U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has been widely discussed internationally since first reported on by the Financial Times in late July. After the visit, China announced live-fire drills around Taiwan to take place starting tomorrow – including in Taiwan’s sovereign territorial waters.
The trip had originally been scheduled for April, but Pelosi caught COVID-19 and could not travel. If the trip had taken place in April, it would have been interpreted as an attempt to reassure Taiwan of strong ties in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
That the visit took place much later, in August, drastically reshaped international perceptions of the trip. For one, that news of the trip was reported on by the Financial Times allowed for weeks of heated debate about the potential implications of the trip. Some asked if the trip could cause a Fourth Taiwan Straits Crisis.
The Pre-Trip Debate
U.S. President Joe Biden himself suggested in public comments that he did not think the trip was a good idea, citing assessments from the military. Biden’s comments took place shortly before he was expected to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping in what would be their fifth such conversation since he took office.
That Pelosi and Biden disagreed so openly about the prospect of a visit to Taiwan raised questions about whether the trip would take place at all. The stance of the Biden administration was that Pelosi had the right to go, but that it did not approve of the trip. In comments, Pelosi claimed that the Biden administration’s concerns were primarily about security if her itinerary was known in advance, rather than the potential geopolitical implications.
Reports indicated that the U.S. military was making preparations for the possibility of a Pelosi visit, in case she were to decide to go, while the Taiwanese government generally kept quiet about the prospect of a visit and claimed to have no knowledge.
News commentary debated to what extent China would find Pelosi’s visit a provocation, seeing as the last time that a U.S. House speaker visited Taiwan was in 1997, when Newt Gingrich took a three-hour trip to Taiwan. Likewise, it was questioned if China would find security protocols for Pelosi’s plane, such as a fighter escort, to be provocative.
Shortly before the visit was slated to take place, a news report citing a purported leak appeared in the China Times claiming that Taiwan had tried to disinvite Pelosi but that she had insisted on visiting Taiwan. The credibility of the report is somewhat disputable, seeing as the China Times is owned by the pro-unification advocate and foodstuff tycoon Tsai Eng-meng. The Financial Times has reported that China Times seeks approval from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office before running articles and Apple Daily reported that China Times accepts Chinese funds.
Nevertheless, the report raises the question of whether Taiwan would have had the standing to refuse a Pelosi visit, even if its assessment was closer to that of Biden’s.
The Pelosi visit took place in a similar time frame to other visits by U.S. politicians, such as former Trump administration secretary of state Mike Pompeo, whose visit was speculated to be preparation for a presidential bid in 2024. Indeed, Pompeo and other Republican politicians including Newt Gingrich and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell expressed support for Pelosi’s visit, increasing the odds that it would occur.
The Substance of Pelosi’s Visit
Pelosi’s motivations for the visit have been speculated to be anything from securing her political legacy to an attempt to tout the Democrats’ record as tough on China before midterm elections. When Pelosi’s plane touched down in Taiwan around 10:43 p.m., the Washington Post released an op-ed by Pelosi arguing for her visit. In that article, she provided her rationale for the trip: “In the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) accelerating aggression, our congressional delegation’s visit should be seen as an unequivocal statement that America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, as it defends itself and its freedom.”
As news reports increasingly suggested that Pelosi would, in fact, be visiting Taiwan, speculation revolved around which day she would arrive. Another open question was the length of her visit – whether she would only stay a few hours in Taiwan, as some sources indicated, or whether she would stay overnight – and then whether her visit would only involve meeting with President Tsai Ing-wen or if it would also involve speaking to the Taiwanese legislature.
In the end, Pelosi’s visit involved stops to the legislature and to meet with Tsai. The House speaker’s comments were similar on both occasions, stressing Taiwan-U.S. cooperation in terms of mutual security interests, economic cooperation, and “shared values of self-governance and self-determination,” a phrase she used during verbal comments in her op-ed. With regards to her points on economic cooperation, Pelosi touted the CHIPS Act as an arena for cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan, a somewhat odd framing considering the CHIPS Act is sometimes understood as aimed at reducing U.S. reliance on Taiwanese semiconductors.
To this extent, Pelosi repeatedly framed her visit as aimed at showing the strength of U.S. commitment to Taiwan, and as bipartisan in nature. Pelosi did not ever appear to bring up One China policy in her comments.
Other stops by Pelosi included a meeting with semiconductor manufacturing giant TSMC chair Mark Liu, in which DPP majority speaker Ker Chien-ming was also in attendance.
