United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is reportedly weighing a trip to Taiwan, after canceling a planned visit to the self-governing island China claims as its own territory in April.
The potential visit, which was first reported by the Financial Times and has not been confirmed, would make Pelosi – who is third in line to the US presidency after Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris – the highest ranking US official to travel to the island since 1997.
Reports of the planned trip have earned a forceful rebuke from Beijing, with foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying on Wednesday the US “will bear all the consequences” if the visit goes ahead.
The spokesman for China’s defense ministry, meanwhile, said the trip would lead to “further escalation of tensions across the Taiwan Straits”, adding China’s “military will never sit idly by, and will certainly take strong and resolute measures to thwart any interference by external forces and secessionist attempts for ‘Taiwan independence”.
For its part, the Biden administration has also reportedly sought to discourage the trip amid concerns it would come at a time particularly ripe for escalation. On Thursday, Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping were set to hold their fifth call amid the heightened tensions.
Meanwhile, US military officials have told The Associated Press news agency that they are creating contingency plans if the reported trip goes ahead, which could include increasing the movement of US forces and assets – including fighter jets, ships, and surveillance resources – already stationed in the Indo-Pacific region – to create a buffer zone for Pelosi’s plane.
The US has long walked a careful tightrope when it comes to Taiwan, maintaining a policy of “strategic ambiguity” – established in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 – in which Washington maintains close ties with Taipei, including providing military assistance, without officially recognizing the island, which is a democracy that has a separate government and military from mainland China.
Beijing considers Taiwan to be its own territory and has repeatedly suggested retaking control of the island by force.
The Chinese government categorically objects to all official contacts between Taipei and Washington and has routinely threatened retaliation. It has increasingly built up its military posture and increased maneuvers in the area.
The Biden administration and the preceding administration of former President Donald Trump have also prioritized countering what Washington has called China’s increasingly assertive and coercive behavior across the Indo-Pacific region as it seeks to broaden its influence.
In May, President Biden suggested the US would defend Taiwan with force in the event of a Chinese incursion. Beijing responded with anger, with the White House walking back the statement and reasserting US policy towards the island had not changed.
Pelosi has been a legislator in the US Congress for three decades and has remained highly critical of China.
While in China in 1991, she joined colleagues in unfurling a banner in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square memorializing victims of the government’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989.
She was also a strong supporter of the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, making her a target of caustic criticism from Beijing. Support for Taiwan also maintains strong bipartisan support, with several members of the Republican Party saying they would support Pelosi’s Taiwan trip.
She postponed a planned visit to Asia in April, which reportedly included a stop in Taiwan, after testing positive for COVID-19. Pelosi has been mum on reports of the plans, but said last week it was “important for us to show support for Taiwan”.