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US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi was due on Monday to kick off an Asia tour that has been shrouded in secrecy following an escalation in tensions with China over Taiwan.
With no word yet if Pelosi will make a stop on the island, AFP journalists saw a motorcade believed to be carrying her in Singapore, where she is scheduled to meet the prime minister and the president.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore also has Pelosi listed as attending a cocktail reception later on Monday.
Her Asia itinerary also includes Malaysia, South Korea and Japan, but a possible Taiwan visit has dominated attention in the run-up.
Reports about a plan to visit the island have enraged Beijing and caused unease even in the White House with President Joe Biden trying to lower the temperature with China.
Beijing considers self-ruled Taiwan its territory — to be seized one day, by force if necessary — and has made increasingly stark warnings that it would regard a visit by Pelosi as a major provocation.
Pelosi’s office finally confirmed her Asia trip in a statement on Sunday once her plane was in the air, following days of US media speculation and the speaker refusing to confirm her itinerary.
“The trip will focus on mutual security, economic partnership and democratic governance in the Indo-Pacific region,” it said, referring to the Asia-Pacific.
“Our delegation will hold high-level meetings to discuss how we can further advance our shared interests and values.”
The statement did not mention Taiwan.
But visits by US politicians and officials to Taiwan are usually kept secret until delegations land because of sensitivities with Beijing.
Pelosi is accompanied by Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Gregory Meeks, as well as members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Armed Services Committee.
Separately, thousands of Indonesian and American troops began a two-week joint military exercise on Monday.
Washington has said the drills are not aimed at any country, though the United States and its allies have expressed growing concern about China’s increasing assertiveness in the Pacific.
‘The wrong target’
Taiwan’s 23 million people have long lived with the possibility of an invasion but that threat has intensified under Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The United States maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity” over whether it would intervene militarily were China to invade.
While it diplomatically recognises Beijing over Taipei, it also backs Taiwan’s democratic government and opposes any forced change to the island’s status.
American officials often make discreet visits to Taiwan to show support but a Pelosi trip would be higher-profile than any in recent history.
As the House speaker, she is third in line for the US presidency and one of the country’s most powerful politicians.
The last House speaker to visit was Newt Gingrich in 1997.
Biden and Xi had a tense phone call last week that was clouded by disagreements over Taiwan.
Xi issued an oblique warning to the United States not to “play with fire” over the island.
The feverish speculation about Pelosi’s Taiwan plans has coincided with an uptick in military activity across the region, highlighting the combustibility of the issue.
US officials have sought to play down the significance of a Pelosi visit, urging calm from Chinese leaders.
Kharis Templeman, a Taiwan expert at the Hoover Institution, said Beijing “misread US politics and screwed their signalling up” with its intense reaction.
“They picked the wrong target. Biden doesn’t control the Speaker or any other member of Congress,” he tweeted Sunday.
“They’ve drawn the line at the Speaker of the House, on a visit rich in symbolism but of limited practical value. And now it will be politically costly for either Pelosi not to go, or Xi not to respond with something dramatic.”
In Taiwan, there have been mixed views about the prospect of Pelosi visiting, but figures from both the ruling party and the main opposition have said the island should not cave to Chinese pressure.
“If Pelosi were to cancel or postpone the trip, it would be a victory for the Chinese government and for Xi as it would show that the pressure it has exerted has achieved some desired effects,” Hung Chin-fu, from Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University, told AFP.