WASHINGTON : More than 30 years ago, US Representative Nancy Pelosi angered China’s government by showing up in Tiananmen Square and unfurling a banner honouring dissidents killed in the 1989 protests.
On Tuesday (Aug 2), as speaker of the House of Representatives, Pelosi disregarded China’s fiery warnings and landed in Taiwan to support its government and meet with human rights activists.
Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan capped her decades as a leading US critic of the Beijing government, especially on rights issues, and underscores the long history of the US Congress taking a harder line than the White House in dealings with Beijing.
Second in line for the presidency after Vice President Kamala Harris, Pelosi became the most senior US politician to travel to Taiwan since then-Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997. She led a delegation of six other House members.
In 1991, two years after China’s crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations, Pelosi and two other US lawmakers unfurled a banner in Tiananmen reading, “To those who died for democracy in China.”
Police closed in, forcing them to leave the square.
In 2015, she took a group of House Democrats to Tibet, the first such visit since widespread unrest in 2008. Pelosi has regularly spoken out about human rights issues in Tibet and has met the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing reviles as a violent separatist.
China views visits by US officials to Taiwan as sending an encouraging signal to the island’s pro-independence camp. Washington does not have official diplomatic ties with Taiwan but is legally bound to provide it with the means to defend itself.
Kharis Templeman, a Taiwan expert at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said Pelosi, who is 82, would be looking to cement her legacy, while signalling support for Taiwan against pressure from Beijing.
“And what better person to send that signal than the speaker of the House herself? So she’s in a very powerful symbolic position to take a stand against the CCP,” Templeman said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
Beijing considers Taiwan part of its territory and has never renounced using force to bring the island under its control. Taiwan rejects China’s sovereignty claims and says only its people can decide its future.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said a trip would lead to “very serious developments and consequences”.
Analysts said Beijing’s response was likely to be symbolic. “I think China has tried to signal that their reaction would make the US and Taiwan uncomfortable, but would not cause a war,” said Scott Kennedy, a China analyst at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.