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Chinese ambassador says U.S. is provoking China with congressional visits to Taiwan

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Over coffee and sparkling water yesterday, around the white linen dining room table of a high-ceilinged townhouse here in D.C., China's ambassador to the U.S. was holding court. I was one of a number of journalists who came to meet him. My NPR colleague Greg Myre was another. We were all jammed elbow to elbow around the table because, as U.S.-China tensions run higher and higher, we all wanted a chance to question China's man in Washington.

Now, meanwhile, another colleague, Tom Bowman, has been working the Pentagon, talking to senior U.S. military officials about how they see a possible confrontation over Taiwan. So I invited Tom and Greg to both join me and talk through what we're all hearing and learning. Hi there, you two.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right, Greg, you start us off. The ambassador sat down. He talked with us for well over an hour, read from prepared notes, and then took all kinds of questions. What was your main takeaway?

MYRE: Yeah, Ambassador Qin Gang began with this sort of extended speech on why China so strongly objects to U.S. congressional visits to Taiwan. And the bottom line is, anything that's seen as official - part of the actual U.S. government - really does strike a nerve there. And this was a recurring theme throughout his remarks. Now, he referred both to the delegation led by House speaker Nancy Pelosi, which took place earlier this month, and a second delegation that was there just over this past weekend. Let's have a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

QIN GANG: China has always been opposing congressional visits to Taiwan. And the speaker of the House is not a person in the street. I hope that Nancy Pelosi is the last speaker visiting Taiwan.

MYRE: Now, we should note the Biden administration did express some reservations about these visits for that very reason - that it could raise tension. But the administration said that members of Congress - indeed, all Americans - are free to travel as they like. Now, the Chinese ambassador didn't accept this. He said the U.S. Congress was, quote, "part of the government of the U.S." It's not some independent, uncontrollable branch. President Biden may have a slightly different take on that.

KELLY: Yes, he might indeed beg to differ on that one. Yeah, I was struck, Greg, listening to how forcefully he said the current tensions are initiated by the U.S. This is all the U.S. He said the U.S. needs to rethink and reflect on its words. The message I sensed was basically, he wants the U.S. to knock it off, or China's going to be forced to react. And I'll put that one to you, Tom because we have seen China react. They have ratcheted up military drills...

BOWMAN: Absolutely, that's right.

KELLY: ...Around exercises around Taiwan. How do people at the Pentagon see this?

BOWMAN: Well, Mary Louise, the biggest immediate concern with the exercises is someone making a mistake, a miscalculation - basically, some U.S. or Chinese military personnel shooting or hitting something and it escalates. Now, this happened 21 years ago, you may remember, when a U.S. intelligence-collecting aircraft, a P-3, was operating 100 miles off China, was intercepted by Chinese fighters, and one of those fighters, U.S. officials say, knocked into the P-3, forcing an emergency landing in China, where the U.S. crew was held for 10 days - obviously very tense. So that kind of an incident or something even worse keeps people up at night. Now, the longer term, officials say China won't have the military capability to invade Taiwan until 2027. Capability, of course, doesn't mean they'll actually do it.

KELLY: What if China were to do something short of an all-out invasion but still quite significant - say, a naval blockade of Taiwan? How is the U.S. military thinking through what its options would be?

BOWMAN: You know, it's a good question. I think it depends. Would that be part of an overall invasion or just a stand-alone blockade to maybe force some Taiwanese concessions, bring a change of government or something? Now, the U.S. could go to the U.N. and say, this blockade is illegal, violates the movement in international waters. If it's part of an invasion, the U.S. could challenge the blockade militarily. And of course, that could escalate if China fires and hits U.S. ships, for example, there are U.S. casualties. The United States could respond by targeting Chinese missile sites in China. This is, again, why they worry about escalation.

KELLY: Sure.

MYRE: And I'll just jump in there to note that the ambassador specifically mentioned U.S. Navy ships passing through the Strait of Taiwan. He said this is something that clearly gets on the nerves of the Chinese government - and the Taiwan Strait being the waters between the mainland and the island. He said the U.S. has gone way too far with these navigations. And he says this emboldens those in Taiwan who would like to see full independence from China well beyond their current self-governing status.

BOWMAN: And - Mary Louise, if I could quickly add - the U.S. has made these transits through the strait for many, many decades. I'm told another transit by U.S. ships is expected soon. International waters, not Chinese waters, but will China now respond more aggressively, especially given the congressional visits and rising tensions? Again, this gets back to the mistakes and miscalculation that people worried about.

KELLY: You know, one question that's been on a lot of people's minds is what lessons China might be taking from Russia's war in Ukraine. Is it giving them any pause in terms of thinking about staying away from military escalation? Tom, I want to - I put that question to the ambassador yesterday - what lessons are you drawing? He dodged it. Let me put it to you. What are you hearing from people you speak to in terms of what lessons China or the U.S. may be drawing from Ukraine?

BOWMAN: Absolutely. Both China and the U.S. are drawing a lot of lessons from Ukraine - how a major power, through arrogance and hubris, can assume it will be easy to take over a smaller nation, then get stuck in by good defenses. Chinese officials, I'm told, are shocked by the Russian performance, analysts say. Now - getting to the defense of Taiwan - Taiwan is coming up with kind of what Ukraine has - a layer upon layer of defensive weapons and works. They call it a porcupine defense. And Taiwan...

KELLY: Meaning it's so awful and prickly to swallow, you wouldn't even try, yeah.

BOWMAN: And also, interestingly, in Ukraine, the population is against this. It's their land. So the population is rising up against Russia, too. That's very key in something like this. Will the Taiwanese population rise up - some of them, all of them, the majority? Now, I know Taiwan and the U.S. are also working together on further shoring up those defenses. That's going on as we speak.

KELLY: Last word to you, Greg. We hear a lot from the U.S. perspective on what the relationship with China looks like, worsening relations. Just talk us through what you heard in how the ambassador frames the current state of relations.

MYRE: Ambassador Qin was known for his sharp words when he was a spokesman for China's foreign ministry in Beijing, so it's no surprise that he's pretty direct and blunt here in Washington. He arrived about a year ago, and he says he's constantly hearing talk about a fear of China, with China being blamed for many problems in the U.S. He says he doesn't think that's fair. He thinks that China's being misperceived.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

QIN: China is not a threat. It's not a challenge. We have no intention at all to replace the United States, even to destroy United States. So I do hope that people can get rid of this threat phobia. China cannot change United States. And United States cannot change China.

MYRE: In his view, the U.S. is engaging in this pattern of behavior that he says is the main reason for raising tensions and undermining the ties. Now, of course, many U.S. politicians and those in the national security community here say these threats are very real, and they believe that China is driving them.

KELLY: That's two colleagues from our national security team. Greg Myre and Tom Bowman, thanks to you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.