In the afternoon, as her final stop before she left Taiwan, Pelosi visited the Jingmei National Human Rights Museum, a former prison used for political prisoners during Taiwan’s White Terror. There, she met with former Tiananmen Square student leader Wu’er Kaixi, who lives in Taiwan; Hong Kong bookstore owner Lam Wing-kee, who is the only one of the Causeway Bay booksellers to remain free; and Taiwanese NGO worker Lee Ming-che, who was detained by the Chinese government for five years on charges of “seeking to subvert state power” after participating in the 2019 Hong Kong protests.
Subsequently, Pelosi departed Taiwan at around 4:45 p.m. on Wednesday. Pelosi’s departure was only announced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs shortly before it took place.
Pelosi’s Reception in Taiwan
Although Pelosi’s visit did not draw much attention in the domestic news discourse until roughly 48 hours before it took place – one joke on the internet was that many Taiwanese misunderstood “Pelosi” as the name of an incoming typhoon rather than of an American politician – Taiwanese seemed conscious of the historic nature of the visit. Approximately 200 individuals gathered at Songshan Airport where Pelosi’s plane touched down, following a seven-hour flight from Malaysia that routed around the South China Sea. Pelosi’s flight was watched by over 700,000 people on aviation tracker website Flightradar24, setting new records. Many viewers may have been Taiwanese, seeing as the aviation tracker went viral on Taiwanese social media.
A bomb threat was issued at Taoyuan International Airport before the visit, possibly due to the misperception that Pelosi would be landing at Taiwan’s major international transport hub rather than at the smaller Songshan Airport. The Taiwanese military set up anti-aircraft artillery at the airport to shoot down drones or missiles that might try to intercept the plane, but the landing took place without incident.
Several hundred also gathered near the Grand Hyatt Hotel in downtown Taipei, where Pelosi stayed the night, cheering the House speaker and hoping to catch a glimpse of her motorcade. This also included pro-unification counter-demonstrators, such as the Deep Blue New Party and the Chinese Unification Promotion Party, which is well-known for links to pro-China organized crime groups. Former gangster and political assassin “White Wolf” Chang An-lo, who sat in the Grand Hyatt with his entourage for awhile, apparently waiting for Pelosi, was later spotted outside giving speeches criticizing the United States. Two thousand police officers were reportedly deployed to provide security for Pelosi at the airport and hotel.
Deep Blue groups taking a stand against Pelosi’s visit will likely complicate current KMT chair Eric Chu’s attempt to rebrand the party as pro-American, to change the party’s pro-China image. Deep Blue groups are explicitly embracing anti-American rhetoric that frames the United States as dragging Taiwan into cross-strait conflict.
In the timeframe of Pelosi’s visit, there have been increased fears of cyberattacks, after government websites were rendered inoperable by attacks. Ubiquitous convenience store chain 7/11 and Taiwan Rail stations also displayed anti-Pelosi messages that labeled her a warmonger on monitors after control systems were hacked, though there is not yet any proof linking the hacking incidents to any state actor. There have also been reports by moderators of increased bot activity on popular online forum PTT.
China sought to economically pressure Taiwan, echoing previous import bans on grouper, pineapples, and custard apple. Before Pelosi’s visit, bans on 100 Taiwanese food products were announced. After Pelosi arrived, bans on citrus, natural sand experts, and some goods were announced.
Most significant of all, however, are the live-fire military drills that China announced after Pelosi arrived, which will take place from August 4 to August 7. Much as with Pelosi’s op-ed, the announcement was also timed with her arrival, with news breaking around 11 p.m. on Tuesday.
The same day, Taiwan saw air incursions by 21 Chinese warplanes, including planes straddling the median line of the Taiwan Strait. The second day of Pelosi’s visit saw 27 warplanes conducting air incursions. But while such aerial incursions are not outside the norm of recent Chinese military behavior, the live-fire drills break new ground. The planned locations are closer to Taiwan than live-fire drills that took place during the Third Taiwan Strait crisis and intrude upon some parts of Taiwan’s sovereign territorial waters.
In the day since the drills were announced, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) has vowed that it will take appropriate measures to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty, while monitoring Chinese activity. The Maritime and Port Bureau has advised fishing vessels to avoid areas where the drills will take place. The MND has also sought to debunk disinformation circulating about supposed missile attacks from China through its English-language social media accounts.
The MND takes the view that drills are intended to conduct a blockade of Taiwan. It is unclear what, exactly, the exercises will consist of, or how the Taiwanese navy, as well as U.S. naval forces in the region, will respond. The potential for escalation remains.