Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen plans to make a two-day detour to California following a trip to meet with Taiwanese diplomats in Central America. During her trip, she will have an “unofficial” meeting with the U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in a move Beijing has said could cause “possible retaliation” from the Chinese government. China has long denied the sovereignty of the Taiwanese state and has gone on record multiple times over its concerns about Taiwan’s budding relationship with Washington. This meeting between McCarthy and Tsai would be significant because it would be the highest-ranking U.S. official that a Taiwanese President has ever personally met with on American soil to date.
WALL STREET JOURNAL: Kevin McCarthy Prepares to Meet Taiwan’s President as Tensions With China Swirl
By Joyu Wang; April 4, 2023
TAIPEI—Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and the Biden administration are heading into the most pivotal event in her closely watched travels through the U.S.—a meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy that will test Beijing’s and Washington’s ability to manage tensions.
Ms. Tsai is set to land in Los Angeles on Tuesday evening for the second of two multiday stopovers in the U.S. on her way to and from visiting Taiwan’s diplomatic partners in Central America. At the top of her agenda in California is a long-anticipated meeting with Mr. McCarthy in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Wednesday that Beijing has warned would lead to unspecified retaliation.
Visits to the U.S. by Taiwanese leaders are labeled as “transits” and considered unofficial, part of Washington’s delicate diplomatic dance with Beijing, which considers Taiwan a part of Chinese territory. As a result, Taiwanese leaders avoid stops in Washington and typically don’t meet with senior U.S. officials.
If the meeting goes ahead as planned, the House speaker would become the highest-level U.S. official to meet a Taiwanese leader on American soil since the practice of transit visits began.
Such a meeting would “be an assault on the political foundation of Sino-U.S. relations,” a spokesperson for the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles said Monday. “This is the first red line that must not be crossed.”
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that the Chinese criticisms “have become increasingly absurd” and that it wouldn’t back down in the face of authoritarian pressure.
Taipei’s increasingly close relationship with Washington has been a growing source of anxiety in Beijing, turning the self-ruled island into the most volatile flashpoint in relations between the world’s two largest economies. China’s Communist Party, which has never ruled Taiwan, nevertheless vows it will one day take control there, by force if necessary. Beijing is expanding and upgrading its military with that possibility in mind, spurring similar moves in Taiwan and the U.S.
With tensions running high, Ms. Tsai’s office and the Biden administration have taken pains to keep the Taiwanese leader largely out of the public eye during her U.S. stopovers.
During an earlier stop in New York, Ms. Tsai made a brief appearance at an out-of-the-way cafe in Brooklyn, where she declined to be interviewed, before accepting an award from the conservative think tank Hudson Institute in a closed-door event.
The White House has repeatedly characterized Ms. Tsai’s U.S. transits, sandwiched around visits to Guatemala and Belize, as being no different than previous transits and urged Beijing not to overreact. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby repeated that message on Monday when asked about Mr. McCarthy’s plans to meet the Taiwanese leader.
“I’m not going to get ahead of where we are right now and speculate about what the Chinese might or might not do. We strongly urge them to not overreact to this, again, because there’s just simply no reason to,” he said.
After Mr. McCarthy’s predecessor as House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, traveled to Taiwan last summer—the highest-ranking U.S. official to do so in a quarter-century—Beijing encircled the island with rocket and ballistic-missile fire and tested its defenses with navy ships and war planes. It was an unusual show of force that sparked new concerns inside the U.S. military about China’s ability to blockade Taiwan.
That episode sent relations between Washington and Beijing into a downward spiral that both capitals have attempted to reverse, with limited success.
Mr. McCarthy expressed interest in visiting Taiwan himself after being named speaker, but the prospect of a repeat of Ms. Pelosi’s trip, and of Beijing’s wargames, unnerved some in Taipei. After considering the risks, members of Ms. Tsai’s decision-making circle worked to persuade Mr. McCarthy to meet with Ms. Tsai in the U.S. instead, according to people familiar with the discussions.
A government official familiar with the discussions attributed the outcome to a high degree of trust between Taipei and Washington.
“It’s an amazing diplomatic move by whoever in the U.S. and Taiwan was able to make that happen,” Lev Nachman, a political scientist who teaches at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, said of Taipei’s persuading Mr. McCarthy to meet in the U.S.
Giving Beijing an excuse to repeat its live-fire drills would have been politically damaging to Ms. Tsai’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which was battered in local elections late last year and is trying to shore up support ahead of presidential elections in January, Mr. Nachman said.
China’s government slapped sanctions on Ms. Pelosi and members of her family, barring any Chinese entity from doing business with them, after her visit to Taiwan. Beijing could do the same to Mr. McCarthy, in addition to intensifying military patrols around Taiwan.
Chinese military analyst Fu Qianshao told China’s nationalistic tabloid Global Times over the weekend that he expected the Chinese military’s response to a McCarthy meeting to be similar to the one it unleashed following Ms. Pelosi’s Taiwan visit.
Asked at a regular press briefing on Tuesday whether China planned to hold military drills in response to the meeting, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said Beijing would closely monitor the situation and “firmly defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Taiwanese military and defense officials have said that they don’t expect China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, to react forcefully but that the island is prepared for that possibility.
Taiwan’s defense ministry said 20 PLA aircraft flew sorties near Taiwanese airspace on Monday, with nine of them crossing the median line of the 100-mile Taiwan Strait separating the island from China. Neither number is remarkable compared with previous Chinese military operations around the island.