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House Speaker Pelosi's trip to Taiwan has heightened U.S.-China tensions


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spent the day in Taiwan on a visit that's been harshly criticized by Beijing.


Tensions have escalated, with China's military drills around Taiwan, which Taipei claims could amount to an air and sea blockade.

MARTINEZ: To bring us up to speed, we're joined now by NPR's John Ruwitch, who has been following events from Beijing. John, tell us what Nancy Pelosi has been doing in Taiwan today.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Well, she spent the morning meeting Taiwanese members of Parliament. And then she met Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen. Tsai awarded her a ceremonial civilian honor for her contributions in promoting Taiwan-U.S. relations. And in remarks at the event, Pelosi said that she visited Taipei to underscore the U.S. commitment to Taiwan.


NANCY PELOSI: Today, the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy. America's determination to preserve democracy here in Taiwan and around the world remains ironclad.

RUWITCH: This is a highly symbolic visit. But there's more to it than just political ideology. According to Taiwan President Tsai's Facebook page, she said she and Pelosi had lunch with senior executives from a couple of Taiwan's top tech firms, including TSMC, which is one of the world's leading makers of advanced microchips. And chips are, of course, an important part of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

MARTINEZ: Now, Beijing was not happy when she arrived in Taipei.


MARTINEZ: What's been the reaction so far?

RUWITCH: Well, the foreign minister called the visit a violation of China's sovereignty. And the foreign ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador to make a formal complaint. You know, China has imposed also economic sanctions on some Taiwanese products coming into China, including citrus fruit, for example. It's also banned sand exports to Taiwan. And then, of course, there's the military component to all this. This week, China is holding several days of exercises in six zones that effectively encircle Taiwan. These are expected to be a large show of force. Taiwan says they encroach on its own territorial seas. Analysts, meanwhile, say we should expect more actions like this in the coming weeks, possibly months. And the White House, too, says that China is positioned for further steps.

MARTINEZ: Well, OK, so why is Beijing doing this? I mean, what are they worried about?

RUWITCH: Yeah, well, it goes back to Beijing's claim that Taiwan is a part of China, you know? Beijing wants to unify it politically with the mainland under the Chinese flag. So one concern is that after Pelosi's visit, other senior officials from other foreign countries might be inclined to follow suit. Another concern of Beijing's is that U.S. policy on China is just being hollowed out, you know? The U.S. says it adheres to a one-China policy and that it doesn't support Taiwan independence. But the Chinese government is increasingly skeptical of that.

MARTINEZ: We get a sense now of what the Chinese government thinks. What about the Chinese people?

RUWITCH: Yeah. A lot of people here seem to be paying attention to this. Today, on the streets here in Beijing, we spoke with a man named Gong Buyong (ph). And here's what he had to say.

GONG BUYONG: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: Yeah. So he's saying he personally is unhappy with the Chinese response so far. He thinks it could be stronger. He also says, though, that he understands why the government is, perhaps, being cautious in its reaction in what he says is a game of geopolitical chess. It's really interesting, you know? When Pelosi's plane landed in Taipei last night, there were a lot of posts online in China expressing deep unhappiness that the Chinese government allowed it to happen, effectively, didn't prevent it. Many of those critical comments are just gone today. They've been scrubbed from the internet, which underscores the sensitivity of the issue - really shows the government is trying to manage expectations on a deeply emotive issue at a sensitive time for China, with the economy under pressure, the pandemic still a problem and a key Communist Party meeting coming up.

MARTINEZ: NPR's John Ruwitch in Beijing. Thanks a lot, John.

RUWITCH: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.