WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appears to be moving forward with a controversial trip to Taiwan despite fierce pushback from China and some unease inside the Biden administration.
The possible trip comes amid rising U.S.-China tensions, and some fear a visit by Pelosi could further inflame the relationship.
Pelosi’s office has not confirmed her travel plans, citing security concerns. But the California Democrat invited several Republican members of Congress to travel to Taiwan with her, according to a source familiar with the discussions and one of the GOP lawmakers.
“Rep. McCaul was invited on the trip, but is unable to attend due to a prior commitment,” Leslie Shedd, a spokesperson for the House Foreign Affairs committee ranking member, said in a statement to USA TODAY.
A Chinese government official said Thursday that a visit by Pelosi would be a “red line” for Beijing and warned of “serious consequence” if the House speaker makes the trip.
China views Taiwan, a sovereign democracy, as part of its territory. The U.S. has long tried to navigate a fraught middle ground that aims to support Taiwan without infuriating China.
“If the U.S. side insists on making the visit and challenges China’s red line, it will be met with resolute countermeasures,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Wednesday.
A Biden, Pelosi divide?
Biden administration officials have declined to say whether they support the trip.
“I think that – the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now, but I don’t know what the status of it is,” Biden told reporters last week.
John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications at the White House, said Wednesday that Pelosi will make her own decision about whether to travel to Taiwan.
“Our job is to inform her decision making process, and we’re doing this,” he said.
“We work closely with her staff to make sure that she has all the context, all the information, all the facts that she needs, to make the best decisions about her travel and we continue to do that,” Kirby added.
Biden is expected to talk to Xi later in the week, and Kirby has said that “tensions over Taiwan” would be a topic.
A no-win situation?
Mike Chinoy, a fellow at the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute, said Pelosi’s visit would be the first trip by a U.S. official of her rank in 25 years.
It would come at a time when U.S.-China relations are at “their lowest point in decades amid growing concern that China might attempt to seize the self-ruled island by force,” Chinov wrote in an op-ed published Tuesday in Foreign Policy Magazine.
He said the news of her trip has put the U.S. in a no-win situation.
If the House speaker doesn’t go now, it will look like Washington is caving to Chinese pressure and could reinforce Beijing’s “already strong belief” that the U.S. is a declining power.
And if she does go? “It could trigger a dangerous new crisis over Taiwan,” wrote Chinoy.
But other experts say such fears are overblown.
Pentagon mum on Pelosi’s plans
After reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asked him about Pelosi’s trip on Wednesday, the top Pentagon official said he’s been in touch with the speaker’s office about the matter but declined to confirm any travel or offer further details.
U.S. officials have called Beijing’s rhetoric escalatory and said the government would do what is necessary to ensure safe travel.
“Frankly, that kind of rhetoric is unnecessary and unhelpful,” Kirby said on Tuesday. “There’s no trip to speak to and rhetoric of that kind of only escalates tensions in a completely unnecessary manner.”
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley would not comment on Pelosi’s possible trip but said the United States military “routinely supports travel (by lawmakers and other U.S. government officials) all over the world.” If Pelosi or anyone else decides to make a trip, he said, “we will do what is necessary to ensure” a safe trip to conduct U.S. business.
Congressional leaders back trip
Shedd said McCaul “believes the speaker or any other American official should be able to visit Taiwan if they would like to.”
Other Congressional Republicans have also voiced support for the trip.
“If she doesn’t go now, she’s handed China sort of a victory of sorts,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., echoed that assessment and said he would lead a bipartisan trip to Taiwan himself if he becomes speaker.
Is concern about poking China overblown?
Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who served during the Trump administration, said the Chinese Communist Party should not have “any say on where American officials travel.”
Speaking at a forum hosted by the Atlantic Council on Tuesday about U.S. policy toward Taiwan, Esper said it’s not a surprise that Beijing is “overreacting” to the possibility of a high-level congressional trip.
“We should not be self-deterred, and we should not take all these declarations and proclamations from Beijing too seriously,” Esper said. “I mean, do we honestly think they’re going to start a war or do something because of the speaker of the House of Representatives travels to Taipei?”
Barry Pavel, a senior vice president at the Atlantic Council, told USA TODAY it’s important for Pelosi to go now because she has been boxed in.
“If China is successful in deterring this visit, what are they going to reach for next?” said Pavel, who has advised Republican and Democratic presidents on national security. “I just think you’re getting yourself into a really unproductive dynamic by not letting a routine visit go forward.”
Pavel said he doesn’t believe Beijing would rev up its military in response to Pelosi’s trip.
“They want stability and calm for the 20th Party Congress in November,” he said, referring to a Communist Party meeting during which Xi Jinping is expected to seek an unprecedented third term as China’s leader.
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook