Taiwan’s president meets with McCarthy after warnings from China

Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and a bipartisan group of House lawmakers met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Wednesday as she winds down her trip to the United States amid escalating tensions between the two democracies and China.

Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., is historic: Taiwan’s president has not met with a political leader in the line of presidential succession on U.S. soil since the United States opened diplomatic relations with China in 1979. At the time, the United States agreed that it would break off formal ties with Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory, but it has in the decades since maintained highly choreographed unofficial relations with Taiwan.

“It is no secret that today the peace that we have maintained and the democracy which [we] have worked hard to build are facing unprecedented challenges,” Tsai said in brief remarks with McCarthy after their meeting. “We once again find ourselves in a world where democracy is under threat and the urgency of keeping the beacon of freedom shining cannot be understated.”

The visit marks the culmination of an eight-year effort to raise Taiwan’s international profile and strengthen relationships with countries that share democratic values with Taipei, even if they do not have formal diplomatic ties. Central to that strategy has been normalizing high-level exchanges with the United States.

Tsai said she had reiterated to congressional leaders Wednesday morning Taiwan’s commitment to “defending the peaceful status quo, where the people of Taiwan may continue to strive in a free and open society.”

Tsai’s stop in California also marks the end of her unofficial meetings with top political leaders throughout the United States that came ahead of a trip to Central American countries that maintain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Several Democratic and Republican lawmakers said Wednesday that they met with Tsai last week during her stopover in New York City. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said he and Tsai met while she was in New York on Friday, noting in a statement that their encounter resulted in “a very productive conversation about the mutual security and economic interests between America and Taiwan.”

Tsai also met with a bipartisan group of senators — including Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) — in New York on Friday, Ernst’s office confirmed Wednesday.

In a joint news release, the senators said they discussed their support for Taiwan, as well as the importance of deterring Beijing from invading the self-governing democracy. The Chinese Communist Party has never ruled Taiwan but considers it to be part of China, to be taken by force if necessary.

“I’m glad a bipartisan group of senators — two veterans and an active member of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves — had the opportunity to show our support for Taiwan during a meeting with President Tsai last week,” Sullivan said. “It’s important when a leader of this important island democracy travels to the United States that dictators in Beijing are not allowed to dictate who Americans can meet with, especially on American soil.”

Although both House leaders will have met with Tsai by Wednesday evening, neither Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) nor Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is recovering from a fall, have.

Both the White House and Taipei have emphasized that a Taiwanese leader making such stops in the United States is not new. For example, Tsai met with Sen. Ted Cruz (R) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in Houston en route to Central America in 2017. Beijing, however, has threatened unspecified retaliation if Tsai meets with McCarthy, claiming such a meeting would cross a “red line.”

Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tsai’s stopovers in the United States were “nothing new” and no cause for further escalation.

“Beijing should not use the transits as an excuse to take any actions, to ratchet up tension, to further push at changing the status quo,” Blinken said. “And our objective remains the same: to have peace, to have stability across the Taiwan Strait, and to ensure that any differences that exist between the mainland and Taiwan are resolved peacefully.”

√One congressional aide, echoing senior administration officials, said: “Tsai’s visit is not any different from previous visits by [Taiwanese presidents] to the United States. We’re not giving giant speeches. Nobody here is talking about Beijing very much. This has been a productive trip without being unnecessarily escalatory.”

Hu Xijin, former editor of the state-run Global Times, dismissed the idea that meeting in California would be less provocative, saying that China “must not lower our posture.”

But Taiwan, too, does not want to give ground when China is doing “everything within their power to continue to strangle Taiwan’s international space, inclusive of Taiwan’s relations with the United States,” said Vincent Chao, a former D.C.-based Taiwanese diplomat. “It’s important to show that, like China, Taiwan and the United States have red lines as well,” which include not backtracking on high-level meetings that happened before, he said.

House Republicans have continually warned about the threat China poses to the United States, a message that has only escalated since they gained the chamber’s majority this year. They overwhelmingly voted to condemn China for deploying spy balloons over the United States early this year and to establish a new committee tasked with thwarting the Chinese Communist Party’s global influence. But the defense of Taiwan, especially against the backdrop of Russia invading Ukraine last year, has been largely bipartisan, including a rare coalescing of support by Republicans when they endorsed then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to the country last year.

Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), the top two lawmakers overseeing the panel on China’s influence, and other members of the committee will meet with Tsai on Wednesday with McCarthy.

McCarthy has remained intent on prioritizing Taiwan, mentioning last year that he would “love” to visit at some point. Taiwanese officials have advised McCarthy’s staff, according to people familiar with the matter, that a trip this year would be exploited for political purposes by the opposition Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang.

