WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s reported plans to travel to Taiwan have upended Washington’s political divide, with a rift emerging with President Joe Biden over the visit to the self-governing island while prominent Republicans offer encouragement to a political opponent they normally scorn.
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 back the trip even as China threatens a forceful response if she goes.
Pelosi, D-Calif., has not confirmed the trip publicly. The White House and the speaker’s office have yet to challenge each other directly, and Biden has not said publicly that Pelosi should not go.
Biden has made blunting China’s rising influence a core part of his foreign policy ethos, but the Biden-China relationship is complicated and he has sought to avoid unnecessarily aggravating tensions. China considers democratic, self-ruling Taiwan its own territory and has raised the prospect of annexing it by force.
The White House is preparing for another call between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, a conversation the U.S. president said he expects this week despite his COVID-19 diagnosis.
The growing chorus pushing Biden to support Pelosi publicly is also raising the risk that the president could be perceived as insufficiently tough on China.
“Speaker Pelosi should go to Taiwan and President Biden should make it abundantly clear to Chairman Xi that there’s not a damn thing the Chinese Communist Party can do about it,” Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said Monday. “No more feebleness 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 who stare down the threat of Communist China.”
The White House on Monday declined to weigh in directly on Pelosi's trip — including whether the speaker has Biden's blessing — considering 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 responding directly to Pelosi's possible plans. “Members of Congress will make their own decisions.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price also declined to discuss any concerns.
“I will just restate our policy, and that is that we remain committed to maintaining cross-strait peace and stability and our ‘One China’ policy,” said Price, referring to the U.S. position that recognizes Beijing as the government of China but allows for informal relations and defense ties with Taipei.
In private, the administration is particularly concerned that a convergence of upcoming events could make a Chinese response to a Pelosi visit even stronger and more animated than it might otherwise be, according to officials. The Chinese Communist Party congress, expected in November, at which Xi intends to further cement his hold on power, is one of those events.
International events in the coming months also could prompt China to react more forcefully than it has in the past if it believes its concerns are being ignored or its president is being disrespected, the officials said. Those include the annual U.N. General Assembly in September and several summits in Asia — the G-20 in Indonesia, the East Asia Summit in Cambodia and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Thailand — set for October and November. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the administration's perspective.
The U.S. officials said the administration doubts that China would take action against Pelosi herself or try to sabotage or otherwise interfere with a visit, but they said the administration does not rule out the possibility that China could escalate provocative overflights of military aircraft in or near Taiwanese airspace and naval patrols in the Taiwan Strait should the trip take place. The officials also said the administration does not preclude that China might also step up its actions outside the immediate area of Taiwan as a show of strength, thus possibly expanding military operations in contested areas of the South China Sea.
Earlier Monday, Taipei staged air raid drills and the island's military performed routine defense exercises amid rising tensions over the potential visit, although there was no direct link between those exercises and threats posed by Beijing should Pelosi make the trip.
The Chinese in general don’t fully appreciate or understand the concept of the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Those distinctions to them are muddied further because the last time a speaker of the House visited Taiwan, Newt Gingrich, he was the speaker of a Republican-controlled House under a Democratic president.
Pelosi would be visiting at a time when the Democrats control the House, Senate and the White House, so there are concerns that the Chinese may see this as an administration move.
Gingrich himself tweeted support for Pelosi on Monday: “What is the Pentagon thinking when it publicly warns against Speaker Pelosi going to Taiwan? If we are so intimidated by the Chinese Communists we can’t even protect an American Speaker of the House why should Beijing believe we can help Taiwan survive. Timidity is dangerous.”
Mark Esper, a defense secretary during the Trump administration, said Monday that he had recently returned from Taipei and that more high-ranking U.S. officials should visit to help shape U.S. policy in the region. He also stressed that China should not have veto power over where U.S. officials travel.
“I think if the speaker wants to go, she should 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’ll go with you. I’m banned in China, but not freedom-loving Taiwan. See you there!”
Biden last week raised the U.S. government concerns about Pelosi's possible visit, telling reporters after returning from Massachusetts that the military thinks her trip is “not a good idea right now."
A spokesman for Pelosi again declined to comment on Monday, citing security protocol. Last week Pelosi said it was “important for us to show support for Taiwan” and that she believed Biden meant "maybe the military was afraid our plane would get shot down or something like that by the Chinese.”
Pelosi has positioned herself as a lawmaker unafraid to confront Beijing almost since the moment she was sworn into Congress in 1987. When she visited Tiananmen Square two years after the 1989 massacre, she defiantly unfurled a banner that read “To those who died for democracy in China." Three years ago, Pelosi voiced support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, again triggering the ire of the Chinese government.
She had 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.