U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed Sunday she is leading a congressional delegation to Asia but did not mention whether she will defy China by making a stop in Taiwan.
In a statement, Pelosi said she is leading a group of five other Democratic Party lawmakers to Asia “to reaffirm America’s strong and unshakeable commitment to our allies and friends in the region.”
The trip will include stops in Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan, the statement said. The group already stopped in Hawaii, where it received a briefing from the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command, it added.
U.S. media reports Friday suggested Pelosi was tentatively planning to stop in Taiwan. Pelosi herself has indirectly spoken about such a possibility, even though her office has not confirmed it, citing security protocols.
It would be the highest-level U.S. visit to Taiwan since 1997, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich led a congressional delegation there.
China had repeatedly warned Pelosi’s trip would be an unacceptable violation of what it sees as its sovereignty over the self-ruled island.
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 led by the Communist Party.
Chinese leaders strongly object to U.S. shows of support for Taiwan’s government, which they see as illegitimate.
In a Thursday phone call with U.S. President Joe Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a blunt warning over Taiwan, saying “those who play with fire will perish by it,” according to a Chinese government readout.
China’s foreign ministry has also vowed Beijing would “act strongly” and “take countermeasures” in response to a Pelosi visit.
White House officials said Friday they saw no evidence China’s military was preparing major action against Taiwan.
China announced Saturday it was holding “live-fire” military exercises off its coast facing Taiwan. The drills, which were set to last from 8 a.m.-9 p.m. local time, occurred near the Pingtan islands off Fujian province, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency. The report did not specify what type of weapons were used in the exercises.
On Sunday, a spokesperson for China’s air force said Beijing has the “firm will” and “sufficient capability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The spokesperson, who was quoted in state media, also said China had various fighter jets that can circle “the precious island of our motherland.”
China has flown an increasing number of warplanes through Taiwan’s self-declared air defense identification zone in recent years, greatly raising tensions in the Taiwan Strait. In recent weeks, Chinese state media editorials have warned Chinese fighter jets could follow and intercept Pelosi’s plane.
Hu Xijin, a fiercely nationalistic commentator for the Communist Party’s Global Times, even suggested in a tweet that the Chinese military has the right to “forcibly dispel” any U.S. aircraft traveling or escorting Pelosi to Taiwan.
“If ineffective, then shoot them down,” Hu said in the tweet, which was later removed because it violated Twitter guidelines.
Despite China’s warnings, a large, bipartisan chorus of lawmakers had urged Pelosi to not back down, saying China should not be allowed to dictate where U.S. officials visit.
“It would make it look like America can be shoved around,” former House Speaker Gingrich told VOA’s Mandarin Service earlier this week. Gingrich said he supports Pelosi’s trip, which 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. “I think if she holds her ground, and if the Biden administration doesn’t act timidly and almost cowardly, I think everything will be fine.”
Taiwan is one of the most dangerous points of tension in an increasingly fraught U.S.-China relationship.
The United States formally cut official relations with Taiwan in 1979 when it switched diplomatic recognition to China. However, the United States has continued to supply Taiwan with defensive weapons as mandated by the U.S. Congress.
U.S. presidents have long used a policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan – essentially leaving their options open in the case of a Chinese invasion of the island.
However, Biden’s recent comments have raised doubts about that approach. Since taking office, Biden on three occasions has said the U.S. is committed to defending Taiwan.
Biden has been cautious, though, on the prospect of a Pelosi visit. Earlier this month, Biden said the U.S. military does not think a visit would be a good idea.
Pelosi’s possible visit comes at a sensitive moment for Xi, who is expected to use a Communist Party Congress later this year to secure a controversial third term as China’s top leader.
Observers have said Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, may want to send a tough message on Taiwan ahead of the meeting. But he may also want to preserve stability around a sensitive political moment.
White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Friday there is “no reason” for increased tension with China because U.S. policy has not changed.
Kirby reiterated that Pelosi “does not need nor do we offer approval or disapproval” for travel. He added: “The speaker is entitled to travel aboard a military aircraft.”