. But the Chinese military was much less capable at the time, “so there was little risk of escalation,” he said.
“This crisis is playing out with a much more capable Chinese military and a more confident and frustrated leadership,” said Medeiros, who served as a senior China official in Barack Obama’s administration and was part of the unofficial delegation to Taipei in March. “So the main challenges for the United States will be crisis management and escalation control.”
John Hudson contributed to this report.