WASHINGTON (AP) – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s alleged plans to travel to Taiwan have broken up Washington’s political divisions, with President Joe Biden splitting over the visit to the self-governing island, as prominent Republicans cheer on a political opponent which they normally despise.
Pelosi’s supporters include a conservative Republican senator, at least two former Trump administration officials and the last speaker of the House to make the trip to Taiwan, also a Republican. They are urging Biden to support the trip, even as China threatens with a strong response if she goes.
Pelosi, D-Calif., has not publicly confirmed the trip. The White House and the speaker’s office have yet to face each other directly, and Biden has not said publicly that Pelosi should not go.
Biden has made weakening China’s rising influence a key element of his foreign policy ethos, but Biden’s relationship with China is complicated and he’s tried to avoid undue tension. China considers democratic, self-governed Taiwan as its own territory and has raised the prospect of forcibly annexing it.
The White House is preparing for another talk between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, a call the US president said he expected this week despite his COVID-19 diagnosis.
The growing chorus prompting Biden to publicly support Pelosi also increases the risk that the president will be viewed as insufficiently strict on China.
“Speaker Pelosi should go to Taiwan and President Biden should make it abundantly clear to Chairman Xi that the Chinese Communist Party cannot do anything about it,” Senator Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said Monday. “No more weakness and self-deterrence. This is very simple: Taiwan is an ally and the Speaker of the House of Representatives should meet with the Taiwanese men and women facing the threat of communist China.”
The White House declined to comment directly on Pelosi’s trip on Monday — including whether the speaker has Biden’s blessing — as she has not confirmed it.
“The administration routinely provides members of Congress with information and context for potential travel, including geopolitical and security considerations,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, without commenting directly on Pelosi’s potential plans. “Members of Congress will make their own decisions.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price also declined to discuss any concerns.
“I’ll just reiterate our policy, which is that we remain committed to maintaining peace and stability in the strait and our ‘One China’ policy,” Price said, referring to the US position that Beijing recognizes as the government of China, but allows for informal relations and defense ties with Taipei.
Privately, the government is especially concerned that a confluence of upcoming events could make a Chinese response to a Pelosi visit even stronger and more vibrant than it otherwise would have been, officials said. The Chinese Communist Party Congress, expected in November, at which Xi plans to further tighten his grip on power, is one of those events.
International events in the coming months may also prompt China to respond more forcefully than in the past if it believes its concerns are being ignored or that its president is not being respected, officials said. Those include the UN’s annual General Assembly in September and several summits in Asia – the G-20 in Indonesia, the East Asian Summit in Cambodia and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Thailand – scheduled for October and November. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s perspective.
The US officials said the government doubts China would take action against Pelosi itself or attempt to sabotage or otherwise disrupt a visit, but said the government does not rule out China’s ability to conduct provocative military aircraft overflights in or near Taiwanese countries. escalate. airspace and naval patrols in the Taiwan Strait should the trip take place. The officials also said the government does not rule out China stepping up its actions beyond Taiwan’s immediate vicinity as a sign of strength, possibly expanding military operations in the disputed areas of the South China Sea.
Earlier Monday, Taipei organized air strike exercises and the island’s military conducted routine defense drills amid mounting tensions over the possible visit, although there was no direct link between those drills and the threats posed by Pelosi if Pelosi made the trip.
The Chinese in general do not fully appreciate or understand the concept of the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Those honors for them have been further clouded because the last time a Speaker of the House of Taiwan, Newt Gingrich, visited, he was the speaker of a Republican-controlled House under a Democratic president.
Pelosi was due to visit at a time when Democrats control the House, Senate and White House, so there are concerns that the Chinese may consider this a seat of government.
Gingrich himself tweeted support for Pelosi on Monday: “What does the Pentagon think when it publicly warns that Chairman Pelosi is going to Taiwan? If we’re so intimidated by the Chinese communists that we can’t even protect an American Speaker of the House, why should Beijing believe we can help Taiwan survive. Fear is dangerous.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper during the Trump administration said on Monday that he had recently returned from Taipei and that more senior US officials should come to shape US policy in the region. He also stressed that China should not have veto power over where US officials travel.
“I think if the speaker wants to go, she has to go,” Esper said on CNN’s “New Day.”
Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a Republican who served in the Trump administration, tweeted on Sunday: “Nancy, I’m coming with you. I’m banned in China, but not in freedom-loving Taiwan. See you there!”
Biden last week expressed concerns from the US government about Pelosi’s possible visit and told reporters after returning from Massachusetts that the military thinks her trip “isn’t a good idea right now.”
A Pelosi spokesperson declined to comment again on Monday, citing security protocol. Last week, Pelosi said it was “important for us to support Taiwan” and that she believed Biden meant “maybe the military was afraid that our plane would be shot down or something like that by the Chinese.”
Pelosi has positioned himself as a lawmaker unafraid to confront Beijing almost since she was sworn into Congress in 1987. When she visited Tiananmen Square two years after the 1989 massacre, she defiantly unfolded a banner that read “To those who died for democracy in China.” Three years ago, Pelosi expressed support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, again provoking the ire of the Chinese government.
She planned to visit Taiwan in April but postponed the trip after testing positive for COVID-19.
AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.