WASHINGTON – The White House has summoned China’s ambassador to condemn its escalating actions against Taiwan, the latest step in an intensifying geopolitical crisis as Washington and Beijing exchange accusations following a trip by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan that infuriated Chinese leaders.
At the White House, officials told Ambassador Qin Gang that China’s recent military actions – including firing missiles into the waters around Taiwan – were “irresponsible and at odds with our long-standing goal of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in a statement provided to the Washington Post.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking to reporters in Cambodia, delivered an equally sharp message to China. “There is no justification for this extreme, disproportionate, and escalatory military response,” he said, adding, “These provocative actions are a significant escalation. … They’ve taken dangerous acts to a new level.”
Like other U.S. officials, Blinken sought to balance a message that the United States does not seek confrontation with a signal that it will not back down to aggressive actions from China. “We will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” he said.
The fast-moving events have forced President Joe Biden to manage potentially volatile confrontations between the United States and two other world powers. Even as tensions bubble between the United States and China over Pelosi’s trip, Biden is striving to keep Beijing from aiding Russia in its scorched-earth war against Ukraine.
On Friday, China said it is canceling or suspending dialogue with the United States on issues including climate change, military relations and anti-drug efforts. Beijing also announced unspecified sanctions on Pelosi and her immediate family in retaliation for what it called a “malicious and provocative” insistence on visiting Taiwan over Beijing’s strong opposition.
Since 2020, China has deployed sanctions against former U.S. officials with increasing frequency, often as retribution for criticism of human rights abuses, but Pelosi, D-Calif., is one of the most senior sitting U.S. politicians to be personally censured by Beijing.
A senior Chinese Embassy official fired back Friday at the White House’s decision to summon its ambassador. “Ambassador Qin Gang totally rejected the so-called condemnation of Chinese military countermeasures,” Minister Jing Quan said in a statement read to reporters.
“We have pointed out that it is the U.S. side that is the troublemaker to peace and stability of the Taiwan Straits and the region,” Qin said. “The only way out of this crisis is that the U.S. side must take measures immediately to rectify its mistakes and eliminate the grave impact of Pelosi’s visit.”
He added that “Taiwan is one of the very few issues that might take China and the United States into conflict – or even war.”
Still, some veteran diplomats said that although China’s actions may seize the world’s attention, they are in many ways symbolic and limited.
Beijing appears “unwilling to do anything of substance to the United States” at this point, said Ivan Kanapathy, a former Asia expert on the National Security Council. China’s actions so far, such as sanctions on Pelosi and suspending dialogues on climate and counternarcotics, are “mostly symbolic political gestures,” he said.
Danny Russel, who was assistant secretary of state for East Asia in the Obama administration, said the Chinese are being careful and “trying to use a scalpel for specific political effect in Taiwan.” Beijing will not, for instance, jeopardize the flow of semiconductors from Taiwan that are essential to the Chinese economy, Russel said.
During Qin’s meeting at the White House, he spoke with Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council, officials said. Campbell reiterated that nothing has changed about the United States’ one-China policy, which recognizes the administration in Beijing as the sole government of China.
He also highlighted to Qin a statement from the Group of Seven industrialized democracies stressing that China should not use Pelosi’s visit as a pretext for aggressive action, and cited a message from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, calling on all sides to de-escalate tensions and engage in dialogue.
Pelosi, for her part, remained defiant about the trip earlier this week that sparked Beijing’s strong anger. China “may try to keep Taiwan from visiting or participating in other places, but they will not isolate Taiwan,” she said in Tokyo, her final stop on an Asian tour.
She added that Beijing could not dictate who could visit the island. “They are not doing our traveling schedule. The Chinese government is not doing that,” she said. Pelosi is a longtime critic of Chinese leaders, who view her with particular hostility.
China’s missile launches, which came shortly after Pelosi departed the island, increased military tensions in the Taiwan Strait to the highest level in decades, raising fears of a dangerous miscalculation in one of the world’s most charged geopolitical flash points. They came at a time when U.S.-Chinese relations were already strained by disputes over trade, human rights and other issues, and Biden has made countering China’s influence a central pillar of his foreign policy.
Qin, the ambassador, charged in a column published in the Post that Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was a willfully provocative act. He noted that it included “full-protocol treatment” by authorities of Taiwan’s governing Democratic Progressive Party, “who make no secret of pursuing independence in their party platform.” He said Pelosi’s visit thus violated a long-standing U.S. commitment not to develop official relations with Taiwan.
The White House had sought to de-escalate tensions with China ahead of and during Pelosi’s visit, which the speaker undertook against the administration’s wishes. White House officials warned earlier this week that China was preparing for possible aggressive actions that could continue well beyond the speaker’s trip to Asia.
Virtually all the senior members of Biden’s national security team privately expressed deep reservations about the trip and its timing, a White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations. Top administration officials outlined for Pelosi’s offices the likely consequences of her visit, officials said, and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, personally briefed Pelosi.
But when it became clear that Pelosi – who is the country’s third highest-ranking official, behind Biden and Vice President Harris – was determined to make the trip, administration officials began publicly defending her right to do so, emphasizing that she is entirely independent of the White House, and warning China against overreacting.
They argued that nothing had changed in U.S.-China relations and stressed that many members of Congress have previously visited Taiwan, including then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., in 1997. However, the landscape has shifted significantly since then, as China is increasingly influential on the world stage and its rivalry with the United States has grown more pointed.
The Chinese Communist Party claims Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that is home to more than 23 million people, as its territory, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping has pledged to “reunify” Taiwan with China, by force if necessary.
Xi is facing additional pressure to show he is a strong leader, since he is expected to secure an unprecedented third term as leader at an upcoming congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese leaders fear that visits by foreign dignitaries to Taiwan could give it added legitimacy as potentially independent country, and have been anxious that Pelosi’s visit does not set a precedent to be emulated by leaders from other countries.
The United States maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to Taiwan, or being vague about whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked militarily by China.
At a news briefing Thursday, Kirby said the United States will conduct standard air and maritime transits through the Taiwan Strait over the next few weeks, and will take “further steps” to stand with its allies in the region including Japan, although he did not specify what they were. The aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan and its battle group will remain near Taiwan to monitor the situation.
Bonnie Glaser, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Asia program, said it’s critical that the two sides have private conversations to prevent the dispute from erupting further.
“At this juncture, what is needed urgently is more candid, closed-door dialogue between the United States and China to understand each other’s intentions and manage risk,” Glaser said. “Beijing’s decision to suspend and halt numerous bilateral dialogue channels is extremely unhelpful.“
She added, “At this moment, the United States is showing restraint. There is a lot of blame to go around for this crisis: the United States, Taiwan and China did not handle the Pelosi visit well.”
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