Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has stirred a storm of controversy, heightening tensions with China and captivating the world’s attention.
For the California Democrat, however, the trip is something much more personal.
Pelosi has a long track record of confronting Chinese leaders head-on, particularly on issues of human rights, stretching back decades to include the massacre of pro-democracy activists on Tiananmen Square.
Her decision to visit Taiwan — a self-governing democracy that Beijing claims as its own — ranks among the most conspicuous exhibitions of that advocacy campaign; Pelosi on Tuesday became the highest-ranking U.S. official to set foot in Taiwan in 25 years.
Through that lens, Pelosi's trek — taken in the twilight of her long career against the wishes of the Biden administration — is not only a diplomatic endeavor to demonstrate U.S. support for Taiwanese autonomy, but a legacy-building crusade for a figure who likes to boast she takes “second place to no one” in her condemnation of Beijing's human rights atrocities.
It’s a historic trip for a historic Speaker — and it may prove to be the crowning global performance of a long political run that’s widely expected to reach an end with the close of this Congress.
“Pelosi has a long history of challenging Beijing — including her visit to Tiananmen Square in 1991 – unfurling an American flag no less,” Sarah Binder, political science professor at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an email Tuesday, just hours after the Speaker landed in Taipei.
“If she does indeed retire after this Congress, I suspect the trip will be viewed as the capstone of her legacy on the issue (well, if all goes well, that is),” Binder said.
That “if” has also been on the minds of top Biden administration officials, particularly those in the Pentagon who had cautioned against Pelosi’s visit over concerns that it would trigger a retaliatory response from Beijing. President Biden had vocalized the Defense Department’s apprehensions late last month, telling reporters that “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now.”
Yet Biden never attempted to dissuade the trip himself, Pelosi said, and White House officials more recently have come around to bless the visit — at least publicly — while warning China against any sort of bellicose response.
“We shouldn’t be — as a country — we shouldn’t be intimidated by that rhetoric or those potential actions,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Monday in an interview with CNN. “This is an important trip for the Speaker to be on and we’re going to do whatever we can to support her.”
Chinese leaders have ignored those warnings, following up their initial admonitions with new threats after Pelosi arrived in Taipei. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs quickly issued a statement saying Pelosi’s visit not only represents “a serious violation of the one-China principle,” but will have “a severe impact on the political foundation of China-U.S. relations.”
“It gravely undermines peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and sends a seriously wrong signal to the separatist forces for ‘Taiwan independence,’ ” the ministry charged.
Shortly afterward, Beijing announced that it would launch “targeted military operations” around Taiwan.
Pelosi on Tuesday explained her reasoning behind the trip with some unveiled shots of her own, accusing Beijing’s leaders of doing everything they can — economically, diplomatically, militarily and even through cyberattacks — to punish Taiwan for its enduring resistance to Chinese rule.
“In the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) accelerating aggression, our congressional delegation’s visit should be seen as an unequivocal statement that America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, as it defends itself and its freedom,” Pelosi wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post.
That message of democratic solidarity, she added, is even more urgent in the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of a peaceful Ukraine earlier in the year.
“As Russia wages its premeditated, illegal war against Ukraine, killing thousands of innocents — even children — it is essential that America and our allies make clear that we never give in to autocrats,” she wrote.
Pelosi’s place in history is already assured. She was the first woman to lead any party in Congress, and in ascending to the Speakership in 2007 became the highest-ranking woman in U.S. history — a distinction surpassed only last year when Kamala Harris was sworn in as vice president.
Over that span, Pelosi shepherded the passage of historic legislation, including ObamaCare, an economic stimulus package in response to the Great Recession and the Wall Street reforms that followed that financial collapse. More recently, she oversaw both impeachments of President Trump, and launched the select committee that’s now investigating Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Her shift this week to take on China promises to extend that legacy well beyond domestic policy and into the realm of foreign diplomacy. Binder, of Brookings, said it has highlighted the fact that congressional legislators can play a crucial role in areas typically reserved for the executive branch.
“In a word, their actions can be consequential for public affairs far beyond the halls of Congress,” she said.
Pelosi’s outspoken campaign against China’s despots, launched with her 1991 visit to Tiananmen Square, hardly ended there. In the years since, the Speaker has also condemned Chinese abuses against pro-democracy activists across Hong Kong and Tibet; she’s pressed Chinese leaders directly to release political prisoners; she’s met a number of times with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet; and most recently, she fiercely denounced Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group in China’s western-most province, labeling it a genocide.
Pelosi’s show of solidarity with Taiwan this week has been met with overwhelming support on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers in both parties have cheered her defiance of Beijing, even as it ruffles feathers at the White House.
“I can see how it could create some tension in the region,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). “But I was telling some people the other night: Don't get concerned about it. I don't think anybody's trying to create an international incident.
“If I had anything to say to the Chinese leadership it would just be: Be cool."
Republicans are also on board. Led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), 26 GOP senators issued a statement Tuesday praising her decision.
“She has every right to go,” McConnell later told reporters.