Taiwan and China step up military rhetoric as expected Pelosi visit looms

Taiwan’s defence ministry has warned it would dispatch forces appropriately in reaction to “enemy threats”, as China stepped up its military rhetoric on the day of a highly controversial expected visit to Taipei by the US speaker, Nancy Pelosi.

In a statement on Tuesday, the defence ministry said it had a full grasp of military activity near Taiwan and the “determination, ability and confidence” to ensure Taiwan’s national security. It added that it had made various unspecified plans for an emergency.

The Guardian and other outlets have confirmed via multiple sources that Pelosi is expected to land in Taipei on Tuesday night, and meet president Tsai Ing-wen the following morning.

Neither the US or Taiwan governments have confirmed the trip. When asked about it on Tuesday, Taiwan’s premier, Su Tseng-chang, reiterated that Taiwan “warmly welcomes” foreign guests, and “would make the most appropriate arrangements” for such guests and respect their plans.

China has strongly objected to Pelosi’s visit, with a foreign ministry spokesperson warning on Tuesday afternoon that the US would be “held liable and pay the price for hurting China’s sovereignty and security interests”.

“Faced with reckless US disregard of China’s repeated and serious representations, any countermeasures taken by the Chinese side will be justified and necessary,” said Hua Chunying.

Earlier on Tuesday, Reuters reported several Chinese warships and planes had travelled near the median line – an unofficial border between China and Taiwan in the Taiwan strait. Citing unnamed sources, the report said the vessels had been in the area since Monday, while the latest flights occurred on Tuesday morning, prompting Taiwan’s air force to scramble its aircraft in response.

Taiwan’s defence ministry has earlier reportedly adjusted and strengthened its military’s combat readiness in response to the threat of China. According to the public broadcaster CNA, it had not formally changed the readiness level, which relates to two stages: the current regular staging, and wartime.

On Chinese social media on Tuesday there were multiple photos of dozens of tanks and other military vehicles on the streets in Xiamen, a Chinese city five kilometres across the water from the Taiwan island of Kinmen. The Guardian has not verified the images.

China has also announced several days of live-fire exercises in the region, though these could relate to events marking Monday’s anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The PLA also posted a propaganda video that did not mention Taiwan but depicted live-fire exercises and said it would “bury incoming enemies”.

On Tuesday, several Chinese officials issued further warnings. The ambassador to the US, Qin Gang, shared the PLA video, saying the military “will not sit idly by when it comes to safeguarding national sovereignty & territorial integrity”.

The former ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming largely echoed other government statements. “A visit to Taiwan by her [Pelosi] would constitute a gross interference in China’s internal affairs, seriously undermine China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, wantonly trample on the one-China principle,” he said.

Overnight, Chinese authorities announced a sudden ban on imports from more than 100 Taiwanese food companies, local media reported, which was interpreted as an act of retribution over the expected visit, a trade tool China has often used in bilateral disputes.

Multiple media reports have said Pelosi will land in Taipei on Tuesday night and meet Taiwan’s president on Wednesday, as an unofficial stop during her Asia tour. Pelosi, a longtime China hawk, will be the most senior member of the US government to visit Taiwan in decades, and Beijing has repeatedly threatened undefined “countermeasures” in response.

Pelosi has refused to confirm her trip to Taiwan – a rescheduled visit after plans in April were postponed when she contracted Covid-19 – but the lack of denials and multiple leaks to media have driven an angry response from China amid fears the situation could escalate.

Taiwan is a self-governing democracy and has never been ruled by China’s ruling Communist party (CCP), but Beijing claims it as a province it intends to “reunify”, by force if necessary. The CCP strongly objects to foreign shows of support for what it says is a “separatist” government in Taiwan, especially from the US.

Taiwan, whose government has refused to comment on the visit, often welcomes foreign delegations as it seeks to grow its international relationships. Few countries recognise Taiwan as a country, including the US, but Washington has legislated requirements to give Taiwan self-defence support, and has been strengthening unofficial ties.

Sources in Taiwan have told the Guardian there is a general concern that if Pelosi did not visit it would suggest the US can be cowed by verbal threats, and would damage Taiwan’s trust in their support.

On Tuesday, Kolas Yotaka, a former Taiwan presidential spokeswoman and now a county government candidate, said she supported the visit.

“No one has the right to say whether speaker Pelosi ‘should’ come to Taiwan or not,” she said. “Only she can decide, and she should not feel threatened. I am looking forward to her visit. It makes us feel less isolated, and believe there are still people who maintain their beliefs and ideals.”

The Chinese reaction to reports of Pelosi’s visits has been heightened, albeit without specifics. In a lengthy phone call last week, China’s president, Xi Jinping, warned the US president, Joe Biden, against “playing with fire” over Taiwan, while officials have repeatedly said the PLA would not “stand idly by” over the visit. Analysts in Taiwan and overseas have expressed concern that Beijing’s rhetoric has reached a level that would force it to take action to avoid losing face.

On Monday, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said Pelosi’s decision to visit was hers entirely, as leader of the co-equal Congress branch of government. He noted visits by previous speakers and other members of Congress to Taiwan, and urged calm from China.

“We are looking for them, in the event she decides to visit, to act responsibly and not to engage in any escalation going forward.”

Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin and agencies