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Pelosi has landed in Taiwan. Here's why that's a big deal

In this photo released by the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi walks with Taiwan's Foreign Minister Joseph Wu as she arrives in Taipei, Taiwan, on Tuesday, despite threats from Beijing of serious consequences, becoming the highest-ranking American official to visit the self-ruled island claimed by China in 25 years.
Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs via AP
In this photo released by the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi walks with Taiwan's Foreign Minister Joseph Wu as she arrives in Taipei, Taiwan, on Tuesday, despite threats from Beijing of serious consequences, becoming the highest-ranking American official to visit the self-ruled island claimed by China in 25 years.

Updated August 2, 2022 at 5:07 PM ET

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., landed in Taiwan late Tuesday evening local time, a high-profile visit that has magnified tensions between the U.S. and China and drawn a display of military aggression from China.

Minutes after Pelosi landed, China's Eastern Theater Command announced live fire military exercises would begin as soon as Tuesday in six zones that encircle Taiwan.

The highly-anticipated stop, which was not announced in advance, has faced stark warnings from China, in turn worrying the White House that it could trigger a crisis in the Taiwan Strait and worsen already tense U.S.-China relations. The spokeswoman for China's foreign ministry said on Twitter, "The US & Taiwan have made provocations together first, whereas China has been compelled to act in self-defense."

There are also signs China is preparing to step up economic pressures on Taiwan, which exports mostly agricultural goods and electronic components—including advanced semiconductors—to China. The day before Pelosi arrived in Taiwan, China suspended over 100 categories of Taiwanese food products for import.

Taiwan's defense ministry said reports that Chinese jets had crossed the strait were false.

The visit comes as part of Pelosi's tour of Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and South Korea, where she has been leading a small congressional delegation. She is the highest-ranking elected American official to visit Taiwan since then-Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997. The source familiar with planning for Pelosi's visit says she will be given an award by Taiwan's president and visit a museum before departing on Wednesday.

The island democracy governs itself, but China claims it as its territory. Rumors of Pelosi's visit launched a geopolitical firestorm amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and China.

The Taiwanese government has operated separately from the mainland since nationalists fled there after losing the civil war to communists in 1949. Thirty years later, the U.S. switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, adopting what's known as the "One China" policy, in which Washington acknowledges Beijing's position that Taiwan is a part of China. However, the U.S. has never supported China's claim of sovereignty over Taiwan and maintains a substantial, though unofficial, relationship with the island.

Pelosi penned an opinion piece published by the Washington Postupon her arrival citing the Taiwan Relations Act as establishing a commitment to Taiwan's democracy and defense, adding, "We must stand by Taiwan, which is an island of resilience." She said Taiwan is under threat by the government in Beijing economically, in cyberspace, and potentially by military force.

"In the face of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) accelerating aggression, our congressional delegation's visit should be seen as an unequivocal statement that America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, as it defends itself and its freedom," Pelosi wrote.

In response to Pelosi's visit, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement that said, in part, it was a "serious violation of the one-China principle." The ministry added, "It gravely undermines peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and sends a seriously wrong signal to the separatist forces for 'Taiwan independence.'"

By law, the U.S. is obligated to provide Taiwan with weapons and services. But the U.S. policy of "strategic ambiguity" keeps open the question of whether it would intervene in the case of a military invasion by China. The Biden administration has been accused of mixed messaging on this,after Biden said on multiple occassions that the U.S. would come to Taiwan's defense; a sentiment the White House walked back.

The Chinese government remains adamantly opposed to any official exchanges between Taiwan's government and other foreign governments, and views official American contact with Taiwan as an indication of support for its independence.

Pelosi's trip comes days after Biden and Xi spoke by phone on a wide range of issues, including Taiwan. Biden sought to reassure his Chinese counterpart that U.S. policy hasn't changed, saying it "strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait," according to the official U.S. readout of the call.

On Wednesday, Biden told reporters the U.S. military thinks a Taiwan visit by Pelosi is "not a good idea right now."

For her part, Pelosi said "it's important for us to show support for Taiwan," during a press conference on July 21. Her visit got a statement of praise from a group of Republican senators after she landed.

"I also think that none of us has ever said we're for independence when it comes to Taiwan," Pelosi said. "That's up to Taiwan to decide."

'A sensitive time'

"The visit will occur at a sensitive time for Beijing," said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It coincides with the PLA (People's Liberation Army) Day, the National Day in honor of the establishment of their military, and it is in the run-up to a leadership conclave this month to talk about plans for the future of China."

