US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Singapore on Monday for a two-day visit, leading a congressional delegation to Asia amid speculation the trip could include a layover in Taiwan.
Singapore’s foreign ministry said Pelosi would meet Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and other officials.
In a statement Sunday, Pelosi said she was leading a group of five fellow Democratic Party lawmakers in Asia “to reaffirm America’s strong and unwavering commitment to our allies and friends in the region.”
She did not mention whether she would challenge China by making a stopover in Taiwan on the trip, which counts Malaysia, South Korea and Japan among the US delegation’s planned visits.
US media reported on Friday that Pelosi tentatively plans to stop in Taiwan. Pelosi herself has indirectly spoken of such a possibility, though her office has not confirmed it, citing security protocols.
It would be the highest-level US visit to Taiwan since 1997, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich led a congressional delegation there.
China has repeatedly warned that Pelosi’s trip would be an unacceptable violation of what it considers its sovereignty over the self-governing island.
Taiwan and China separated in 1949 after a civil war, with defeated nationalist forces fleeing to Taiwan and installing a government that later evolved into a vibrant democracy.
Since then, the Chinese Communist Party has vowed to take Taiwan, using force if necessary, even though the island was never ruled by the Communist Party.
Chinese leaders strongly oppose US displays of support for the Taiwanese government, which they consider illegitimate.
In a Thursday phone call with U.S. President Joe Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a stark warning about Taiwan, saying “those who play with fire will perish,” according to a Chinese government statement.
China’s Foreign Ministry also promised that Beijing would “act firmly” and “take countermeasures” in response to a visit by Pelosi.
White House officials said Friday they had seen no evidence that the Chinese military was planning major action against Taiwan.
China announced on Saturday that it was organizing “live ammunition” military exercises off its coast opposite Taiwan. The drills, which were scheduled to last from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. local time, took place near the Pingtan Islands off Fujian province, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency. The report does not specify what type of weapons were used in the exercises.
On Sunday, a Chinese air force spokesman said Beijing had the “firm will” and “sufficient capability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity”. The spokesperson, who was quoted in state media, also said that China has various fighter jets capable of circling “the precious island of our homeland”.
China has flown an increasing number of fighter jets through Taiwan’s self-declared air defense identification zone in recent years, which has dramatically increased tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
In recent weeks, Chinese state media editorials have warned that Chinese fighter jets could track and intercept Pelosi’s plane.
Hu Xijin, a staunchly nationalist commentator for the Communist Party’s Global Times, even suggested in a tweet that the Chinese military has the right to “force out” any US aircraft traveling or escorting Pelosi to Taiwan.
“If ineffective, then shoot them down,” Hu said in the Tweeterwhich was later removed for violating Twitter guidelines.
Despite warnings from China, a large bipartisan chorus of lawmakers had urged Pelosi not to back down, saying China should not be allowed to dictate where US officials go.
“It would make America look like it can be pushed around,” former House Speaker Gingrich told VOA’s Mandarin Service earlier this week. Gingrich said he supported Pelosi’s trip, which will likely only represent “irritation” for US-China relations.
“I think it’s on some level much ado about nothing,” Gingrich said. “I think if she holds her ground, and if the Biden administration doesn’t act coy and almost cowardly, I think everything will be fine.”
Taiwan is one of the most dangerous points of tension in an increasingly strained relationship between the United States and China.
The United States officially severed official relations with Taiwan in 1979 when it transferred diplomatic recognition to China. However, the United States continued to supply Taiwan with defensive weapons, as requested by the United States Congress.
US presidents have long employed a policy of “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan – essentially leaving their options open in the event of a Chinese invasion of the island.
However, recent comments from Biden have raised doubts about this approach. Since taking office, Biden has said three times that the United States is committed to defending Taiwan.
Biden, however, was cautious about the prospect of a visit from Pelosi. Earlier this month, Biden said the US military didn’t think a visit would be a good idea.
Pelosi’s possible visit comes at a sensitive time for Xi, who is expected to use a Communist Party congress later this year to secure a controversial third term as China’s supreme leader.
Observers said Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, may want to send a harsh message to Taiwan ahead of the meeting. But he may also want to preserve stability around a sensitive political moment.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Friday there was “no reason” for an increase in tensions with China because US policy has not changed.
Kirby reiterated that Pelosi “doesn’t need and we don’t offer approval or disapproval” to travel. He added: “The speaker has the right to travel on a military aircraft.”
Some information for this report comes from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.