US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi has arrived in Taiwan on a trip she says shows an unwavering American commitment to the Chinese-claimed self-ruled island, but Beijing has condemned the highest-level US visit in 25 years as a threat to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
Pelosi and her delegation disembarked from a US Air Force transport plane at Songshan Airport in Taipei on Tuesday night after a flight from Malaysia to begin a visit that risks pushing US-Chinese relations to a new low.
They were greeted by Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, and Sandra Oudkirk, the top US representative in Taiwan.
Her arrival prompted a furious response from China at a time when international tensions already are elevated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
China considers Taiwan part of its territory and has never renounced using force to bring it under its control.
The United States warned China against using the visit as a pretext for military action against Taiwan.
“Our congressional delegation’s visit to Taiwan honours America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant democracy,” Pelosi said in a statement.
“America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.”
Pelosi, second in the line of succession to the US presidency, is a longtime China critic.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen will meet Pelosi on Wednesday morning and then have lunch together.
Pelosi, travelling with six other American lawmakers, is the most senior US political leader to visit Taiwan since 1997.
China’s foreign ministry lodged a strong protest with the United States, saying Pelosi’s visit seriously damages peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, “has a severe impact on the political foundation of China-US relations, and seriously infringes upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
Chinese warplanes buzzed the line dividing the Taiwan Strait before her arrival. The Chinese military was on high alert and would launch “targeted military operations” in response to Pelosi’s visit, the defence ministry said.
The Chinese military announced joint air and sea drills near Taiwan starting on Tuesday night and test launches of conventional missiles in the sea east of Taiwan, with Chinese state news agency Xinhua describing live-fire drills and other exercises around Taiwan from Thursday to Sunday.
Pelosi is on an Asia tour that includes visits to Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan. Her Taiwan visit was unannounced but widely anticipated.
In a Washington Post opinion piece released after landing, Pelosi explained her visit, praising Taiwan’s commitment to democratic government while criticising China as having dramatically increased tensions with Taiwan in recent years.
Pelosi also cited China’s “brutal crackdown” on political dissent in Hong Kong and its treatment of Muslim Uighurs and other minorities, which the United States has deemed genocide.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby said after Pelosi’s arrival that the United States was not going to be intimidated by China’s threats or bellicose rhetoric and there was no reason her visit should precipitate a crisis or conflict.
“We will continue to support Taiwan, defend a free and open Indo-Pacific and seek to maintain communication with Beijing,” Kirby told a later White House briefing, adding the United States “will not engage in sabre-rattling”.
Pelosi, 82, is a close ally of US President Joe Biden, both being members of the Democratic Party, and has helped guide his legislative agenda through Congress.
Sources said Pelosi was scheduled on Wednesday to meet activists outspoken about China’s human rights record.
The United States has no official diplomatic relations with Taiwan but is bound by American law to provide it with the means to defend itself.
China views visits by US officials to Taiwan as sending an encouraging signal to the island’s pro-independence. Taiwan rejects China’s sovereignty claims, saying only the Taiwanese people can decide the island’s future.