United States House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi – number three in the presidential succession in her country – is now in Asia, at the head of a congressional delegation to the Indo-Pacific region, including visits to Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan.
The panic-stricken visit, under tight wraps, has clattered nerves in both Beijing and Washington, with the prospect of a visit to Taiwan despite China’s progressively razor-sharp warnings that a visit to the self-governing island would provoke a response, perhaps a military one.
Pelosi has been to Singapore after a weekend stopover in Hawaii to consult with American commanders responsible for the Indo-Pacific. In her statement, she said she would visit Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan for high-level meetings but did not mention Taiwan.
The visit to the identified countries was aimed at discussing trade, the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, security and “democratic governance.”
The 82-year-old Pelosi didn’t confirm news reports that she might visit Taiwan, claimed by Beijing as its own territory.
But the 69-year-old Chinese President Xi Jinping warned against meddling in Beijing’s dealings with the self-ruling democracy island in a phone call last week with his American counterpart, Joe Biden, 10 years Xi’s senior.
Beijing sees official American contact with Taiwan as encouragement to make its decades-old de facto independence permanent, a step US leaders say they don’t support.
Pelosi, should she visit Taiwan – a senior Taiwanese government said she was expected to visit as part of her Asia tour, likely to stay there overnight but the date is not clear – would be the highest-ranking elected American official to visit since then Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997.
It would not be unusual to omit Taiwan from an announcement given security concerns, and President Biden’s aides said she was expected to proceed with the plan for the highest-level visit by an American official to the island in 25 years.
Of course Pelosi could still change her mind about traveling to Taiwan, home to 23 million, according to an administration official, but added that seemed unlikely – at a time when US-China relations are at a low point.
Biden’s aides had said said he had decided against asking Pelosi directly to cancel her trip, largely because of his respect for the independence of Congress, forged during his 36 years in the Senate but is clearly reluctant to back down in the face of Chinese threats, including Beijing’s warning the United States was “playing with fire,” which followed Biden’s nearly 150-minute conversation with Xi last week.
The guessing game now up, what is clear is that Defense Department officials are working around the clock on monitoring any Chinese movements in the region and securing a plan to keep Pelosi safe.