Pelosi’s day in Taiwan shakes up the world

Foreign Affairs

United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi concluded a short trip to Taiwan, where she met the president and other officials as well as a group of rights activists, and infuriated the Chinese Communist Party.

Image via Nancy Pelosi’s Twitter account

In a visit to Taiwan that lasted barely 19 hours, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi managed to capture the attention of the world from the moment she stepped onto the tarmac in Taipei in a light pink suit. Her journey to Taiwan from Malaysia yesterday had already been called “the most-tracked live flight” ever, as there had been no official confirmation that she would actually touch down in Taipei.   

“We will not abandon our commitment to Taiwan and we are proud of our enduring friendship,” Pelosi said at a meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文 Cài Yīngwén) per Bloomberg. “Now more than ever American solidarity with Taiwan is crucial. That’s the message we’re bringing here today.”

  • Pelosi also paid a visit to the National Human Rights Museum in Taipei on Tuesday, where she met with prominent rights activists, including Wu’erkaixi (吾尔开希 Wú ěr kāi xī), a Uyghur former student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Lam Wing-Kee (林榮基 Lín Róngjī), a Hong Kong bookseller and publisher of text critical of the CCP, and Lee Ming-che (李明哲 Lǐ Míngzhé), a Taiwanese activist who was released in April after five years in a Chinese jail.
  • Tsai lauded Pelosi’s visit, saying that it “not only reflects strong [U.S.] congressional support for bilateral ties — it also sends a message to the world that democracies stand together in the face of common challenges.”

On the day Pelosi landed, cyber attacks hit major Taiwanese websites, including those of Tsai Ing-wen, the National Defense Ministry, the Foreign Affairs Ministry, and the country’s largest airport, Taiwan Taoyuan International, NBC reports.

  • Presidential Palace spokesperson Chang Tun-Han (張惇涵 Zhāng Dūnhán) stated that the official website went dark for 20 minutes by an overseas distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack. 

How China responded

On Tuesday, shortly after Pelosi landed, China announced military exercises and live-fire drills that reportedly started that night, with more scheduled to come: The positioning of the new drills is reminiscent of Beijing’s live-fire exercises held during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis (台灣海峽飛彈危機) in 1995–1996.

  • The People’s Liberation Army Air Force flew 21 war planes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Taiwan responded by sending its own aircraft, issuing radio warnings, and deploying air defense missile systems to track the PLA planes.
  • Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xiè Fēng 谢锋 also summoned the U.S. ambassador in Beijing, Nicholas Burns, to lodge strong protests against Pelosi’s visit that night.

Comparison between the drills conducted by Beijing during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-1996, to the drills Beijing announced in August 2022. Images via Taylor Fravel on Twitter..

Later on Wednesday, Beijing blocked imports of citrus, fish, and other foods from Taiwan as well as the export of natural sand, but has largely avoided disrupting one of the world’s most important technology and manufacturing relationships.

  • Mainland China is the largest export destination for Taiwan’s agricultural products, with the value rising by 10.1% year-on-year in 2021 to $1.12 billion (19.8% of the total export value). 
  • However, agricultural exports make up only a fraction of Taiwan’s $765 billion economy, and mainland China’s imports of Taiwanese agricultural products accounted for only around 0.23% of its total imports from Taiwan in the first half of this year.
  • The move adds to the earlier bans on imports of Taiwanese sweets, biscuits, bread, and aquatic products imposed in the lead-up to Pelosi’s visit.

Government officials and state-backed media have also been chumming the waters over Pelosi’s visit:

  • Chinese Foreign Minister Wáng Yì 王毅 on Wednesday branded Pelosi’s trip a “complete farce” and warned, “Those who play with fire will perish by it, and those who offend China will be punished.”
  • A front-page editorial in the state-run People’s Daily newspaper reiterated much of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement, and said the visit sent the “wrong message” to Taiwanese “separatists” and that “any countermeasures taken by China are justified, reasonable, and necessary.”
  • Chinese state broadcaster CCTV published images of PLA drills and video on Wednesday, although it was unclear where they were being conducted.

The international response has mostly urged both parties to simmer down, amid fears around the world that Pelosi’s visit would trigger an outright conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

  • The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU) have both urged peaceful resolution and de-escalation.
  • The Kremlin called Pelosi’s visit a “provocation” and said that the visit “should not be underestimated.”
  • Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said on Twitter that “now [Nancy Pelosi] has opened the door to Taiwan much wider, I am sure other defenders of freedom and democracy will be walking through very soon.”

Meanwhile, Chinese social media has been awash with public reactions to Pelosi’s visit: We’ve summarized the major conversations here.

Nadya Yeh