In response to reporters’ questions last month about the upcoming meeting, McCarthy said “China can’t tell me where or when to go [to Taiwan].”

“If the president happens to be in America, then I’m going to meet with her,” he said.

After his meeting with Tsai on Wednesday, McCarthy said he believed the bond between the United States and Taiwan was stronger than ever before.

“Taiwan is a successful democracy, a thriving economy and a global leader in health and science,” he said. “The friendship between the people of Taiwan and America is a matter of profound importance to the free world, and it is critical to maintain economic freedom, peace and regional stability.”

As chairman of the committee investigating the CCP, Gallagher said his main takeaway from visiting Taiwan earlier this year was “the urgency of arming Taiwan” now, which he sees as the “best chance of preventing an invasion of Taiwan, and of essentially preventing World War III.”

In a speech to the Hudson Institute last week, Tsai underscored that Taiwan’s exclusion from the international community “cannot be continued.”

“Taiwan needs the support of other democratic countries to assist us in participating in international organizations,” she said.

On Monday, Tsai told the National Assembly of Belize, one of the 13 states to still formally recognize Taiwan, that “some countries try to destroy our friendship, but we are still bound together based on shared values.”

McCarthy’s meeting with Taiwan’s president puts U.S. on alert

China has accused Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party of covertly supporting Taiwan’s formal independence and intensified military threats, regularly flying large numbers of fighter jets close to Taiwanese airspace and sending warships across what had for decades been an informal boundary down the middle of the Taiwan Strait.

China responded to the Taiwan visit by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in August with its greatest display of military might since the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in the 1990s. In what Taipei called blockade simulation, it sent warships to drill all around Taiwan and fired missiles high over the main island and into Japanese waters.

One U.S. official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity, said Wednesday that China has also placed amphibious forces, helicopter forces and long-range artillery on alert, and that an aircraft carrier group had been deployed.

In recent days, Chinese experts warned of a similar military display should Tsai meet with McCarthy. The official stressed that the U.S. government does not know how China intends to respond to the McCarthy-Tsai meeting, and that any response will largely depend on how President Xi Jinping views the meeting.

“They certainly have set the table to respond,” the same official said. It may not be the same as in August, when China sent ballistic missiles over Taiwan, and closed off areas in the sea around Taiwan in what some analysts said might be an attempt to simulate a blockade. “They can do a lot of different things now,” the official said.

Taiwan’s defense ministry said on Twitter that it was monitoring the movements of a Chinese aircraft carrier and other naval vessels that had entered Taiwanese waters while en route to a training exercise in the western Pacific.

In a briefing with reporters Wednesday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said he couldn’t confirm “the physical individual movements of Chinese military assets.”

“Our position remains the same,” Kirby said. “There’s no reason for the Chinese to overreact in any way.”

Kirby said the United States was watching “as closely as we can” and would “make sure, regardless, we … have the requisite capabilities … to preserve peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.”

Despite China’s nationalist rhetoric, each side appears to be taking steps to avoid serious fallout, according to Su Tzu-yun, a military analyst at the government-funded Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taiwan.

Su cited an announcement of a special operation in the Taiwan Strait from the Maritime Safety Administration of Fujian province, which may indicate Beijing is attempting to signal resolve without resorting to military exercises. “They are not sending the PLA but the coast guard to both underscore sovereignty and also avoid military escalation,” he said.

U.S. says Taiwan president is just passing through. China’s not amused.

A dramatic show of strength by China could backfire. Beijing is hoping that the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, which favors closer cross-strait trade and exchanges, wins Taiwan’s presidential election next year. Fresh aggression from Beijing could create support for the DPP’s strategy of resisting China and deal a blow to the opposition’s campaign to relieve tensions through talks with Beijing.

Those competing narratives were captured in a trip by Taiwan’s former president Ma Ying-jeou to China as Tsai was in the Americas. The retired Kuomintang politician, ostensibly on a personal trip to visit the home of his ancestors, sparked controversy when he said that Taiwan was part of “one China” — a position that is increasingly unpopular in Taiwan.

Speaking at Hunan University, Ma cited revisions to the constitution of the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name, to claim that Taipei’s official position is that the “mainland” and Taiwan are separate zones within a single country. He also noted that the People’s Republic of China makes a similar claim about Taiwan being a sacred part of Chinese territory.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, the government body in charge of managing relations with Beijing, rebuked Ma for “belittling” Taiwan and ignoring the fact that Taiwan has never been part of the People’s Republic of China.

Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan, Missy Ryan in Brussels, and Liz Goodwin in Washington contributed to this report.

1: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/04/05/tsai-kevin-mccarthy-taiwan/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=wp_world

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