WASHINGTON (AP) — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched her political career by being tough on China — a new congresswoman who dared to unfurl a pro-democracy banner in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square during a visit in 1991 with other US lawmakers shortly after the student massacre.
More than 30 years later, his interest in travel to Taiwan presents a powerful diplomatic cornerstone. It has also contributed to high-level tensions in Washington and Beijing among officials who fear a trip could prove provocative.
As the United States balances its high-stakes relationship with China, it’s unclear if Pelosi will lead a delegation trip to Taiwan. But what is certain is that Pelosi’s decision will be a defining foreign policy and human rights moment for the United States and its most senior lawmaker with a long term at the helm of the Bedroom.
“It’s part of who the speaker is,” said Samuel Chu, president of The Campaign for Hong Kong, a Washington-based advocacy organization.
“This is not a one-time publicity stunt,” said Chu, whose father was among those who met Pelosi and US lawmakers three decades ago in Hong Kong. “Thirty years later, she’s still connected.”
Pelosi declined to release any updates on her plans for Taiwan on Wednesday, reiterating that she does not discuss travel plans, as is the norm, for security reasons. The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, confirmed he had been asked to be part of Pelosi’s bipartisan delegation, but was unable to s to join, although his office said it believed the president and other Americans should be able to visit Taiwan.
The Biden administration has declined to comment publicly on the supposed visit, though the military plans to bolster its security forces in the region to protect his potential trip from any backlash from China. While US officials say they are not worried about Beijing attacking Pelosi’s plane, they are aware that an accident, misstep or misunderstanding could jeopardize his safety.
This all comes as President Joe Biden is due to speak with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Thursday for the first time in four months, and Pelosi’s potential trip looms over the conversation.
“There are always security concerns,” said John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, declining Wednesday to speak directly about the speaker’s potential trip.
Not since Republican Newt Gingrich led a delegation to Taiwan 25 years ago has a Speaker of the United States House, third in line for the presidency, visited the autonomous region, which China claims as part of his own and threatened to forcibly annex in a move the West would view unfavorably.
More than just a visit abroad, Pelosi’s trip would signify a foreign policy move in line with her long congressional career as she increasingly pointed the speaking hammer outward in expanding his job description to include the role of U.S. envoy abroad.
Particularly under the Trump administration, when the former president challenged America’s commitments to allies, and now alongside Biden, Democrat Pelosi has presented herself as a world leader on the world stage – visiting the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv, Pope Francis in the Vatican. , and heads of state around the world.
“She absolutely has to go,” Gingrich told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday about Pelosi’s potential trip.
“She always had a very difficult position coming back to Tiananmen Square. And it’s one of those places where she and I kind of agree,” Gingrich said. “I think for Nancy to back down would be a huge blow to Taiwan, and it would be a very dangerous signal, trying to appease the Chinese communists.”
Pelosi indicated the value she sees in her potential visit to lead a delegation of U.S. lawmakers
“It’s important for us to show our support for Taiwan,” Pelosi told reporters at his press conference last week.
“None of us ever said we were for independence when it comes to Taiwan. It’s up to Taiwan to decide.”
Pelosi was newly elected to Congress when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in 1989 against pro-democracy student protests.
Two years later, she joined other veteran lawmakers on the trip when they were briefly detained by police after unfurling the pro-democracy banner that read “To those who died for democracy in China,” followed by news cameras.
“We’ve been told for two days now that there is freedom of speech in China,” she said in a video clip at the time.
The trip had a “deep and lasting” impact on Pelosi and became the foundation of his leadership style, Chu said.
Pelosi advocated for human rights in China working against Beijing in 1993 as it considered hosting the Summer Olympics and she opposed its bid for the 2008 games. Pelosi sought over the years to link China’s trade status to its human rights record, working to ensure that China’s entry into the World Trade Organization is framed.
Pelosi has often made physical gestures to defy China, including in 2009 when she hand-delivered a letter to then-President Hu Jintao calling for the release of political prisoners.
“China is a very important country,” she said when she returned a few days later, acknowledging the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square in a speech to Congress and stressing the importance of the country’s relationship “to all points of view” with the United States.
“But the size of the economy, the size of the country and the size of the relationship doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk,” Pelosi said. “I said that if we don’t talk about our human rights concerns in China and Tibet, then we lose all moral authority to discuss them about any other country in the world.
In Congress, lawmakers from both parties rallied behind Pelosi’s potential visit to Taiwan, viewing the delegation’s trip as an important diplomatic mission as well as an expression of an equal branch of the US government.
“I understand all the sensibilities of the world, here’s a stark fact: if we allow the Chinese to basically tell us who can and cannot visit Taiwan, then Taiwan will be isolated,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, DN.J., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We can’t let the Chinese do this. Now she will have to judge whether or not this makes the best sense at this time.”
Associated Press writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.