WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is leading an official congressional delegation to Asia this week, made an unannounced visit to Taiwan late on Tuesday, a move that escalated tensions between Beijing and Washington.
The California Democrat met with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, who presented Pelosi with the Order of Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon, a civilian order of the highest rank.
“Speaker Pelosi is truly one of Taiwan’s most devoted friends,” Tsai said at a ceremony that took place Wednesday after Pelosi addressed Taiwan’s parliament. “We are truly grateful to you for making this visit to Taiwan to showcase the U.S. Congress’s staunch support for Taiwan.”
Pelosi is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Taiwan since then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich traveled there in 1997. She visited the island in 1999 but she was not in leadership then. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle (and Gingrich) had been urging Pelosi to make the trip despite warnings from China of "serious consequences."
Pelosi described Taiwan as a “flourishing democracy” whose story is “an inspiration to all freedom-loving people in the United States and around the world.”
"Now more than ever, America’s solidarity with Taiwan is crucial, and that is the message we are bringing here today,” she said in the ceremony with Tsai. “Today the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy. America’s determination to preserve democracy here in Taiwan and around the world remains ironclad, and we are grateful to the partnership of the people of Taiwan in this mission.”
China immediately condemned Pelosi’s visit Tuesday, vowing that “those who play with fire will perish by it,” and announced new military exercises surrounding Taiwan later this week including live-fire drills. The visit represents a “serious violation” that “seriously infringes upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement Tuesday after her arrival in Taipei.
“These moves, like playing with fire, are extremely dangerous. Those who play with fire will perish by it,” it said. The Global Times, a state-controlled newspaper, reported that the Chinese military would “conduct important military exercises and training activities including live-fire drills in six regions surrounding the Taiwan island from Thursday to Sunday.”
Beijing also said it had lodged a “strong protest” with the United States.
The military-operated blue-and-white government plane, emblazoned with "United States of America," touched down about 10:45 p.m. local time in the capital city of Taipei. Pelosi and members of her delegation emerged from the plane and walked down its stairs to the tarmac, where they were greeted by Taiwanese officials.
“Our Congressional delegation’s visit to Taiwan honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant Democracy," Pelosi and members of her delegation said in a joint statement after touching down.
"Our discussions with Taiwan leadership will focus on reaffirming our support for our partner and on promoting our shared interests, including advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific region," the statement continued. "America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy."
Tsai, during remarks alongside Pelosi on Wednesday, cited the importance of security in the Indo-Pacific region given the war in Ukraine.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year has made security over the Taiwan Strait another focus of worldwide attention," she said. "Aggressions against democratic Taiwan would have a tremendous impact on the security of the entire Indo-Pacific.”
Pelosi and the other lawmakers made clear that their visit was one of many trips by congressional delegations to Taiwan and "in no way contradicts" long-standing U.S. policy, which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, three U.S.-China Joint Communiques and the Six Assurances.
"The United States continues to oppose unilateral efforts to change the status quo," the lawmakers said.
Earlier this week, the lawmakers made stops in Malaysia and Singapore. After Taiwan, the delegation will travel to South Korea and Japan.
For days, Pelosi’s office had declined to confirm any plans for international travel, citing security protocols. The White House also had not confirmed the trip.
The five House Democratic lawmakers traveling with Pelosi are Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y.; Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., who led his own delegation to Taiwan last year; Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., a leading voice on trade issues; Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., a member of the Intelligence Committee; and Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., a former national security official in the Obama administration.
Republicans, including Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, had been asked to join the trip but all declined the invitation by Pelosi. Still, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and more than two dozen of his Senate GOP colleagues issued a joint statement of support for Pelosi.
“We support Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan. For decades, members of the United States Congress, including previous Speakers of the House, have travelled to Taiwan," the Republicans said Tuesday. "This travel is consistent with the United States’ One China policy to which we are committed."
The visit comes amid growing concern in Washington as U.S.-China relations strain over the future of the self-ruling democracy that Beijing claims as its territory.
The trip came up during a call between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week. Biden had said last month that U.S. military officials thought it was “not a good idea” for Pelosi to visit Taiwan, but the White House backed off those warnings as her trip approached.
On Monday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Pelosi's potential visit was "consistent with long-standing U.S. policy" and urged China not to turn into "some sort of crisis or use it as a pretext to increase aggressive military activity in or around the Taiwan Strait."
During an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Tuesday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that “if China chooses to try to turn a potential visit by the speaker into a crisis or tries to use it as a pretext to take aggressive action around Taiwan, that’s on them.”
“The United States is not looking for escalation but, of course, we will reserve the right to ensure that we are defending our interests and we will stay vigilant to whatever China chooses to do in the coming hours and days,” he added.
Zoë Richards reported from New York, Scott Wong reported from Washington, D.C., and Max Burman reported from London.