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The fallout continues from Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The fallout continues from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan this week. China continues live-fire military drills around the island of Taiwan. And today it announced sanctions on Pelosi and on members of her immediate family. Meanwhile, the White House summoned China's ambassador to express its concerns about these military drills and the risks of further escalation. To talk about the latest on these tensions, I'm joined now by NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and NPR's Emily Feng, who covers China. Hey to both of you.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey.

CHANG: Hey. OK, so let's start with you, Franco. What was the White House position at this meeting with the Chinese ambassador today?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, this is all part of a formal diplomatic protest, you know, condemning the escalating tensions. John Kirby, the spokesman for the National Security Council, told us this afternoon that the White House is trying to keep the lines of communication open. But he blamed China for the tensions, for using Pelosi's visit as an excuse for these exercises. Here's a bit how he described it.

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JOHN KIRBY: There's nothing here for the United States to rectify. The Chinese can go a long way to taking the tensions down simply by stopping these provocative military exercises and ending the rhetoric.

ORDOÑEZ: And he said the administration won't back down. And the United States has left an aircraft carrier in the region to monitor the situation. But he also said that the administration is delaying some ballistic missile tests that the United States had planned in order to prevent further misinterpretation.

CHANG: OK. Emily, can you just catch us up here on, like, all the different ways China has been retaliating so far after Pelosi's trip to Taiwan?

FENG: There's a lot. They've responded on the diplomatic front, and they've also responded on a military front. So diplomatically in Beijing, the foreign ministry of China has summoned the U.S. ambassador there to dress him down. China's also summoned ambassadors from the G-7 countries, notably Japan. But the much more serious and alarming retaliation has been on the military front. China's in the second day of these military drills in six zones that, if you look on a map, completely encircle Taiwan. And these zones are chosen to block access to Taiwan's key airports and naval ports. There's also been 10 Chinese destroyers sailing around Taiwan, dozens of Chinese fighter jets flying around the Taiwan Strait. And some of these planes, Taiwan says, are actually crossing the median dividing line onto Taiwan's side of the strait.

CHANG: Wow.

FENG: But most alarmingly, Taiwan says China has test fired at least 11 missiles that landed in waters around Taiwan. China and Taiwan technically are still in the middle of a civil war, but the last time missiles were fired towards Taiwan was in 1996.

CHANG: Right.

FENG: But they didn't land nearly as close to Taiwan as they did this week.

CHANG: I mean, how much more intense are we expecting this to get? Because this week, the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told NPR that he hopes China, quote, "avoids the kind of escalation that could lead to a mistake or miscalculation." How much is China threatening escalation right now, Emily?

FENG: They say there is a risk. It's put out an eight-point list today cutting off what few remaining threads of U.S.-China cooperation still existed. And today Jing Quan, a Chinese foreign ministry official in Washington, warned there could be more escalation.

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JING QUAN: We have pointed out that it is the U.S. side that is the troublemaker for peace and the stability of the Taiwan Strait and the region. They should not take escalating actions and make further mistakes. This is to avoid pushing China-U.S. relations down the dangerous track of conflict.

FENG: You've mentioned already these sanctions against Nancy Pelosi and her immediate family. But among other sanctions, China says it is cutting down any calls between defense leaders of the two countries. And this is really risky because during tense regional situations, analysts do say a high level of communication between military leaders and political leaders is key to preventing further escalation. So right now there's no clear way forward because China is projecting this conflicting message. They say they want cooperation with the U.S., but they've now cut off all remaining channels.

CHANG: And it's very confusing sometimes. Franco, something I've been wondering - did the White House actually approve of the speaker's visit? Like, were they happy with her going?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, officially, the White House says that she had every right to make the trip, but there's no question that it made things more complicated. I mean, for days, John Kirby has been telling reporters that the U.S. policy on Taiwan has not changed. That policy is to acknowledge Beijing's view that it has sovereignty over Taiwan, even as the U.S. considers the island's status to be unsettled. But high-profile visits like that of Pelosi also send confusing signals. You know, the United States does have unofficial relations with Taiwan. It does a lot of trade with Taiwan. It sells weapons to Taiwan and overall is a big champion of its democratic way of government. And Biden also has repeatedly said the U.S. would come to Taiwan's defense if China attacked, though he's had to walk those statements back.

CHANG: Well, OK. Something that I'm also curious about that we've mentioned already is the White House is saying it wants to keep lines of communication open with China. But I understand now, like, some of the communication between the U.S. military and China's military has stopped. So how can these two sides actually keep talking?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, the White House says there's still some communication going on between the two militaries, but Kirby says it is important that they be able to pick up the phone easily when needed. And China has cut off some talks with the administration on key issues like climate. That's traditionally been a topic where the two governments have had some engagement. And, you know, the White House hit back, charging Beijing with not just punishing the United States but also punishing the world. John Kirby did express some optimism that the two superpowers would eventually resume some bilateral relations, but he said not now. He said the focus right now is on trying to reduce tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

CHANG: Well, Emily, where do you see the U.S.-China relationship going from here?

FENG: It is at a complete standstill. Even on issues that have zero connection to the tensions with Taiwan and China right now, that cooperation has stopped. For example, China said it was going to suspend all cooperation it had with the U.S. on combating narcotics enforcement. Think fentanyl, much of which - its ingredients, come from China still. So expect any other progress in spheres like the media or cultural cooperation to stop, as well. And what's really worrying is that these two countries are talking past one another about what they think the issues really are. China, as you just heard, characterizes the problem as the U.S. treating Taiwan like a country. But the U.S. says the problem is Chinese coercion. I will note the only people who don't seem worried right now about tensions are people in Taiwan...

CHANG: (Laughter).

FENG: ...Because basically everyone I know there has been saying, we welcome Pelosi's visit. We've been living with the threat of invasion from China for over 70 years, and we're not worried about war.

CHANG: That is NPR's Emily Feng and Franco Ordoñez. Thank you to both of you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

FENG: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.