It also comes as Xi looks to secure a tradition-breaking third term in office, in an environment where he faces his own political and economic pressures.

"He may particularly feel that he can't be seen as soft on the United States and therefore react even more strongly than he might otherwise," said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Xi reportedly told Biden during their call that "those who play with fire will get burned."

"This quote is the exact same language that he used regarding Taiwan in a previous conversation that he had with President Biden," said Glaser. "That signals to me that he made a deliberate decision not to say something that would be seen as more alarming than in the last phone call that he had."

White House calls for calm

On Monday, China's foreign ministry said China's military would "not sit idly by" if Pelosi visits Taiwan.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby urged China not to escalate tensions in response to any visit from Pelosi.

"There is no reason for Beijing to turn a potential visit, consistent with longstanding U.S. policy, into some sort of crisis or conflict or use it as a pretext to increase aggressive military activity in or around the Taiwan Strait," Kirby said during a White House briefing Monday afternoon, adding that members of Congress routinely visit Taiwan.

However, Kirby warned that China could respond to such a visit with threatening actions, noting the Chinese military conducted a live-fire exercise near Taiwan over the weekend.

"China appears to be positioning itself to potentially take further steps in the coming days and perhaps over longer time horizons," he said.

This 2007 photograph shows the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet greeting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a ceremony to award the Tibetan spiritual leader the Congressional Gold Medal.
TIM SLOAN / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
This 2007 photograph shows the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet greeting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a ceremony to award the Tibetan spiritual leader the Congressional Gold Medal.

Pelosi is a leading China critic

Pelosi has a decades-long record of being hawkish on China and an outspoken advocate for human rights.

In 1991, Pelosi joined a small congressional delegation in Tiananmen Square, two years after the violent protests. She helped unfurl a banner that read: "to those who died for democracy in China." Pelosi, along with two other members of Congress, was subsequently pulled aside for questioning by Chinese police.

"She played a active role in trying to create a path for Chinese political prisoners and dissidents to be able to come to the United States," Hass said. "She has been a longtime champion of Tibet and the Dalai Lama and she rarely misses opportunities to make her views known on Chinese actions that she feels violate American values or American interests."

Pelosi has met with Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors and has been vocal in her support of ethnic Uyghurs, who U.S. officials say have been subjected to a genocide in China's Xinjiang region.

Last year, she oversaw the House approval of legislation imposing economic sanctions on China for goods sold to Americans from the forced labor of Muslim Uyghurs.

"I take second place to no one in the Congress of the United States in my criticism of China," Pelosi said at the time.

Hass said he thinks Beijing is "triggered" by Pelosi's longstanding record along with the "symbolism" of her visiting Taiwan as the person second in the line of presidential succession.

Will China retaliate?

The last major crisis in the Taiwan Strait came in 1995 and 1996, when Taiwan's leader at the time, Lee Teng-hui, sought to visit his alma mater in the U.S. Ultimately, Lee did make the visit, an outraged China retaliated by firing missiles into the waters around Taiwan, and then-President Bill Clinton ordered aircraft carriers into area.

"The argument was 'Chinese communists can't tell the United States who they can grant a visa to,'" Hass described. "Today, the argument is 'Chinese Communists can't tell the speaker of the house where she can travel or who she can meet with.' So we're hearing echoes of the last cross strait crisis."

How Beijing ultimately decides to respond to Pelosi's visit could drastically change U.S.-China relations and regional dynamics moving forward. Predicting Xi's next steps is difficult, as he's weighing various economic, domestic and global political considerations.

"Over the past 10 years, [Xi] has built a political brand for strength, resolve and toughness in the face of American pressure," Hass said. "I don't think in the run-up to a party congress where his future fate will be determined, he will want to do anything that could diminish or degrade that brand that he's developed."

Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said she doesn't anticipate any "direct attacks on the United States or any of our aircrafts or vessels accompanying this visit."

"But there is a risk if China wanted to engage in aggressive maneuvers against U.S. or Taiwan aircraft or vessels, if they wanted to try to fire warning shots at our vessels or our aircraft, then there's a real chance of an accident occurring."

Lin says beyond military means, it's likely China would engage in some form of political or economic retaliation. She says that extends to the world stage, too.

"We should ask the question: is it possible that one potential form of Chinese escalation could be to provide more geopolitical support to Russia? If that's even on the table, then there's a lot of potential impact that the Pelosi visit might have."

NPR's John Ruwitch contributed reporting. contributed to this story

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Barbara Sprunt
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.