The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, landed in Taiwan on Tuesday (August 2) evening, ignoring Chinese threats and a warning by President Xi Jinping, delivered to President Joe Biden last week, to “not play with fire” (by provoking China).
Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is the highest-level visit by an American official to the island in a quarter century. The senior US politician has been critical of China on multiple fronts over the decades.
The US has maintained a ‘One China’ policy since the 1970s, under which it recognises Taiwan as a part of China. But it has unofficial ties with Taiwan as well — a strategy that is known as strategic or deliberate ambiguity. Beijing considers Taiwan a part of China, threatens it frequently, and has not ruled out taking the island by military force at any time.
For China, the presence of a senior American figure in Taiwan would indicate some kind of US support for Taiwan’s independence. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijiang has said China would take “resolute and strong measures” if the visit takes place.
Pelosi going to Taiwan would “severely undermine China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, gravely impact the foundation of China-US relations and send a seriously wrong signal to Taiwan independence forces”, he has said.
There is a long history to China-Taiwan tensions. Very briefly, it is as follows:
Taiwan is an island about 160 km off the coast of southeastern China, opposite the Chinese cities of Fuzhou, Quanzhou, and Xiamen. It was administered by the imperial Qing dynasty, but its control passed to the Japanese in 1895. After the defeat of Japan in World War II, the island passed back into Chinese hands.
After the communists led by Mao Zedong won the civil war in mainland China, Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the nationalist Kuomintang party, fled to Taiwan in 1949. Chiang Kai-shek set up the government of the Republic of China on the island, and remained President until 1975.
Beijing has never recognised the existence of Taiwan as an independent political entity, arguing that it was always a Chinese province. Taiwan says that the modern Chinese state was only formed after the revolution of 1911, and it was not a part of that state or of the People’s Republic of China that was established after the communist revolution.
While the political tensions have continued, China and Taiwan have had economic ties. Many migrants from Taiwan work in China, and China has investments in Taiwan.
The United Nations does not recognise Taiwan as a separate country; in fact, only 13 countries around the world — mainly in South America, the Caribbean, Oceania, and the Vatican — do.
The American strategic ambiguity is just that — ambiguous. In June, President Biden said that the US would defend Taiwan if it was invaded, but it was clarified soon afterward that America does not support Taiwan’s independence. While the US has no formal ties with Taipei, it remains Taiwan’s most important international backer and arms supplier.
Back in 1997, then House Speaker Newt Gingrich of the Republican Party visited Taiwan, and appeared to caution China against precipitate action. Referring to his meetings with China’s leaders, Gingrich said: “We want you to understand, we will defend Taiwan. Period,” The New York Times reported at the time.
But the situation has changed since then. China is a much stronger power in world politics today. The Chinese government passed a law in 2005, giving Beijing the legal basis for military action if it judges Taiwan to have seceded or to be about to.
In recent years, Taiwan’s government has said only the island’s 23 million people have the right to decide their future and that it will defend itself when attacked. Since 2016, Taiwan has elected a party that leans towards independence.
Nancy Pelosi, as the Speaker of the House of Representatives (the lower house of the US Congress), is second in line for the post of US President after the Vice President. In her career as a politician, she has frequently criticised China, mainly on grounds of human rights violations.
On Speaker Pelosi’s website, a section called “A POWERFUL VOICE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IN CHINA” lists her stance over the years. “For more than three decades, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been one of the fiercest and strongest champions in the Congress for human rights in China: leading the fight for dignity and freedom for the oppressed, while holding the Chinese Communist Party accountable for its crimes,” the document reads.
In 1991, Pelosi and other politicians from the US visited China. Marking two years of the violence in Tiananmen Square, they unfurled a banner that said: “To Those Who Died for Democracy in China.”
In 2002, she offered then Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao four letters from Members of Congress raising issues of human rights as he participated in an official visit to the US — he refused to accept the letters. In 2009, Speaker Pelosi travelled to China and hand-delivered a letter to then President Hu calling for the release of political prisoners.
The document on Pelosi’s website states: “When the government of China petitioned to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO), then Congresswoman Pelosi helped lead legislation that would withdraw America from the WTO if China were accepted into the agreement without the explicit support of the United States.” It adds that whenever China has bid to host the Olympics, Pelosi has “strongly urged the world not to give an official imprimatur to Beijing’s abysmal record on human rights”.
Pelosi has also raised the issue of Tibet. “After sharing a decades-long personal friendship with the Dalai Lama, in 2007 she presented His Holiness with the Congressional Gold Medal: a tribute to his leadership in the fight for freedom,” says her website. In November 2015, she led a US Congressional delegation to Tibet, met with Tibetan students and leaders, and advocated for “Tibetan autonomy and for the preservation of Tibetan language, culture and religion”.