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Pelosi makes historic visit to Taiwan despite China threats

The unannounced trip comes amid growing concern in Washington over the self-ruling democracy that Beijing claims as its territory.
/ Source: NBC News

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is leading an official congressional delegation to Asia this week, made an unannounced visit to Taiwan on Tuesday, a move that escalated brewing tensions between Beijing and Washington.

Pelosi is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Taiwan since then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich traveled there in 1997. She visited the island in 1999 but she was not in leadership then. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle (and Gingrich) had been urging Pelosi to make the trip despite warnings from China of “serious consequences.”

China immediately condemned Pelosi’s visit on Tuesday, vowing that “those who play with fire will perish by it,” and announced new military exercises surrounding Taiwan later this week including live-fire drills. The visit represents a “serious violation” that “seriously infringes upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the country’s foreign ministry said in a statement Tuesday after her arrival in Taipei.

“These moves, like playing with fire, are extremely dangerous. Those who play with fire will perish by it,” it said. The Global Times, a state-controlled newspaper, reported that the Chinese military would “conduct important military exercises and training activities including live-fire drills in six regions surrounding the Taiwan island from Thursday to Sunday.”

Beijing also said it had lodged a “strong protest” with the U.S.

The official blue and white government plane, emblazoned with “United States of America,” touched down at about 10:45 p.m. local time in the capital city of Taipei. Pelosi and members of her delegation emerged from the plane, walked down the aircraft’s stairs and onto the tarmac, where they were greeted by Taiwan officials.

“Our Congressional delegation’s visit to Taiwan honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant Democracy,” Pelosi and members of her delegation said in a joint statement after touching down.

“Our discussions with Taiwan leadership will focus on reaffirming our support for our partner and on promoting our shared interests, including advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” the statement continued. “America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.”

For days, Pelosi’s office had declined to confirm any plans for international travel, citing security protocols. The White House also had not confirmed the trip.

Pelosi and the other lawmakers also made clear that their visit was one of many trips by congressional delegations to Taiwan and “in no way contradicts” longstanding U.S. policy, which is 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,” the lawmakers said.

The five House Democratic lawmakers traveling with Pelosi were Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y.; Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., who led his own delegation to Taiwan last year; Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., a leading voice on trade issues; Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., a member of the Intelligence Committee; and Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., a former national security official in the Obama administration.

The visit comes amid growing concern in Washington as U.S.-China relations strain over the future of the self-ruling democracy that Beijing claims as its territory.

The trip came up during a call between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week. Biden had earlier last month said that U.S. military officials thought it was “not a good idea” for Pelosi to visit Taiwan but the White House backed off those warnings as her trip approached.

On Monday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Pelosi’s potential visit was “consistent with long-standing U.S. policy” and China not to turn into “some sort of crisis or use it as a pretext to increase aggressive military activity in or around the Taiwan Strait.”

During an interview with ABC News on Tuesday, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that “if China chooses to try to turn a potential visit by the speaker into a crisis or tries to use it as a pretext to take aggressive action around Taiwan, that’s on them.”

“The United States is not looking for escalation but, of course, we will reserve the right to ensure that we are defending our interests and we will stay vigilant to whatever China chooses to do in the coming hours and days,” he added.

The five House Democratic lawmakers traveling with Pelosi were Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y.; Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., who led his own delegation to Taiwan last year; Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., a leading voice on trade issues; Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., a member of the Intelligence Committee; and Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., a former national security official in the Obama administration.

For days, Pelosi’s office had declined to confirm any plans for international travel, citing security protocols. The White House also had not confirmed the trip.

Zoe Richards reported from New York, Scott Wong reported from Washington, D.C., and Max Burman reported from London.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com.