U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi meets with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei, Taiwan, on Wednesday. Pelosi visited the island despite strong warnings of military action from China. Photo courtesy of Taiwan Presidential Office/UPI | License Photo
Aug. 3 (UPI) -- U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi left Taiwan on Wednesday evening after a high-stakes visit as a furious China conducted combat exercises nearby and slapped economic sanctions on the democratic island.
Pelosi met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen hours earlier and vowed that America's determination to protect democracy in Taiwan "remains ironclad."
"Now more than ever, America's solidarity with Taiwan is crucial," Pelosi said while receiving Taiwan's highest civilian honor, the Order of Propitious Clouds, from Tsai.
"Today, our delegation came to Taiwan to make unequivocally clear: We will not abandon our commitment to Taiwan and we're proud of our enduring friendship," she said.
Pelosi and a bipartisan congressional delegation arrived in Taipei late Tuesday after weeks of angry warnings against the trip from Beijing, which conducted combat drills near the island before and during her visit.
The California Democrat became the first House speaker to visit since Republican Newt Gingrich met then-President Lee Teng-hui in 1997.
Pelosi said Wednesday that China, which has worked to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and block it from joining international organizations, cannot stop officials from visiting.
"I just hope that it's really clear that while China has stood in the way of Taiwan participating and going to certain meetings, that they understand that they will not stand in the way of people coming to Taiwan," she said at a press briefing after a meeting with Tsai.
Beijing announced Tuesday night that it was launching a series of "targeted military operations" around Taiwan, including joint naval and air force training exercises, live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait and missile tests in the waters off the east coast of the island.
The military's Eastern Theater Command said Wednesday that it conducted "actual combat joint exercises" involving its navy, air force and rocket force during the delegation's visit.
Despite China's provocations, the Pelosi visit was widely popular with the public, Chen Fang-Yu, assistant professor of political science at Soochow University in Taiwan, told UPI.
"It's a very important signal from the U.S," he said. "Taiwan is always happy to see a high-level visit from a foreign country, especially the U.S. This [visit] will have a very strong effect of reassurance for Taiwanese people."
Chen said the brief trip will also have a lasting impact by encouraging other democratic countries to stand up to Beijing's threats and move closer to Taipei.
"It will open the gate wider for Taiwan in international politics," he said. "The U.S. -- the most important ally of Taiwan -- is showing that everyone should become more engaged with Taiwan with higher level officials."
Taiwan's defense ministry said Wednesday that China's military exercises "are an attempt to threaten our important ports and urban areas and unilaterally undermine regional peace and stability."
"This move will not help China's international image," it added.
Beijing also retaliated economically, restricting imports on items including citrus fruits and frozen mackerel from Taiwan and banning the export of natural sand, the country's Taiwan Affairs Office announced Wednesday.
China views Taiwan as a wayward province that it has vowed to retake by force, if necessary.
Washington's concerns over Beijing's intentions have grown in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ahead of Pelosi's arrival on Tuesday, China flew 21 warplanes, including more than a dozen fighter jets, through the island's air defense identification zone.
Pelosi also met with members of Taiwan's parliament on Wednesday and praised the self-governing island of 23 million for being "one of the freest societies in the world."
She said that new legislation to strengthen the U.S. semiconductor industry in order to better compete with China will offer "greater opportunity for U.S.-Taiwan economic cooperation."
Tsai thanked Pelosi and the delegation for visiting "under such challenging circumstances" and called the trip "a demonstration of unwavering support to the people of Taiwan."
"The speaker's presence here in Taiwan serves to boost public confidence in the strength of our democracy as a foundation to our partnership with the United States," she said.
"Military exercises are unnecessary responses," Tsai added, referring to China. "Taiwan has always been open to constructive dialogue."
The delegation's next stop is South Korea, where Pelosi is slated to meet with her counterpart in Seoul, National Assembly Speaker Kim Jin-pyo, on Thursday. The group also will visit Japan before heading back to the United States.