Lawmakers in both parties are cheering on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as she plows ahead with a planned visit to Taiwan in the face of opposition not only from Beijing, but also from her allies in the Biden administration.
Pelosi is typically a toxic figure in Republican circles, where her unapologetic brand of liberal politics has stirred resentment throughout the two decades that she’s led House Democrats.
But her fierce and enduring opposition to China’s history of human rights abuses has led even some of her toughest GOP critics to rally behind her as she confronts Beijing — and the White House — over her proposed visit to Taiwan during the summer recess.
The explosive trip, which was confirmed only Wednesday by other lawmakers who were invited to join, has forged an assembly of odd alliances, pitting Pelosi against her Democratic allies in the administration while prompting a host of conservative Republicans — typically no fan of the Speaker — to rush to her defense in the name of advancing democracy and human rights.
“As someone who disagrees with Speaker Pelosi on most every policy issue, on this area, she actually does have a track record — going back to Tiananmen — of criticizing the Chinese Communist Party for their human rights abuses. And so I think it would be in keeping with that track record — and very useful for American diplomacy and foreign policy — for the Speaker of the House to go to Taiwan,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.).
“Now, it’s more imperative than ever that she doesn’t back down.”
Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), chairman of the Congressional Taiwan Caucus, echoed that message, warning that U.S. officials should not “cower” to the wishes of Beijing.
“I hope she stands up to the pressure that she’s going to get, and is already getting, from President Biden and the administration. I think it’s important that we show solidarity with our ally Taiwan,” he said. “So I commend her for making the decision to go. I hope she sticks to her guns.”
The trip, if it comes to pass, would hardly be the first to Taiwan for members of Congress; a prominent Senate delegation was there in April. But no one as high-profile as Pelosi has ventured to the self-governing island since 1997.
Pelosi had reportedly planned to travel to Taiwan in April but had to cancel when she tested positive for COVID-19. That put Chinese officials on alert, issuing warnings of dire, if unspecified, repercussions.
Those warnings have increased, as the Speaker’s trip could come as early as August.
“If the U.S. side insists on making the visit and challenges China’s red line, it will be met with resolute countermeasures,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Wednesday. “The U.S. must assume full responsibility for any serious consequence arising thereof.”
President Biden, while not confirming the Speaker’s travel, said last week that the U.S. military “thinks it’s not a good idea right now” for Pelosi to visit Taiwan.
Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said she would not be surprised if Beijing sent military aircraft inside of Taiwan’s territorial airspace, but added that if aircraft flew over Taiwan, it “would be absolutely unprecedented.”
“And if they seek to interfere with her landing in Taiwan, that could be potentially very dangerous,” she added.
The Pentagon is reportedly making plans to increase military protection for the Speaker in the region, such as using fighter jets, ships, surveillance and other military systems to “provide overlapping rings of protection for her flight to Taiwan” or her time on the ground, The Associated Press reported.
The firestorm is unlike any surrounding a congressional excursion in recent memory, and it’s adding to already dangerously strained relations between the U.S. and China. The two superpowers are in conflict on nearly every issue from the economy and environment to global security, in particular Beijing’s support for Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill say that’s only more reason Pelosi can’t back down.
“It would send a clear message that we’re not going to cower to bullies, just like we have to stand up to Russia,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “The whole world is watching as to what the United States does in the battle of freedom versus dictatorship.”
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, acknowledged the very “awkward and difficult” position of having Pelosi at odds with Biden’s Pentagon. Still, Smith said he believes the Speaker of the House should have freedom of travel around the world and that canceling the trip would be kowtowing to Beijing.
“There is nothing combative about the Speaker going to visit Taiwan. Members of Congress go to Taiwan all the time, and have for decades. And I’m just worried about letting China decide what’s provocative,” he said.
“I mean, if China says, ‘We’re going to freak out and lose our minds,’ on the one hand you go, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous.’ On the other hand, you’ve got to worry about China freaking out and losing their minds. But again, my position would be to tell China: ‘Chill.’ ”
Democratic and Republican lawmakers are pushing for the U.S. to firmly state its policy toward Taiwan in the face of an increasingly aggressive China, which claims sovereignty over the self-governing island.
Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced legislation last month aimed at overhauling U.S. policy toward Taiwan, committing billions of dollars to its military defense capabilities and elevating its diplomatic presence globally.
The effort is part of a growing call among lawmakers to more firmly support Taiwan as a flashpoint for combating China’s authoritarianism and a front line for defending democracies in the Indo-Pacific.
Beijing strictly opposes efforts by any country that appears to establish bilateral ties with Taipei.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby would not confirm the Speaker’s travel, saying in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday that Pelosi “makes her own decisions.”
But he added that the National Security Council works closely with Pelosi’s staff “to make sure she has all the context, all the information, all the facts she needs to make all the best decisions about her travel.”
U.S. officials have warned that China is preparing itself to invade Taiwan, even as it seeks to use economic and diplomatic coercion to bring the democratically governed island under Beijing’s control.
Biden is expected to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday evening, the fifth call between the two leaders, and Biden is expected to address “tensions over Taiwan,” among other issues, Kirby said, emphasizing the call had been planned far in advance.
“There’s going to be a lot of topics for them to discuss. … This is one of the most consequential bilateral relationships in the world today, in one of the most important parts of the world today,” he said.
Glaser, of the German Marshall Fund, said the call presents an opportunity for Biden and Xi to discuss Beijing’s response to Pelosi’s expected travel.
“I doubt that Xi Jinping would ask President Biden to stop Pelosi from going because then, of course, if he does not do it, then, again, he looks weak, like he didn’t get what he wanted, what he asked for,” Glaser said.
“This phone call will just be one of the several factors that will determine how China responds, and it could be a very aggressive response.”