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Nancy Pelosi has landed in Taiwan, despite warnings from Beijing

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed earlier today in Taiwan. She is the most senior U.S. government official to visit the island in 25 years. Minutes after her plane touched down, China's military announced it would be holding live fire military drills around the island later in the week. China opposes stronger U.S.-Taiwan ties because Beijing sees Taiwan as part of China. Could these tensions escalate into a military conflict? NPR's Emily Feng joins us to discuss it. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Why are the stakes so high on this visit?

FENG: Well, the last speaker of the House to visit Taiwan - that was Newt Gingrich at the time - was in 1997. So Pelosi going to Taiwan now is an extremely bold move that signals stronger U.S.-Taiwan relations. And also, even though this is a visit to Taiwan, this visit is not actually really about the island at all. It's about relations between the U.S. and China. And China has been clear diplomatically and militarily that it opposes this visit.

SHAPIRO: And so how does Beijing view this action by the speaker?

FENG: Well, China worries this sets a precedent for more American, even global, leaders to visit Taiwan when China spent the last 70 years isolating Taiwan diplomatically on the international stage. The U.S. has said this visit is a normal exchange. It does not change U.S.-China policy towards Taiwan. But China sees this differently. It sees Taiwan as part of China. And with this Pelosi visit, China's perceived the U.S. as dangerously close to treating Taiwan like an independent country. And under Chinese law, that could merit a military response.

SHAPIRO: But would China really want a military conflict over this?

FENG: No. And that's the strange thing. This is a sensitive time for China. It's dealing with a stumbling economy. It's got this big Communist Party meeting coming up in October. Chinese leader Xi Jinping wants to show that he is running everything smoothly in the country in the lead-up to that meeting. And having a potential war with Taiwan would mess that up. So Xi Jinping has actually been trying to stabilize U.S.-China relations. It's no coincidence that last week, as Pelosi's visit was drawing near possibly, President Biden and Xi Jinping held a phone call. Drew Thompson - he's a former China director at the Defense Department - he argues that despite all the aggressive posturing from China's military, the PLA, high-level dialogue between Biden and Xi will matter the most in deciding what happens after Pelosi's visit.

DREW THOMPSON: These missions that the PLA air force conducts or the PLA navy conducts are ongoing and all the time. So it's really about the high-level authoritative messaging, particularly between President Biden and Xi Jinping. Those are the two most authoritative voices. And that's really the incredible importance of the phone call between the two leaders a few days ago.

FENG: But Beijing has to thread this diplomatic needle pretty carefully. It needs to appear ready to take military action if needed. But it's also trying to de-escalate. And so if it messes up that balancing act, we could accidently tip the East Asian region into war. That's what people fear the most.

SHAPIRO: Very high stakes. What kinds of retaliatory measures has China taken so far?

FENG: It's had military drills this entire week right across from the eastern coast of Taiwan. There were new drills just announced today, minutes after Pelosi landed in Taiwan. Some of the places where those drills are happening are actually kind of within Taiwan's sovereign waters, which is a really big deal. And I would expect tensions to last a few days, if not weeks, in a carefully managed back and forth as the U.S., China and Taiwan try to gauge each other's reactions. China could still escalate and now the ball is in China's court. I talked to Yujen Kuo - he is a professor of China studies at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan - about this.

YUJEN KUO: If China's Xi Jinping's reaction is very strong, including, for example, like I say, blocking Kaohsiung Harbor for weeks or plenty of military aircraft and vessels appearing at the median line of Taiwan Strait, it will force Taiwanese military to react. So the situation will escalate.

FENG: Again, no one wants to go to war, but no one can show they're backing off.

SHAPIRO: And that's NPR's Emily Feng. Thanks a lot.

FENG: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.