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Pelosi departs Taiwan as a furious China holds military drills

As soon as the House speaker touched down Tuesday, Chinese officials unleashed a barrage of furious statements and announced plans for military exercises starting immediately.
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TAIPEI, Taiwan — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi departed Taiwan on Wednesday after a whirlwind visit that drew fury from Beijing and raised fears of a potential military crisis between the United States and China

Before boarding a plane to leave the island, she vowed solidarity with the self-ruling democracy that Beijing claims as its territory, while China launched military drills, summoned the U.S. ambassador and halted some imports from Taiwan in a display of angry protests against her visit.

“Our delegation came here to send an unequivocal message: America stands with Taiwan,” Pelosi said at a news conference in Taipei after meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. 

The U.S. Air Force plane carrying her and five other Democratic lawmakers took off from Taipei Songshan Airport just after 6 a.m. ET.

Beijing had warned against the Pelosi visit for weeks, issuing threats that raised fears of a new crisis in the region between the world’s two biggest economies. As soon as she touched down Tuesday, Chinese officials unleashed a barrage of furious statements and announced plans for military exercises starting immediately.

On Wednesday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson criticized Pelosi’s visit as a “political farce.”

“It is Pelosi who is grandstanding, but it is bilateral relations and regional peace and stability that will suffer,” Hua Chunying said.

Some of the additional military drills planned for later this week will take place within Taiwan’s sea and air territory, a move the island democracy denounced as a serious violation that amounted to land and naval blockades.

Both Pelosi and Tsai said they were committed to maintaining the status quo, under which the United States recognizes Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China but maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan.

“We want Taiwan to always have freedom with security, and we’re not backing away from that,” Pelosi said.

Tsai thanked the U.S. delegation for visiting “under such challenging circumstances,” calling the Chinese military exercises “unnecessary.” 

China views Pelosi’s visit as highly provocative because of her status as a high-ranking official. While U.S. lawmakers and other current and former government officials regularly visit Taiwan, Pelosi is the first House speaker to visit the island since Newt Gingrich in 1997.

Image: Nancy Pelosi, Joseph Wu
Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu speaks with Nancy Pelosi as she prepares to leave Taipei on Wednesday.AP

Pelosi said that while China has blocked Taiwan from participating in international organizations and meetings, “they will not stand in the way of people coming to Taiwan.”Cheers erupted outside the airport as Pelosi’s military plane arrived Tuesday. Lights on Taipei 101, Taiwan’s tallest building, displayed messages of welcome and gratitude for the speaker’s visit.

More supporters met Pelosi outside her hotel, along with pro-Beijing protesters holding banners demanding that she leave.

“The good thing is that I think this will let the world know more about the existence of Taiwan as a democratic country,” Xu Hao-jun, a 45-year-old software designer in Taipei, told NBC News on Wednesday. “The bad point? I think China will not be friendly, but that doesn’t mean just because Pelosi doesn’t come to Taiwan they will be less so.”

Pelosi began the day Wednesday by addressing the Taiwanese Parliament, praising the island as “one of the freest societies in the world.”

At a ceremony later, Tsai presented Pelosi with a civilian order of the highest rank, calling her “one of Taiwan’s most devoted friends.”

In the afternoon, Pelosi — a longtime critic of China’s ruling Communist Party and its human rights record — met with three Chinese dissidents in private, local media reported. The delegation then boarded a plane for South Korea, the fourth stop on a larger tour of Asia that also includes Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.

Beijing considers Taiwan part of its territory and views “reunification” as inevitable, by force if necessary. The Taiwanese government rejects Beijing’s sovereignty claim and says the island’s future should be decided by its 23 million people.

In a statement Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused the United States of provoking the controversy and encouraging advocates of Taiwan independence.

“Attempts to use the Taiwan question to contain China are doomed to failure,” he said.

The White House says Pelosi’s visit is consistent with long-standing U.S. policy on Taiwan, which it says has not changed, and that there is no reason for it to stir conflict.

The United States “will not seek and does not want a crisis. We are prepared to manage what Beijing chooses to do,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday.

Image: US House Speaker Pelosi Visits Taiwan
A U.S. government plane carrying Nancy Pelosi taking off from Taipei Songshan Airport on Wednesday. Annabelle Chih / Getty Images

The reaction from China was swift.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China, late Tuesday to lodge a protest, state media reported.

Around the same time, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense said the People’s Liberation Army had begun “targeted military operations” around Taiwan, including joint air and sea exercises and conventional missile tests. 

The Taiwanese Defense Ministry said a total of 21 Chinese military aircraft entered its self-declared air defense identification zone, which is outside its official airspace, on Tuesday. Such military sorties take place almost daily but usually in smaller numbers.

On the economic front, Chinese customs officials said they would suspend imports of several Taiwanese food products, while the Ministry of Commerce halted the export of natural sand to the island, which uses it to make computer chips.

Taiwanese government websites also experienced minor cyberattacks as Pelosi arrived Tuesday, the source of which was unclear.

The PLA said additional military exercises and training activities, including live-fire drills, would be held from Thursday to Sunday. State media released a map indicating six areas off Taiwan’s coast, including one less than 15 miles from the southern port city of Kaohsiung, and warned foreign ships and aircraft to stay away.

In a statement Wednesday, the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry said this would seriously impact international trade and law. It said Taiwan was in close communication and coordination with the U.S. and other like-minded countries in the region to “jointly defend the rules-based international order” and “avoid regional escalation.” 

Rhoda Kwan reported from Taipei, and Jennifer Jett reported from Hong Kong.