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China has warned of taking 'strong measures' should Nancy Pelosi travel to Taiwan

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

China has issued stern warnings in recent days about a possible visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Now, Pelosi has not confirmed she's going to Taiwan, but the potential visit is already kicking up a political storm. To help us understand, we are going to head to Beijing and hear from NPR's John Ruwitch. Hey, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: OK. So the backdrop, the Chinese government, of course, considers Taiwan part of China. But American lawmakers, American officials have visited Taiwan before. Why is this trip so controversial?

RUWITCH: Well, it's mostly because of Pelosi's seniority, really. I mean, others have gone, as you noted. The last time a Speaker of the House went was in '97, though, when Newt Gingrich was in the job. So that doesn't happen very often. The U.S. doesn't have formal relations with Taiwan, of course. But the U.S. relationship with China has really deteriorated, and American foreign policy has become sort of more focused on this idea of a global contest - right? - between democracy and autocracy. And the Biden administration and others, you know, see Beijing firmly in that autocracy camp and Taiwan as a democracy that's worth supporting.

KELLY: Yeah. And Beijing is saying what to this word that Pelosi might pay a visit to Taiwan?

RUWITCH: Well, the Foreign Ministry has been particularly blunt about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHAO LIJIAN: (Speaking Chinese).

RUWITCH: This is Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. And he's saying China is seriously prepared for this and will take strong measures to respond. He's even used the word forceful to describe the response. This all comes at a pretty sensitive time in China. You know, the ruling Communist Party is planning a party Congress in a few months. Leader Xi Jinping is seeking a third term as party boss, which is norm-breaking. He's under pressure over COVID controls and a weak economy. And so experts say he's going to want to project strength in these coming months.

KELLY: Back to what you just said, that China is threatening strong measures or forceful measures. Do we know what that actually means?

RUWITCH: We don't. China hasn't spelled it out. I mean, in recent visits by U.S. officials in the past to Taiwan, China's military has increased the tempo and volume of incursions in the air and sea around Taiwan. You know, there's been speculation that China could try to intercept Pelosi's plane...

KELLY: Wow.

RUWITCH: ...Or maybe even prevent it from landing in Taiwan. There's no evidence that that'll happen. I asked Zhu Feng about the situation. He's the dean of the Institute of International Relations at Nanjing University here in China.

ZHU FENG: I don't think it will become some sort of real countermeasures because we also know there's no way for U.S. and China to get into some sort of military conflict.

RUWITCH: So what he's saying is, basically, he doesn't think that China or the U.S. want a military conflict over a Pelosi visit to Taiwan. But he says it could certainly, you know, create deeper mistrust in this relationship, which is already tense. And that's troubling. You know, there's always the risk of a miscalculation, too.

KELLY: But just to step back here, John, what is the history? What is the full context for why China would be so concerned about this?

RUWITCH: Yeah. Unifying with Taiwan has been the dream of the Communist Party in China since 1949, right? So their fear is that that dream just gets harder or becomes impossible to achieve. Beijing sees the U.S. as an impediment, says it thinks the U.S.' actions are encouraging Taiwan independence. The speaker is the No. 2 person in the presidential line of succession. Nancy Pelosi is in the same party as the president. And so Beijing thinks this would just send a big wrong signal. Speaking of the president, he and Xi Jinping are scheduled to have a call this week, potentially even on Thursday. They're going to talk about a range of issues, and Taiwan will definitely be high on the list.

KELLY: All right - a lot to watch for. NPR's John Ruwitch in Beijing. Thanks.

RUWITCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.

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