Pelosi starts closely-watched Asia visit in Singapore

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Singapore: U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi was set to kick-off a tour of four Asian countries on Monday in Singapore. The visit comes amid intense speculation that she may risk the wrath of Beijing by also visiting Taiwan, the self-ruled island claimed by China.

On Sunday, Pelosi’s office announced that she was leading a Congressional delegation to the region that would include visits to Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan. It made no mention of Taiwan.

China views visits by U.S. officials to Taiwan as sending an encouraging signal to the pro-independence camp in the island. Washington does not have official diplomatic ties with Taiwan but is bound by law to provide the island with the means to defend itself.

A visit by Pelosi, who is third in the line of succession to the presidency and a long-time critic of China, would come amid worsening ties between Washington and Beijing. Republican Newt Gingrich was the last House speaker to visit Taiwan, in 1997.

During a phone call last Thursday, President Chinese Xi Jinping warned his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden that Washington should abide by the one-China principle and “those who play with fire will perish by it”.

Biden told Xi that U.S. policy on Taiwan had not changed and that Washington strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

On Monday, Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang did not directly respond when asked whether Pelosi will visit on Thursday, as local media have speculated.

“We always warmly welcome visits to our country by distinguished foreign guests,” he told reporters in Taipei.

On Sunday, Chinese air force spokesman Shen Jinke was quoted by state media as saying that Beijing would “resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Shen said at a military airshow that the air force has many types of fighter jets capable of circling “the precious island of our motherland”, referring to Taiwan.

Beijing considers Taiwan to be part of its territory and has never renounced using force to bring the island under its control.

Pelosi’s Asian tour comes at a politically sensitive time for Chinese and U.S. leaders.

Xi is expected to secure a precedent-breaking third leadership term later this year during a once-in-five-years congress of the ruling Communist Party. In the United States, Biden’s Democratic Party faces a hard fight to retain control of the House of Representatives at November’s midterm elections.

Last Wednesday, Biden told reporters he thought the U.S. military believed a Pelosi visit to Taiwan was “not a good idea right now”.