SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday her delegation of lawmakers was visiting Taiwan “to make unequivocally clear that we will not abandon Taiwan.”
“Now, more than ever, America’s solidarity with Taiwan is crucial, and that’s the message we are bringing here, today,” Pelosi said.
She highlighted a newly passed U.S. bill aimed at boosting domestic semiconductor production and helping U.S. companies compete with China. Pelosi told Taiwan’s parliament the bill “offers greater opportunity for U.S.-Taiwan economic cooperation.”
China expressed sharp opposition to Pelosi’s visit, warning it would be an unacceptable violation of what it sees as its sovereignty over the self-ruled island.
Shortly after Pelosi arrived late Tuesday, China summoned the U.S. ambassador and announced live-fire military drills near Taiwan, including "long-range live ammunition shooting" in the Taiwan Strait, which separates the island from mainland China and straddles vital shipping lanes.
Beijing on Wednesday also imposed curbs on the import of fruit and fish from Taiwan.
More explicit U.S. support
Taiwan and China split in 1949 after a civil war, with the defeated nationalist forces fleeing to Taiwan and setting up a government that later grew into a vibrant democracy.
Since then, China’s Communist Party has vowed to take Taiwan, using force if necessary, even though the island has never been ruled by the Communist Party.
The United States formally cut official relations with Taiwan in 1979 when it switched diplomatic recognition to China. However, the United States continued to maintain unofficial relations with Taiwan and supplies it with defensive weapons as mandated by the U.S. Congress.
For decades, that balancing act helped preserve cross-strait peace, but in recent years Chinese leaders have grown concerned that Washington may be shifting toward more explicit support for Taiwan.
On three separate occasions, President Joe Biden has indicated the United States would defend Taiwan militarily if China invaded.
Though U.S. officials deny there has been any change in policy, Biden’s comments differed from those of many of his predecessors, who maintained a carefully calibrated “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to Taiwan’s defense.
In this context, Pelosi’s visit appears even more concerning to China, according to Amanda Hsiao, a senior Taiwan-based analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“We've seen very clear messages coming out of Beijing that China intends on responding forcefully if the visit goes through. And I think those signals should be taken quite seriously,” Hsiao told VOA.
Hsiao expects a “significant increase” in Chinese military activities around Taiwan during and after Pelosi’s visit. China has already flown a record high number of warplanes around Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone in recent months.
China: Bolder and more powerful
This is the highest-level U.S. visit to Taiwan since 1997, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich led a congressional delegation there.
In an interview with VOA’s Mandarin Service, Gingrich expressed support for Pelosi’s trip, which he said will likely only amount to “an irritation” to U.S.-China ties. “I think this is at one level a lot of noise about nothing,” Gingrich said.
But many analysts warn that China has grown much more powerful and bold since the late 1990s, when Gingrich visited.
“I think the China we’re dealing with now, under [President] Xi Jinping, is more assertive, more ambitious, and more concerned, I think, with appearing weak in these sorts of moments,” Hsiao said.
Another factor: An upcoming Communist Party Congress, where Xi is expected to secure a controversial third term as China’s top leader. It’s unclear, though, how the meeting will affect China’s response.
“They would still prefer to have a relatively stable external environment while they're undergoing this key transition,” Hsiao said. “But on the other hand because it is on the eve of the 20th Party Congress, the leadership is under some pressure to demonstrate that it won't be taken advantage of.”