Biden team tries to blunt China rage as Pelosi heads for Taiwan

The White House sought to dial back rising tensions with China over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s expected visit to Taiwan, insisting the trip doesn’t signal a change in US posture toward the island and urging Beijing to refrain from an aggressive response.

Pelosi is expected to arrive Tuesday at 10:20 p.m. local time via private plane at Songshan Airport, the Liberty Times reported, without specifying how it got the information. The landmark visit would make her the highest-ranking US official to set foot on the island in 25 years. China regards Taiwan as part of its territory and has promised “grave consequences” for Pelosi’s visit.

“Put simply, there is no reason for Beijing to turn a potential visit consistent with long-standing US policy into some sort of crisis or conflict or use it as a pretext to increase aggressive military activity,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said at a Monday press briefing. 

Pelosi is expected to visit Taiwan on Tuesday, according to people familiar with her plans. A meeting with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-Wen, is on Pelosi’s schedule for Wednesday, according to one of the people, although another person said such a meeting is still in flux.

The House speaker’s visit not only risks sparking a conflict in the Taiwan Strait but has also created unusual tension between her and President Joe Biden. The two are close political allies, but Pelosi dug in on her travel plans after Biden publicly confirmed she was considering a visit last month and told reporters that the military didn’t think it was a good idea, according to people familiar with the matter.

After administration officials made clear they’d prefer she cancel or delay her Taiwan visit, Pelosi’s team suggested to the White House that she would reconsider if Biden himself publicly asked her not to go.

Administration officials were uncertain she would comply, and in the end Biden made no such request in public or private, the people said. 

Kirby said Monday that Biden did not speak directly with Pelosi about the trip. In a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week, Kirby said, Biden emphasized the US separation of powers and said Pelosi makes her own decisions about her travel. 

Xi warned Biden during a discussion of Taiwan that “whoever plays with fire will get burned,” according to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Kirby on Monday detailed for the first time possible actions the US expects China could take in response to Pelosi’s trip to the self-governing island, including firing missiles into the Taiwan Strait, launching new military operations, crossing an unofficial no-fly zone between Taiwan and the mainland and making “spurious” legal claims about the strait. 

“We will not take the bait or engage in saber rattling,” Kirby said. “At the same time, we will not be intimidated. We will keep operating in the seas and the skies of the Western Pacific as we have for decades.”

He said Beijing had engaged in “irresponsible rhetoric” ahead of Pelosi’s trip and that the US government will ensure the speaker’s safety if she visits Taiwan.

“There’s just no reason for this to escalate,” Kirby said, a point he repeated at least three times.

Pelosi’s office has yet to confirm the visit. Kirby said the White House will know when she lands on the island because she’s flying on a military aircraft.

Under the agreement reached in 1978 to normalize relations between China and the US, Washington agreed to recognize only Beijing as the seat of China’s government, while acknowledging—but not endorsing —the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China. The US has insisted that any unification between the island and mainland must be peaceful, and has supplied Taiwan with advanced weaponry while remaining deliberately ambiguous about whether US forces would help defend against a Chinese attack.

Pelosi, who represents a San Francisco district where almost a third of residents are of Asian ancestry, has long positioned herself as a China hawk. She opposed China’s ascension to the World Trade Organization and on a trip to Beijing in 1991, unfurled a banner in Tiananmen Square honoring pro-democracy protesters killed in a crackdown by the ruling Communist Party two years earlier.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian made clear at a Monday news briefing that Pelosi’s stature — she’s second in the presidential line of succession — made her trip highly sensitive, reiterating the army  “won’t sit idly by.” 

An aggressive response from Beijing and its military could quickly spiral into violence. Chinese media outlets including the Communist Party’s Global Times have suggested the People’s Liberation Army could go so far as to send warplanes over the island. Taiwan would then need to decide whether to shoot them down, a move that could trigger a wider military conflict. China would have to weigh the possibility that America and its allies in the region would be drawn in militarily. 

Biden said in May that Washington would intervene to defend Taiwan in any attack from China, although the White House later clarified he meant the US would provide weapons, in accordance with existing agreements.

Despite the risk of conflict, US lawmakers from both parties have expressed support for Pelosi’s trip, arguing it’s important that the top leader in Congress doesn’t cave to pressure from Beijing.

“What I can say is that the day that China can dictate who goes and visits Taiwan and who cannot, then Taiwan will have already been lost to China,” Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who made his own trip to Taiwan in April, said in an interview Monday.