TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi left Taiwan after a visit that heightened tensions with China, saying Wednesday that she and other members of Congress in her delegation showed they will not abandon their commitment to the self-governing island.
Pelosi, the first U.S. speaker to visit the island in more than 25 years, set off more than a week of debate over whether the visit was a good idea after news of it leaked. In Taipei she remained calm but defiant.
“Today the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy,” she said in a short speech during a meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. “America’s determination to preserve democracy, here in Taiwan and around the world, remains ironclad.”
China, which claims Taiwan as its territory and opposes any engagement by Taiwanese officials with foreign governments, announced multiple military exercises around the island, parts of which will enter Taiwanese waters, and issued a series of harsh statements after the delegation touched down Tuesday night in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei.
Taiwan decried the planned actions, saying they violated the island's sovereignty.
“Such an act equals to sealing off Taiwan by air and sea, such an act covers our country’s territory and territorial waters, and severely violates our country’s territorial sovereignty,” Capt. Jian-chang Yu said at a briefing by the National Defense Ministry.
The Chinese military exercises, including live fire, are to start Thursday and be the largest aimed at Taiwan since 1995, when China fired missiles in a large-scale exercise to show its displeasure at a visit by then-Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to the U.S.
Taiwanese President Tsai responded firmly Wednesday to Beijing’s military intimidation.
“Facing deliberately heightened military threats, Taiwan will not back down,” Tsai said at her meeting with Pelosi. “We will firmly uphold our nation’s sovereignty and continue to hold the line of defense for democracy.”
China's official Xinhua News Agency announced the military actions Tuesday night, along with a map outlining six different areas around Taiwan. Arthur Zhin-Sheng Wang, a defense studies expert at Taiwan’s Central Police University, said three of the areas infringe on Taiwanese waters, meaning they are within 12 nautical miles of shore.
Using live fire in a country's territorial airspace or waters is risky, said Wang, adding that "according to international rules of engagement, this can possibly be seen as an act of war."
Pelosi's trip has heightened U.S.-China tensions more than visits by other members of Congress because of her high-level position as leader of the House of Representatives. She is the first speaker of the House to visit Taiwan in 25 years, since Newt Gingrich in 1997. However, other members of Congress have visited Taiwan in the past year.
Tsai, thanking Pelosi for her decades of support for Taiwan, presented the speaker with a civilian honor, the Order of the Propitious Clouds.
China's response has been loud and has come on multiple fronts: diplomatic, economic, and military.
Shortly after Pelosi landed Tuesday night, China announced live-fire drills that reportedly started that night, as well as the four-day exercises starting Thursday.
The People's Liberation Army Air Force also flew a contingent of 21 warplanes Tuesday night, including fighter jets, toward Taiwan. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng also summoned the U.S. ambassador in Beijing, Nicholas Burns, to convey the country's protests the same night.
On Wednesday, China also banned some imports from Taiwan, including citrus fruit and fish.
Pelosi addressed Beijing’s threats Wednesday morning, saying she hopes it’s clear that while China has prevented Taiwan from attending certain international meetings, "that they understand they will not stand in the way of people coming to Taiwan as a show of friendship and of support.”
She noted that support for Taiwan is bipartisan in Congress and praised the island’s democracy. She stopped short of saying that the U.S would defend Taiwan militarily, emphasizing that Congress is “committed to the security of Taiwan, in order to have Taiwan be able to most effectively defend themselves.”
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has sought to tone down the volume on the visit, insisting there’s no change in America’s longstanding “one-China policy,” which recognizes Beijing but allows informal relations and defense ties with Taipei.
Pelosi departed Wednesday evening for South Korea, the next stop on an Asia tour that also included Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan.
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