TAIPEI, Taiwan — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan on Tuesday, casting aside private warnings from the Biden administration about the risk that her high-profile diplomatic visit could stoke a new crisis in Asia and immediately prompting a sharp response from the Chinese government.
A United States military jet carrying Ms. Pelosi landed in Taipei late at night following weeks of speculation about her travel plans. Her decision to proceed with the trip — shrouded in official secrecy until the last moment — makes her the highest-ranking congressional official to come to the disputed island in a quarter-century and sets up a tense standoff with China that American officials said could lead to more aggressive military posturing.
“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,” she said in a statement issued as she was greeted by Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, adding that the visit did not contradict United States policy on Taiwan.
China, which bristles at any perceived challenge to its claims on self-ruled Taiwan, had repeatedly warned Ms. Pelosi not to make the visit. Soon after her arrival, Beijing announced plans for live-fire military drills, some in areas overlapping with the island’s territorial waters. In a separate statement, China’s People’s Liberation Army said that it would begin a series of joint naval and air exercises that would include “long-range live firing in the Taiwan Strait.”
The exercises would effectively block access temporarily to some commercial shipping lanes and Taiwanese ports, but analysts said they seemed to be designed to project strength rather than to serve as a precursor to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
“They are not signaling that we are imminently about to go to war,” said Joe McReynolds, senior China analyst at the Washington-based Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis. But he and others said the fast-moving situation could lead to an accidental encounter that could spiral out of control.
Before the visit, the United States had urged Beijing not to turn the moment into a crisis. After a telephone call last week between President Biden and Xi Jinping, the president of China, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned Ms. Pelosi’s expected visit, saying that “playing with fire will set yourself on fire.”
But Ms. Pelosi, a longtime China critic who visited Tiananmen Square two years after the Chinese military opened fire on student protesters there, was defiant. In her statement, she said that her visit to the island 80 miles off the coast of China was a sign of America’s “unwavering commitment” to supporting Taiwan’s democracy.
“We must stand by Taiwan, which is an island of resilience,” Ms. Pelosi said in an opinion article published on the Washington Post website after she landed. In the article, she called Taiwan “a leader in governance,” a “leader in peace, security and economic dynamism” and a “vibrant, robust democracy.”
In Taiwan’s central business district, Taipei 101, once the world’s tallest building and a major landmark in the city’s skyline, was lit with messages welcoming Ms. Pelosi, the highest-level American official to go to the island since 1997, when Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the House, made a visit.
Ms. Pelosi’s refusal to be dissuaded from making the trip is in keeping with her decades-long efforts to hold China accountable for its actions. She has repeatedly pushed for legislation to benefit Hong Kong and Tibet; hosted the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader; and urged a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics in Beijing.
Her forceful stand on Tuesday was echoed in a rare statement of bipartisan support issued moments after her arrival: More than two dozen Republican senators, including Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, wrote that her travel was “consistent with the United States’ One China policy to which we are committed.”
“She’s a high-ranking official in the U.S. government. But it is not unusual,” said Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I was there three months ago with five other senators. We have a longstanding history of visiting Taiwan. And so we can’t let the Chinese say who can and cannot visit Taiwan.”
But the speaker’s arrival was greeted with scorn by Chinese officials, who accused Ms. Pelosi of undermining China’s sovereignty. And her visit comes as China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has made it clearer than any of his predecessors that he sees unifying Taiwan with China to be a primary goal of his rule.
Mr. Xi, who has led China since 2012, is expected to be confirmed to an unprecedented third term as leader at a Communist Party congress in the fall. Ahead of that all-important political meeting, Mr. Xi has been keen to project an image of strength at home and abroad, particularly on the question of Taiwan.
A statement issued by the Chinese Communist Party’s Taiwan Affairs Office said any attempt to seek independence by Taiwan would be “shattered by the powerful force of the Chinese people.”
Long a sore issue in an increasingly fraught U.S.-China relationship, Taiwan — which has its own military and democratically elected government — has emerged as the front line in a geopolitical showdown over influence and power in Asia.
Under Mr. Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, Beijing has taken more aggressive military actions in the region and recently made strong claims over the strait separating Taiwan and China, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Mr. Xi has called for unification with Taiwan as part of China’s national rejuvenation, even potentially by force.
