Nancy Pelosi touches down in Taiwan

Foreign Affairs

The most-tracked live flight in the world, carrying U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, landed in Taiwan today, as people around the globe held their breath in fear of an escalation between the United States and China.

Illustration by Nadya Yeh, showing the route of Nancy Pelosi’s plane, which kept outside of China’s nine-dash line as it flew from Malaysia to Taiwan.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taipei, Taiwan, on Tuesday evening despite repeated warnings from Beijing. Taipei’s iconic building, the Taipei 101, was lit up at 9 p.m. to welcome her visit. She is the highest-ranking American politician to tour the island in 25 years.

“Our visit is one of several Congressional delegations to Taiwan — and it in no way contradicts long-standing United States policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, U.S.-China Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances. The United States continues to oppose unilateral efforts to change the status quo,” according to the official statement and Pelosi’s op-ed in the Washington Post.

  • The visit has created a “severe impact on the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and seriously infringes upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded, adding, “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” a phrase that Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 reportedly used in warning to Joe Biden during their phone call last week.
  • Soon after Pelosi landed, state-run news agency Xinhua announced that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will conduct military exercises and training activities, including live-fire drills, in the waters surrounding Taiwan on August 7.
Map released by the PLA showing areas where military exercises will be conducted on August 7.

Over 708,000 people around the world were tracking Pelosi’s reported flight on the U.S. Air Force jet SPAR19 as it landed in Taipei, the most-tracked live flight in the company’s history per data from FlightRadar24, in anticipation of a catalytic moment many feared will escalate tensions between the United States and China.

  • China earlier said it was in communication with the United States over Pelosi’s visit, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Huà Chūnyíng 华春莹 said on Tuesday.
  • State-run news outlet Global Times said in a now-deleted Twitter post that the flight “didn’t head straight to Taiwan” from the South China Sea, but “circled around and is approaching Taiwan from the Philippine Sea. Observers said it likely attempts to avoid possible PLA confrontation.”

Earlier on Sunday, Pelosi began her tour of Asia without any mention of Taiwan on her itinerary. She has so far stopped in Singapore and Malaysia, with plans to visit South Korea and Japan.

  • China’s Foreign Ministry said it has repeatedly expressed its objection to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, with officials stating that the People’s Liberation Army will “never sit idly by.”
  • The trip may have created a diplomatic headache for the White House, especially after U.S. President Joe Biden earlier said that the Pentagon thought the trip was “not a good idea right now.”

China has repeatedly stated that the Taiwan question is “the most important and most sensitive issue at the very heart of China-U.S. relations”: Although the United States has long abided by the one-China policy — although not China’s one-China principle — the trip has stretched Washington’s ability to balance between not offending Beijing and supporting the democratically self-ruled island.

  • Four days earlier, President Joe Biden and General Secretary Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 held a phone call, in which they both reiterated the same rhetoric both official sides have mentioned today.

Meanwhile, China-watchers have been white-knuckle tweeting in anticipation of Beijing’s response:

  • “The probability of war or a serious incident is low. But the probability that the PRC will take a series of military, economic, and diplomatic actions to show strength & resolve is not insignificant. Likely it will seek to punish Taiwan in myriad ways,” Bonnie Glaser, the director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund, wrote on Twitter.
  • “Importantly, the PRC response will not be measurable in the moment, but will be counted by an accumulation of actions over [a] period of time. Beijing will seek to show [Taiwan’s] people that there are risks and consequences for relying on [the] U.S. instead of working with Beijing,” Ryan Hass of the Brookings Institution wrote on Twitter.
  • “China will likely believe it needs to restore its credibility and bolster its red lines over Taiwan and to deter further erosion of U.S. policy…The goal will be to underscore resolve without sparking escalation, but the likely prominence to the military component will include the potential for miscalculation,” Taylor Fravel, the director of the MIT Security Studies Program, posted on Twitter. “China’s efforts are likely to backfire and lead to redoubled efforts, especially in Congress, to do even more for Taiwan.”

Chinese social media users have also been furiously typing away at their phones: Both social media users and state-sponsored accounts have chimed in on what the visit would mean for the growing tensions between the United States, China, and Taiwan.

  • Upon Pelosi’s arrival, some top comments on Weibo included “I get not going to war, but next time don’t talk so tough, it’s embarrassing to listen to” and “Rather we’d save the money.”
  • Many posts that earlier speculated on whether Pelosi would actually visit Taiwan revolved around three main views, according to What’s on Weibo: Pelosi’s visit means the U.S. supports Taiwan independence; the visit is all just for show, where Taiwan is being used as a pawn in geopolitics; or U.S.-China relations are terrible anyway, so her visit won’t change much.
  • State-run accounts were also quick to churn out hashtags from “Trump slams Pelosi’s possible visit to Taiwan” (#特朗普抨击佩洛西可能访台#) to “If Pelosi’s visit happens, mainland will take decisive Taiwan measures” (#佩洛西若窜访成行大陆将对台采取断然措施#).

Nadya Yeh