White House warns China against escalation over Pelosi’s potential Taiwan visit

By AFP   August 1, 2022 | 06:10 pm PT
White House warns China against escalation over Pelosi’s potential Taiwan visit
A newspaper front page reporting about US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi is pictured in Taipei, Taiwan, August 2, 2022. Photo by Reuters/Ann Wang
The White House on Monday decried Beijing’s rhetoric over an expected visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, vowing the United States “will not take the bait or engage in saber rattling” and has no interest in increasing tensions with China.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby underscored that the decision on whether to visit the self-ruled island that C hina claims as its own was ultimately Pelosi's. He noted that members of Congress have routinely visited Taiwan over the years.

Kirby said administration officials are concerned that Beijing could use the visit as an excuse to take provocative retaliatory steps, including military action such as firing missiles in the Taiwan Strait or around Taiwan, flying sorties into Taiwan’s airspace and carrying out large-scale naval exercises in the strait.

"Put simply, there is no reason for Beijing to turn a potential visit consistent with long-standing US policy into some sort of crisis or use it as a pretext to increase aggressive military activity in or around the Taiwan Strait," Kirby said.

The Biden administration pushed back on Beijing as Pelosi held talks with officials in Singapore on Monday at the start of her Asian tour.

While there have been no official announcements, local media in Taiwan reported that Pelosi will arrive Tuesday night, making her the highest-ranking elected US official to visit in more than 25 years. The United Daily News, Liberty Times and China Times — Taiwan’s three largest national newspapers — cited unidentified sources as saying she would arrive in Taipei after visiting Malaysia and spend the night.

Talk of such a visit is sparking fury in Beijing, which regards Taiwan as its own territory and has repeatedly warned of "serious consequences" if the reported trip goes ahead.

"If Pelosi insists on visiting Taiwan, China will take resolute and strong measures to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in Beijing, without giving details.

"Those who play with fire will perish by it," Zhao said. "We would like to once again admonish the US that we are fully prepared for any eventuality and the (People’s Liberation Army) will never sit idly by."

China’s ambassador to the United Nations Zhang Hun labelled the potential visit "very much dangerous, very much provocative" as he spoke to reporters Monday.

"If the US insists on making the visit, China will take firm and strong measures to safeguard our sovereignty and territorial integrity," he said at a briefing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping also warned the US against meddling in Beijing’s dealings with the island in a a phone call last week with President Joe Biden.

Diplomatic, military escalation

China has been steadily ratcheting up diplomatic and military pressure on Taiwan. Threats of retaliation for a visit by Pelosi have driven concerns of a new crisis in the Taiwan Strait, which separates the two sides, that could roil global markets and supply chains.

Beijing sees official American contact with Taiwan as encouragement to make the island’s decades-old de facto independence permanent, a step US leaders say they don’t support. Pelosi, head of one of three branches of the US government, would be the highest-ranking elected American official to visit Taiwan since then-Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997.

"What I can say is this: this is very much precedent in the sense that previous speakers have visited Taiwan, many members of Congress go to Taiwan, including this year," Secretary of State Antony Bliken said. "And so, if the speaker does decide to visit and China tries to create some kind of crisis or otherwise escalate tensions, that would be entirely on Beijing."

Kirby stressed that US policy was unchanged toward Taiwan. This means support for its self-ruling government, recognizing Chinese sovereignty, and opposing either a full independence bid by Taiwan or a forceful takeover by China.

"Nothing has changed," he said. "There’s certainly no reason for this to come to blows."

Still, US officials have signalled that the military would be prepared to respond if needed in the event of any action by China in response to any possible stop in Taiwan by Pelosi.

On Monday, the Navy aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its strike group were in the Philippine Sea, according to the officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military operations.

The Reagan, the USS Antietam, a cruiser, and the USS Higgins, a destroyer, left Singapore after a port visit and moved north, heading to their homeport in Japan. The carrier has an array of aircraft, including F/A-18 fighter jets and helicopters, on board as well as sophisticated radar systems and other weapons.

First stop in Singapore

On Monday, Pelosi met with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, President Halimah Yacob and other Cabinet members.

Singapore's Foreign Ministry said Lee welcomed a U.S. commitment to strong engagement with the region, and the two sides discussed ways to deepen U.S. economic involvement through initiatives such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

Lee and Pelosi also discussed the war in Ukraine, tensions surrounding Taiwan and mainland China, and climate change, it said in a statement. Lee "highlighted the importance of stable US-China relations for regional peace and security," it added, in an apparent allusion to reports of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

Pelosi has said she is visiting Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan in a tour to discuss trade, the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, security and "democratic governance."

On Thursday, Pelosi is to meet with South Korean National Assembly Speaker Kim Jin Pyo in Seoul for talks on security in the Indo-Pacific region, economic cooperation and the climate crisis, Kim’s office said in a statement.

It declined to provide further details about her itinerary, including when she is arriving in South Korea and how long she’ll stay. Pelosi’s schedule for Wednesday remains unclear and there were no details on when she will head to Japan.

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