Pelosi says US will 'not abandon' Taiwan as China plans military drills

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(CNN) — During a historic trip to Taiwan Wednesday, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said her visit was intended to make it "unequivocally clear" that the United States would "not abandon" the democratically governed island.

Pelosi's trip -- the first by a sitting US speaker in 25 years -- had been foreshadowed for days. As the California Democrat departed the island on Wednesday afternoon for South Korea, there were already signs of the strains her visit to Taipei had placed on Washington's relationship with Beijing -- which warned that her trip would have a "severe impact on the political foundation of China-US relations."

China's ruling Chinese Communist Party views Taiwan as part of its territory, despite having never controlled it and has long vowed to "reunify" the island with the Chinese mainland, by force if necessary.

Pelosi's praise of the island's commitment to democracy was a significant show of support for Taipei, coming just hours after China threatened to retaliate to her presence with a series of military exercises the Taiwanese Defense Ministry likened to a "maritime and aerial blockade".

Beijing had repeatedly warned of dire consequences should the trip go ahead -- even going as far as to warn US President Joe Biden that those who played with fire would "perish" by it.

But the warnings from Beijing -- and even a suggestion by Biden himself that the US military thought the trip was "not a good idea" -- did not dissuade Pelosi, 82, from flying into the island alongside a congressional delegation on Tuesday evening and meeting its leading officials.

"We are proud of our enduring friendship," said Pelosi, speaking alongside Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen at the presidential office in Taipei the morning after her arrival.

"Now more than ever, America's solidarity with Taiwan is crucial and that is the message we are bringing here today."

China's response

Pelosi arrived to a largely warm welcome in Taipei, with the city's tallest building, Taipei 101, lighting up with a welcome message and supporters gathering outside her hotel -- though her visit to the legislature on Wednesday attracted a smattering of protesters. Video showed some people shouting, "Pelosi, get out" and holding placards reading, "Taiwan doesn't want war."

President Tsai thanked Pelosi for visiting, praised her long commitment to democracy and human rights and bestowed on her Taiwan's highest civilian honor.

Beijing, within minutes of Pelosi's arrival in Taipei, said it would immediately begin "a series of joint military operations around the island," including using long-range live ammunition in the Taiwan Strait that separates the island from mainland China.

Taiwan's Defense Ministry described the military exercises as "irrational" and tantamount to a "blockade." It said the planned drills would violate Taiwan's territorial waters, "threaten an international waterway, challenge the international order, undermine the cross-strait status quo and endanger regional security."

On Tuesday, 21 Chinese warplanes made incursions into Taiwan's air defense identification zone, according to Taiwan's Defense Ministry. The incursions were made by 10 J-16 fighter jets, eight J-11 fighter jets, one Y-9 electronic warfare aircraft, one Y-8 electronic intelligence aircraft, and one KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft, the ministry said.

On Wednesday, as Pelosi met with Taiwan's leaders, elbow-bumping and posing for photos, China suspended the import of citrus fruits and some fish products from Taiwan, as well as the export of sand to the island.

Chinese Customs claimed the suspension of citrus fruit imports was a result of "pest control" and "excessive pesticide residues," and cited "Covid prevention" for the suspension on seafood imports. However, its previous bans on some Taiwanese products have often coincided with periods of escalating tensions.

'Taiwan will not back down'

President Tsai, like Pelosi, appeared unmoved by China's warnings.

"Facing deliberately heightened military threats, Taiwan will not back down," Tsai said during a televised meeting with Pelosi.

"We will firmly uphold our nation's sovereignty and continue to hold the line of defense for democracy. At the same time, we wish to cooperate and work in unity with all democracies around the world to jointly safeguard democratic values."

Taiwan would do "whatever it takes" to strengthen its defensive capabilities, Tsai added, saying she was committed to "maintaining peace and stability" in the Taiwan Strait and vowing to make Taiwan a "key stabilizing force" for regional security and the development of global trade.

Pelosi told reporters Wednesday that "America stands with Taiwan" and China will "not stand in the way" of people coming to visit the island.

"We have to show the world, and that is one of the purposes of our trip, to show the world the success of the people of Taiwan," she said. "We want Taiwan to always have freedom with security and we're not backing away from that."

She also praised Taiwan as "one of the freest societies in the world."

Pelosi and the US congressional delegation also met Taiwanese lawmakers, exchanging pleasantries with Taiwan's Deputy Speaker Tsai Chi-chang before a closed-doors meeting.

Pelosi is a longstanding critic of the Chinese Communist Party. She has denounced Beijing's human rights record, and met pro-democracy dissidents and the Dalai Lama -- the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader who remains a thorn in the side of the Chinese government.

In 1991, Pelosi unfurled a banner in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to commemorate victims of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters. More recently, she has voiced support for the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

On Wednesday, Pelosi and the congressional delegation left the self-governed island around 6 p.m. (local), departing from Taiwan's Songshan airport

This story was first published on CNN.com, "Pelosi says US will 'not abandon' Taiwan as China plans military drills."