After weeks of silence ahead of a high-stakes visit to Taiwan, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was anything but understated on Wednesday during a day of high-profile meetings in which she offered support for Taiwan and irked China.
Ms. Pelosi met with Taiwanese lawmakers and then with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, offering full-throated assurances of U.S. support for the island democracy that China claims as its own. In the whirlwind day of events, she was welcomed by crowds of supporters waving banners and followed by media and protesters, her closely tracked meetings and movements streamed partially online.
In her wake, she set the stage for new brinkmanship between China and the United States over power and influence in Asia. Taiwan is now bracing for Beijing to begin live-fire military drills on Thursday — an escalation without recent historical precedent — that could encircle the island and drop missiles into seas only 10 miles from its coast.
“Today the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy,” Ms. Pelosi said during a meeting with the Taiwanese president. “America’s determination to preserve democracy here in Taiwan and around the world remains ironclad.”
The meetings, though light on substance, were widely welcomed in Taiwan as a symbolic victory. Ms. Pelosi’s trip was a rare moment when a major foreign power publicly showed support for the island in the face of vehement opposition from China. Ms. Pelosi made the trip despite discouragement from President Biden, manufacturing a historical moment when she became the highest-ranking member of the U.S. government to visit the island in 25 years.
The events presented an affront to China and its leader, Xi Jinping.
Mr. Xi has made unifying Taiwan with China a primary goal of his rule, and his defense minister warned in June that Beijing would not hesitate to fight for the island. The Chinese government filed a formal protest with the U.S. State Department over Ms. Pelosi’s visit.
Ms. Pelosi, who headed to South Korea late Wednesday afternoon, offered praise for Taiwan’s leaders and met with human rights activists. At every moment she was conveying an unmistakable message: Beijing can isolate Taiwan, but it cannot stop American leaders from traveling there.
She also brought economic pledges, calling a trade deal between Taiwan and the United States hopefully imminent and holding a cordial meeting with the chairman of the Taiwan chip giant T.S.M.C. Arguably one of the most geopolitically important companies in the world, T.S.M.C. has been courted by U.S. officials hoping to increase domestic production of microchips.
The trip took place against the backdrop of increasingly heated warnings from Beijing. Along with the military drills, a series of hacks hit Taiwan government websites. China used its status as Taiwan’s largest trading partner to lash out, announcing new trade curbs on Wednesday, including suspensions on imports of some fruit and fish and a ban on exports of sand, a key building material.
Ms. Pelosi’s visit may also damage a push by the White House to shore up support against China from key allies in the region who analysts say have felt sidelined by the trip, and frustrated by the spiraling tensions. With much recent attention eaten up by China’s fulminations over the visit, allies suggested that they wish they had been better consulted ahead of Ms. Pelosi’s journey.
As Ms. Pelosi toured Taipei, the capital, an almost carnival atmosphere followed at times. Hundreds turned out to watch her plane land, Taipei’s tallest building was illuminated with welcome messages, and protesters and supporters crowded around her hotel, and then on Wednesday followed her to the legislature and at a human rights museum.
When Ms. Pelosi arrived at Taiwan’s legislature with a police escort, a group offering support on one side of the building held up banners with messages like “U.S.-Taiwan are brothers” and “I love Pelosi.” A gathering of pro-China demonstrators on the other side held up signs calling her an “arsonist” and accusing her of interfering in China’s internal affairs.
China’s live-fire drills in the strait would mark a direct challenge to what Taiwan defines as its coastline and territorial waters. Coordinates for the drills indicated they could take place closer than previous tests during a standoff 26 years ago.
China’s military warned all boats and airplanes to avoid the areas it identified for 72 hours. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said the drills amounted to a blockade. Set to take place in six areas around Taiwan, the drills could temporarily cut access to some commercial shipping lanes and Taiwanese ports.
On Wednesday, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said that more reprisals for the United States and Taiwan would follow from Ms. Pelosi’s visit.
“As for the specific countermeasures, what I can tell you is that they’ll include everything that should be included,” Ms. Hua said, according to People’s Daily. “The measures in question will be firm, vigorous and effective, and the U.S. side and Taiwan independence forces will continue feeling them.”
For Taiwan, and the United States military, a key question will be whether they obey Beijing’s orders to avoid the zones or test China’s resolve by sending boats and planes into them. Analysts are worried an accidental encounter in the fast-moving situation could spiral out of control.
The standoff is reminiscent of an incident in 1995 and 1996 called the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. During that crisis, China fired live ammunition and missiles into the waters around Taiwan to signal its anger over a trip by President Lee Teng-hui to the United States and to raise pressure ahead of a presidential election. The United States, in response, sent two aircraft carrier groups to the area.
Much has changed since then. China’s military is more powerful and more emboldened under Xi Jinping. This summer, Chinese officials strongly asserted that no part of the Taiwan Strait could be considered international waters, meaning they might move to intercept and block U.S. warships sailing through the area, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
Within China, Beijing’s irate response found plenty of support among Chinese. The question for many posting online seemed to be whether the military exercises would sound a loud enough warning. Many wondered whether the lack of a response thus far would embolden Taiwan to formally seek independence.
“Pelosi has inaugurated a great era that naturally belongs to us,” said one widely shared comment on Weibo, a social media service. “We will take this opportunity to carry out sea and air patrols around Taiwan without any hindrance so they steadily become normalized, and unification will draw closer and closer.”
In Taiwan, jubilance stood alongside anxiety over what could be the riskiest military standoff with China in a generation. On Taiwanese social media, some posted pictures of China’s military exercises and expressed concern. Eric Liu, a sales manager at a food company in central Taiwan, said he felt both exhilaration and worry.
“It’s unprecedented for Taiwan and my generation of Taiwanese,” Mr. Liu, 26, said in an interview. “I felt quite excited, and also sensed the danger.”
“I believe a war in the Taiwan Strait is inevitable, but I don’t want to see it happen anytime soon,” he added.
During the morning’s meeting with Taiwan legislators, Ms. Pelosi praised Taiwan’s record in dealing with Covid-19, human rights and climate issues, according to Lo Chih-cheng, a Democratic Progressive Party lawmaker who attended.
“Under China’s threats and warnings, her visit shows that the United States will not bow to China’s intimidation and has decided to stand with Taiwan,” he said. “She decided to stand with the allies of democracy.”
Ms. Pelosi’s afternoon schedule made that particularly clear.
The speaker went to Taiwan’s National Human Rights Museum, where she met with a group of activists and civil society leaders China views as a rogues’ gallery. They included a former Tiananmen protest student leader, a former political prisoner in China, a Tibetan activist and a Hong Kong bookseller.
Kalsang Gyaltsen, the Tibetan activist, said those at the meeting had told Ms. Pelosi of China’s deteriorating human rights situation and received support. “Discussing human rights in Taiwan is the biggest slap to a country like China that lacks human rights,” he said.
The visit, and the global attention it received, he said, made clear the failure of China’s acerbic, attention-seeking diplomats, who have in recent years taken to social media en masse to echo Chinese government propaganda points.
Chiu Ta, a retired art history professor, waited outside the museum for Ms. Pelosi’s arrival. The 91-year-old noted that the venue had been a detention center for political dissidents during Taiwan’s long years of martial law.
Pointing out that many who had been political prisoners in Taiwan became government officials after Taiwan’s democratic transition, he said he had deep empathy for many in China.
“Those persecuted by the Communist Party are Taiwan’s friends,” he said.
Jane Perlez contributed reporting.