The potential trip highlights concerns in President Joe Biden’s administration about China’s designs on Taiwan as Beijing has stepped up its rhetoric and aggressive actions toward the island in recent months, including sending warplanes several times into Taiwan’s self-declared Air Defense Identification Zone. U.S. officials worry that the moves could be a prelude to more aggressive moves by China in the coming months to assert its authority over the island.
As Biden and other top officials watch nervously to see what lessons China might draw from the Western response to Russia’s aggression, the war in Ukraine has intensified those concerns.
Administration officials shared not only their concerns about Pelosi’s safety during the trip, but also how China might respond to such a high-profile visit. With China recently reporting its worst economic performance in two years, Xi finds himself in a politically critical spot ahead of a crucial meeting on extending his rule and could use a political win, several officials told CNN.
While Biden’s aides have ideas about how he might respond, they don’t know which direction the Chinese leader will choose.
It was against this highly charged backdrop that Pelosi proposed to visit Taiwan with a congressional delegation, a trip she has so far refused to confirm publicly. But that didn’t stop China from lashing out, saying the visit would violate US policy toward the island.
“China requests the United States to take concrete steps not to support Taiwan independence and not arrange for Pelosi to visit Taiwan,” Defense Ministry spokesman Dan Kefe said Tuesday in response to questions about Pelosi’s trip to Taipei.
“If the U.S. insists on taking its own course, the Chinese military will never be idle and will take strong measures to defeat any outside power’s interference and separatist plans for ‘Taiwan independence’ and firmly uphold national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Tan added.
The White House said Tuesday that because Pelosi is in the presidential line, the administration is paying extra attention to her security when she travels abroad.
According to John Kirby, communications coordinator for the National Security Council, that involves establishing a footprint on the ground based on location and environment, and sometimes using military resources.
“We take those commitments seriously,” Kirby said, as he reiterated that Pelosi had not announced any travel plans to visit Taiwan.
The administration notes the risks for Pelosi
Behind the scenes, Biden administration officials have been working to spell out the potential risks of the visit in meetings with Pelosi and her team.
Pentagon officials briefed the speaker last week on heightened tensions in Taiwan and the region, people familiar with the matter said. White House officials also attended the conference.
The president let slip last week that the U.S. military opposes Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan now, but the White House declined to expand on his comments. Even Pelosi said during a news conference last week that she wasn’t sure exactly what Biden meant.
“I think the president is saying maybe the military was afraid my plane was going to be shot down or something like that. I’m not sure,” he said.
The White House said Tuesday it would provide information about Pelosi’s possible trip.
“I’ll let the speaker talk about her travel plans. Of course, our job is to make sure she has all the context and information before she travels anywhere. But the rhetoric coming out of the Chinese side is clearly not helping. Not necessarily,” Kirby said on CNN’s “New Day.”
“There is no call for such escalating rhetoric,” Kirby added. “Again, none of this has to turn into a confrontation. None of our policies have changed in supporting a China or Taiwan’s ability to defend itself. So there’s no reason to escalate this, even rhetorically.”
The potential trip comes at a tense moment in China
Administration officials have expressed concern that Pelosi’s trip comes at a particularly tense time, with Xi expected to seek an unprecedented third term at the upcoming Chinese Communist Party congress. Chinese party officials are expected to lay the groundwork for that conference in the coming weeks, putting pressure on the leadership in Beijing to show strength.
Officials believe the Chinese leadership does not fully understand the political dynamics of the United States, leading to a misunderstanding of the significance of Pelosi’s potential visit. Officials say China may have confused Pelosi’s visit with an official administration visit because she and Biden are Democrats. Administration officials worry that China doesn’t separate Pelosi much from Biden.
Instead, the politics surrounding potential travel have turned somewhat upside down. Many Republicans have encouraged Pelosi to pursue her plans, arguing that it would be a strong stance against China, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“Nancy, I’m going with you. I’m banned in China, but not a freedom-loving Taiwanese. See you there!” Pompeo tweeted this week.
Pelosi has long developed a tough stance on China. He made a strong statement on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, two years after the massacre, reminding everyone who had helped unfurl a banner there that read “To those who died for democracy in China.”
Biden is looking for stability
Biden, who has sought to strengthen ties with China through regular talks with China, is planning a phone conversation with Xi this week in which the issue of Taiwan may come up.
He last spoke with Xi in March, working to convince the Chinese leader not to back Russia amid its aggression in Ukraine. Officials are closely watching how Beijing responds to the invasion, a largely united Western response — including economic sanctions and billions of dollars in armed ships — that shed light on China’s actions toward Taiwan.
Kirby indicated on Tuesday that China is watching the global response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine as it plans its next steps in Taiwan, adding that “I believe they are seeing this in real time” but “there is no reason for this to escalate. Into any kind of conflict.”
US officials believe there is little risk that China will miscalculate in response to Pelosi’s visit. In an effort to improve travel, Biden administration officials are concerned that China may seek to declare a no-fly zone over Taiwan, which could further escalate tensions in the region, a US official told CNN.
Officials said it was a remote possibility. They say China is likely to step up more flights inside Taiwan’s self-declared air defense zone, which could prompt renewed discussions about possible responses from Taiwan and the United States, the U.S. official added. They don’t elaborate on what those possible answers are.
While the administration does not and has not planned to officially tell the speaker not to travel to Taiwan, officials have been open in their explanations of the risks associated with the trip. People familiar with the matter say their hope is to quietly reassure Pelosi about the risks of the trip, rather than outright telling her not to go.
Ultimately, the speaker will make his own decision, Biden officials noted.
CNN’s Kylie Atwood, Barbara Starr, Betsy Klein, Yong Xiang and Hannah Ritchie contributed to this report.