House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has arrived in Taiwan with five of her Democratic colleagues, making her the first House leader to visit the island since then-speaker Newt Gingrich travelled there in 1997.
The US Air Force jet — a modified Boeing 737 known as a C-40B — carrying Ms Pelosi and her colleagues touched down at Taipei’s Songshan airport at 10.45 pm local time on Tuesday, following a roughly seven-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The military aircraft followed a circuitous route around the eastern coast of the Philippines and approached Taiwan from the east in order to avoid the South China Sea.
The House speaker’s visit to Taiwan, which is independently governed but claimed by the Chinese government as part of its own territory, comes amid tensions between Washington and Beijing over US support for the island.
Ms Pelosi’s travel to Taiwan, which was not on her public schedule and not confirmed by her office before she departed the US last weekend, took up a significant portion of a phone call last week between President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. According to a readout of the conversation released by the Chinese foreign ministry, Mr Xi warned Mr Biden that a visit to the island by Ms Pelosi, who is second in the presidential line of succession, would be “play[ing] with fire”.
On Monday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said China had responded to the possibility of Ms Pelosi’s visit, which was not publicly announced before her departure from the US over the weekend, by stepping up military activity near the island.
Mr Kirby said Chinese forces appeared to be “positioning” themselves for “further steps in the coming days,” including “military provocations, such as firing missiles in the Taiwan Strait or around Taiwan” or “ operations that break historical norms,” including a “large scale air entry into Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone”.
But Mr Kirby also stressed that longstanding US policy has not changed towards the island. He said Chinese leaders should have enough familiarity with the US government to understand that Ms Pelosi’s travel plans are not under the control of the executive branch.
“The Speaker has the right to visit Taiwan and a Speaker of the House has visited Taiwan before without incident, as have many members of Congress including this year,” he said. “Nothing has changed about our ‘one China policy,’ which is, of course, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three joint US-PRC communiques [and] the six assurances”.
He later added that the US continues to oppose “unilateral changes to the status quo from either side”.
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