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Pelosi’s Taiwan ambiguity has China fuming ahead of Biden call

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, at the Washington Hilton Hotel on April 5, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS).

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s staff and security officials aren’t ruling out plans for her to visit Taiwan in early August on a trip that has already stoked more U.S.-China tensions.

No final decision has been made about stopping in Taiwan during a trip to Asia next month, according to a person familiar with the details, but if it happens, it would come within days of an expected call between President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Beijing has been warning Pelosi not to be the first sitting speaker since Newt Gingrich to visit the self-governing island, which it considers part of its territory.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China is getting “seriously prepared” to respond to a visit, and referred to earlier pledges to “take firm and strong measures to safeguard our sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Taiwan has emerged as one of the top issues aggravating U.S.-China relations along with trade, accusations of forced labor and “genocide” over Beijing’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region and the country’s reluctance to pressure Russia over the war in Ukraine.

Adding to tensions was Biden’s decision to say the U.S. would act “militarily” to defend the island if attacked, upending a historic policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan. The president’s aides later said U.S. policy remained unchanged.

In addition, a range of U.S. officials have visited Taiwan in recent years, including members of Congress and at least two former Trump administration cabinet secretaries: ex-Defense Secretary Mark Esper and ex-Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. But as the third highest-ranking U.S. official, behind Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, a visit by Pelosi would generate more furor in Beijing.

At the same time, China has increased military flights into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and warned against outside meddling in what it considers internal affairs.

Hu Xijin, a hawkish commentator and former editor-in-chief of the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper, said in a tweet last week that Pelosi would “bear historical responsibility for possibly triggering a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait.”

And while China’s threats are unlikely to dissuade U.S. officials, including Pelosi, from visiting Taipei, the timing of the visit has generated conflicting messages from the Biden administration. Biden last week suggested the visit is “not a good idea right now,” without giving details. The White House later said it would defer to Pelosi’s office on travel questions.

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said she didn’t wish to “get ahead” of any announcement of the speaker’s travel plans. She added that “the administration routinely provides members of Congress with information and context for potential travel, including geopolitical and security considerations. Members of Congress will make their own decisions.”

The debate comes after Pelosi — whose office won’t confirm or deny international travel because of security issues — had to scrap a reported trip to Taiwan in the spring when she contracted the coronavirus. The decision whether to make the visit has become a political flashpoint, with Republicans arguing that backing down now would be a sign of weakness.

Even if a Pelosi trip does irritate U.S.-China ties, it’s not clear how much Biden and Xi could achieve from a call at what is a delicate time politically for each of the leaders.

Xi is just months away from a high-level Communist Party congress where he is expected to secure a third term and is facing economic challenges as well as a blitz of mass-testing in major cities as the Chinese leader’s dynamic “zero COVID” policies come under assault from resurgent cases.

That could prompt him to send the People’s Liberation Army Air Force into Taiwan’s air defense zone in order to show China’s strong opposition to a senior U.S. official visiting the island, said Ryan Hass, a former National Security Council director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia who is now at the Brookings Institution.

“From a timing perspective, a visit by Speaker Pelosi in early August would elicit a maximal Chinese response,” Hass said.

Biden, at the same time, is struggling for support according to recent polls and doesn’t want to be called “weak on China” before midterm elections in November that could hand control of Congress to Republicans.

And while the two leaders have a range of issues they disagree on, from trade to human rights, Taiwan is likely the most intractable one.

“I don’t know if there will be a crisis now, but I think it’s a question of when, and not if, the United States and China are going to find themselves in a crisis of which Taiwan is at the center of,” Richard Haass, head of the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview Monday on Bloomberg Television’s “Balance of Power with David Westin.”


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