US House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 1997 Taiwan Visit Vs Nancy Pelosi’s Trip — Know Beijing’s Response Then & Now

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, who visited Taiwan on Tuesday has stoked fresh tensions between the US and China, the two countries that were already at loggerheads on a range of other issues. 

Pelosi’s visit is the first high-level visit from a US official in 25 years. In 1997, the then Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich visited the island with a 12-member delegation.

While a lot has changed in 25 years, it is interesting to have a look at what was China’s reaction to Gingrich’s visit in the context of the then domestic politics of China and the global order.

Gingrich’s Taiwan Tour Of 1997

Gingrich’s visit was important in the sense that he was to become the first high-level US official to visit Taiwan after the country had snapped its ties with the island to recognize the communist government on the mainland in 1979. 

He was to go on an Asian tour that included visits to Japan, South Korea along with China. Before the start of the tour, other Republican lawmakers pressed Gingrich to add Taiwan to the list. However, it attracted objections from the Chinese side.

In the backdrop of controversy over Pelosi’s ongoing visit, Gingrich revealed that threatened China of dropping Beijing from his tour itinerary altogether. The communist nation then agreed but with a condition that Gingrich would not fly directly to Taiwan from the Chinese mainland. Hence, he went on to visit Tokyo before landing on the Taiwanese land.

Gingrich’s Visit To China

In late March 1997, Gingrich started his tour with a three-day visit to the mainland, meeting Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Li Peng. His bold conversations with the Chinese side made headlines during his visit. 

“I told them we will defend Taiwan. Period,” he had said while talking to the media at the end of his China tour. He claimed that the Chinese were made clear that if any forceful change in the status quo with Taiwan would be pursued, America would be obliged to defend the island. However, he also acknowledged the One-China policy of the US. 

Interestingly, known as a stout critic of China over issues of human rights and democracy, and had accused it of “terrorism” in the Taiwan Strait, Gingrich had a lot of good things to say about the communist nation during his visit. 

“You are now dramatically freer than you were 25 years ago,” he had told the students in a speech at the Foreign Affairs College of Beijing, marking China’s economic growth in the last few decades. He had also termed his meeting with the Chinese leadership as “the high point of my public life.”

Gingrich’s Visit To Taiwan

As decided, Gingrich flew to Tokyo before landing in Taiwan on April 2. Although the visit lasted for only three hours, the message it gave was significant. He repeated the same assurance to Taiwan, which was more of a threat to China that America would stand by Taiwan if it faced aggression from the mainland.

This time, the Chinese side released a statement criticising what Gingrich said.

“We don’t need any foreigner making indiscreet remarks on this question,” said a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, adding, “Whatever method is used to resolve the question of Taiwan is an internal affair of China.”

Even after drawing China’s ire, he went on to say before departing from Taiwan that both sides of the Taiwan Strait should understand that the US would take necessary means to stop Beijing from annexing the island by force or intimidation.

Mightier China Now?

This time the response from the Chinese side is markedly different. As it was confirmed that Pelosi would visit Taiwan, Chinese Su-35 fighter jets were taking rounds in the Taiwan Strait. 

Criticising Pelosi’s visit, China termed it “a major political provocation” and vowed to launch “targeted military operations” to thwart any attempt to stoke secessionist sentiments in Taiwan. 

And as soon as Pelosi left the disputed island, the Eastern Theater Command of China’s People’s Liberation Army conducted a military drill in six regions surrounding Taiwan. The Chinese military fired missiles over the island, breaching its air space, probably for the first time.  

The military drills have led to a blockade of the Taiwan Strait, one of the busiest shipping lanes leading to trade routes to Europe and the Middle East. The blockade is expected to continue until the drills conclude on Sunday. 

China has also called off a meeting of its Foreign Minister with his Japanese counterpart in a bid to show its displeasure over a statement by the G7 group that condemned China’s actions over Pelosi’s visit. 

Clearly, China has taken a tough stand this time, riding on its economic and military might. In 1997, it was coming out of diplomatic isolation post the Tiananmen Square massacre and months away of getting handing over Hong Kong to it. 

Now, it is the world’s second strongest economy along with military spending of 293 billion dollars, second only to the US. 

“What we are taking and will be taking are a necessary and timely response and countermeasures which have been fully thought through and fully assessed, to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity, in line with international laws, and a warning to provocateurs,” said China’s Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Hua Chunying while announcing the cancellation of the Foreign Minister’s meet.

“Today’s China is not the old China of 100 years ago that was humiliated and bullied”, she said.