China has issued stark private warnings to the Biden administration about the upcoming trip to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, raising alarm among White House officials who oppose her visit.
Six people familiar with China’s warnings said they were much stronger than threats made by Beijing in the past when it was unhappy with US actions or policy on Taiwan.
China has publicly threatened to “take drastic action” if Pelosi continues with her August visit. But one person said China has expressed “stronger opposition” to the United States in private than before. Several people familiar with the situation said the private rhetoric went further by suggesting a possible military response.
Beijing has not been forthcoming about its possible reactions. Its military may try to prevent Pelosi from landing in Taiwan or take other measures to impede her visit, such as using fighter jets to intercept its US military aircraft.
Several people said the White House was trying to assess whether China was posing serious threats or engaging in brinkmanship in an effort to pressure Pelosi to abandon her trip.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and other senior National Security Council officials opposed the visit due to the risk of escalating tension across the Taiwan Strait, according to two people familiar with the discussion.
The National Security Council declined to comment on whether the administration had urged Pelosi to cancel her trip. John Kirby, the National Security Council’s chief of strategic communications, said Friday that the NSC team provided “context, facts, and relevant geopolitical information,” and that the House Speaker made her own decisions.
The controversy over the trip has alarmed Washington’s allies who worry it could lead to a crisis between the United States and China, according to several people familiar with the situation.
In another example of growing concern, the US ambassador to China, Nick Burns, cut short a surprise visit to Washington this week and returned to Beijing, in part due to rising concerns about Taiwan and also to prepare for an upcoming phone call between President Joe Biden and the president. His Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. The State Department declined to comment.
Biden said this week that he expects to speak to Xi by the end of the month. The two leaders are expected to discuss the Taiwan issue, which has emerged as a serious flashpoint.
China has sent an increasing number of warplanes to Taiwan’s “Air Defense Identification Zone” since Biden took office. In May, Biden said the United States would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan from any Chinese attack.
Controversy over Pelosi’s trip erupted after the Financial Times revealed that she plans to visit Taiwan to show support as it comes under increasing pressure from China in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has heightened concerns about Chinese military action. Pelosi and her delegation will also visit Japan, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.
The timing of the visit is sensitive for China. And in the same month that falls on August 1 will be the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army. It may also coincide with the annual meeting of the Communist Party leadership in the seaside resort of Beidaihe where cadres discuss politics but sometimes tackle power struggles.
The concave meeting is even more significant this year as Xi will have to pave the way for securing an unprecedented third term as party chief at the 20th CPC Congress in November.
Since the United States normalized relations with China and transferred diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, it has maintained a “one China” policy under which it recognizes Beijing as the sole government of China while only recognizing Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China.
Beijing accused Biden of weakening that policy by taking steps such as sending a high-level delegation of former US officials to Taipei earlier this year.
Pelosi would be the largest US politician to visit Taiwan since then-Republican President Newt Gingrich traveled to Taipei in 1997. Beijing opposes any steps that appear to legitimize Taiwan as an independent state or make the US relationship more formal.
Some experts say China mistakenly believes the White House is orchestrating the visit because Pelosi and Biden belong to the same party, even though Congress is independent and Biden does not have the power to block her travel plans.
This week, the Pentagon briefed Pelosi on scenarios that could happen if she travels to Taipei. After that briefing, Biden told reporters that “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now” for Pelosi to move forward. But US officials said the military simply made clear the various risks associated with the visit.
At a news conference the next day, Pelosi said Biden had not raised any concerns about the trip, which she declined to confirm. However, she referred to her indirectly by saying that Biden was apparently referring to some scenarios that could happen if she were to visit Taiwan.
I think what the boss said is [that] Perhaps the military was afraid that our plane would be shot down or something like that by the Chinese. “I’ve heard it anecdotally, but I haven’t heard it from the president.”
Pelosi’s office did not respond to a request for comment about whether she would abandon her trip.
People briefed on national security affairs in Taipei said the risk of Beijing significantly escalating military aggression in response to Pelosi’s visit was more pronounced than last year in light of the heightened tension.
“The gangster used to wear a suit before, but now he takes out the knife directly,” said a senior Taiwanese official.