The United States has sent a steady stream of senior officials to show solidarity with Taiwan. Recently, Mr. Biden said he would act to defend Taiwan in the event of a conflict. It was not the first time he had done so, but White House officials have repeatedly walked back those statements, saying a longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” on the defense of Taiwan remains in place.
Publicly, senior White House officials have said that Ms. Pelosi’s visit does not indicate any change in official policy, and should be viewed by China as no different than any of the other recent visits to Taiwan by members of Congress.
But privately, administration officials made it clear to Ms. Pelosi that her decision to visit Taiwan appeared likely to provoke China at a time when tensions between the two nations are high and the United States is already engaged in helping Ukraine fight its war with Russia.
Ms. Pelosi’s visit has been awkward for Mr. Biden. The speaker and her staff insisted that, as the leader of a separate but coequal branch of the American government, she has the right to go anywhere she desires. And Mr. Biden’s aides stressed that he did not want to be seen as dictating where she can travel.
Officials said Mr. Biden never told Ms. Pelosi not to go. But officials made it clear that her trip could significantly escalate tensions, including the possibility that China would use the visit to justify military action against Taiwan.
As the plane carrying Ms. Pelosi approached Taiwan, several Chinese state media outlets reported that Chinese Su-35 fighter jets were crossing the strait, a claim that Taiwan’s defense ministry called “fake news.” China last sent planes over the median line that runs down the strait in 2020, when Alex Azar, then the U.S. secretary of health and human services, visited Taiwan.
China claims Taiwan as its territory and has vowed to take it back, by force if necessary. In his call with Mr. Biden on Thursday, China’s leader warned the United States against intervening in the dispute.
China’s incursions into airspace and waters near Taiwan have become more aggressive in the past several years, heightening the risk of conflict.
In June, Beijing raised the stakes when the foreign ministry declared that China had jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait and that it could not be considered an international waterway. And in the past year, Chinese military planes have increasingly probed the airspace near Taiwan, prompting Taiwanese fighter jets to scramble.
Huang Chao-yuan, a 53-year-old business owner, staked out the area near Songshan Airport to watch as Ms. Pelosi’s plane landed. She said the speaker’s visit was a “historic moment” that “demonstrates Taiwan’s independence.”
But outside the Grand Hyatt Taipei, where Ms. Pelosi was expected to spend the night, several dozen people supporting unification with China protested against Ms. Pelosi’s visit: Some clamored for her to “get out of Taiwan,” and some held banners denouncing her.
In Beijing, she is viewed as hostile to the regime and its goals.
As a two-term congresswoman from California, Ms. Pelosi visited Beijing in 1991, two years after Chinese troops opened fire on student protesters around Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds if not thousands. Accompanied to the square by several congressional colleagues and a small group of reporters, Ms. Pelosi unfurled a banner commemorating the dead students.
Ms. Pelosi is a strong supporter of the Dalai Lama and the rights of Tibetans. In 2015, with official permission from the Chinese government, she visited Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, on a tightly controlled trip. The region is usually off limits to foreign officials and journalists.
From student demonstrators in Beijing in 1989 to anti-government protests in Hong Kong 30 years later, Ms. Pelosi has consistently supported social movements that critiqued China’s ruling Communist Party. She has also urged China’s leaders to temper their authoritarian policies, criticism that has elicited tart ripostes from Chinese officials.
The Chinese community in San Francisco, which Ms. Pelosi represents, was outwardly very supportive of Taiwan from the 1950s until the early 1990s. Today, it is much more connected to the mainland, partly due to immigration trends and the rise of China’s power and influence in the world, Mr. Lee said.
Dozens of people gathered in San Francisco on Monday to protest the trip, arguing that it could inflame potential war with China. The demonstration included members of the city’s Chinese American community; Code Pink: Women for Peace, an antiwar group; and the U.S. — China Peoples Friendship Association.
Paul Mozur and Amy Chang Chien reported from Taipei, and Michael D. Shear from Washington. Reporting was contributed by Emily Cochrane and Amy Qin from Washington, Thomas Fuller from San Francisco, and Jane Perlez and Mike Ives from Seoul.