By Patricia Zengerle and Michael Martina
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – More than 30 years ago, U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi angered China’s government by showing up in Tiananmen Square and unfurling a banner honoring dissidents killed in the 1989 protests.
On Tuesday, 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 U.S. critic of the Beijing government, especially on rights issues, and underscores the long history of the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations, Pelosi and two other U.S. 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 U.S. 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 signaling 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 U.S. and Taiwan uncomfortable, but would not cause a war,” said Scott Kennedy, a China analyst at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
HARD LINE IN CONGRESS
Congress has long taken a harder line on Taiwan than the White House, no matter whether Democrats, such as President Joe Biden and Pelosi, or Republicans are in charge.
Republicans supported Pelosi’s trip. “Any member that wants to go, should. It shows political deterrence to President Xi,” Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told NBC News. McCaul said he was invited to join Pelosi’s Asia trip but was unable to do so.
The executive branch takes ultimate responsibility for foreign policy but relations with Taiwan are one area where Congress wants influence. The Taiwan Relations Act, which has guided relations since 1979, passed Congress with an overwhelming majority after lawmakers rejected a proposal from then-President Jimmy Carter as too weak.
Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate are working on a bill that would overhaul that policy, including by increasing military support for Taiwan and expanding Taipei’s role in international organizations.
Pelosi’s trip and Beijing’s reaction have pushed the White House to once again express – including in a call between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week – that it has no desire to change the status quo.
Biden cast doubt publicly on the wisdom of the trip last month in a rare break with Pelosi, a close ally.
“I think that the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now, but I don’t know what the status of it is,” Biden told reporters.
Pelosi’s office refused ahead of the visit to rule out or confirm a possible stop by the speaker, citing security concerns typical for top U.S. officials.
Pelosi announced on Sunday that she was leading a congressional delegation to Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan “to reaffirm America’s strong and unshakeable commitment to our allies and friends in the region.”
U.S. defense officials played down the risk of China’s military interfering with Pelosi’s visit, but they worried that an accident could spiral into a larger conflict.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Michael Martina; additional reporting by Idrees Ali and Trevor Hunnicutt; editing by Mary Milliken and Cynthia Osterman)