Risking China’s ire, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy welcomed Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen to a high-level meeting on U.S. soil as a “great friend of America” on Wednesday in a fraught show of U.S. support.
More than a dozen Democratic and Republican lawmakers, including the House’s third-ranking Democrat, joined Republican McCarthy for the talks at southern California’s Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, against a backdrop of rising tensions between the U.S. and China.
The members of Congress rose to their feet to greet the Taiwanese leader at a long table lined with bouquets. The formal trappings of the meeting, and the senior rank of some of the elected officials, in themselves threatened to run afoul of China’s position that any interaction between U.S. and Taiwanese officials is a challenge to China’s claim of sovereignty over the island.
McCarthy said he wanted the Taiwan president to see that “this is a bipartisan meeting of members of Congress,” not any one political party.
“We will continue to find ways for the people of America and Taiwan to work together to promote economic freedom, democracy, peace and stability in Asia,” the House speaker said.
The United States broke off official ties with Taiwan in 1979 while formally establishing diplomatic relations with the Beijing government. The U.S. acknowledges a “one-China” policy in which Beijing lays claim to Taiwan, but it does not endorse China’s claim to the island and remains Taiwan’s key provider of military and defense assistance.
For Tsai, it was the most sensitive stop on a weeklong journey meant to shore up alliances with the U.S. and Central America. The U.S. House speaker is second in line of succession to the president. No speaker is known to have met with a Taiwan president on U.S. soil since the U.S. broke off formal diplomatic relations.
China has reacted to past trips by Taiwanese presidents through the U.S., and to past trips to Taiwan by senior U.S. officials, with shows of military force.
The Chinese responded to a visit by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan last August with its largest live-fire drills in decades, including firing a missile over the island.
Chinese officials have pledged a sharp but unspecified response to the meeting with McCarthy. There was no immediate reaction from China on Wednesday, a holiday there.
However, Chinese vessels started a joint patrol and inspection operation in the central and northern waters of the Taiwan Strait, state media announced Wednesday morning. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said Wednesday evening it had also tracked the Chinese Army’s Shandong aircraft carrier passing through the Bashi Strait, to Taiwan’s southeast.
China’s “deliberate action has jeopardized regional stability and caused tension in Taiwan Strait,” Taiwan’s defense ministry said. “However, external pressures will not hinder our determination to move toward the world & defend our country.”
The Biden administration insists there is nothing provocative about this visit by Tsai, which is the latest of a half-dozen.
“The first thing to emphasize is that these transits by high-level Taiwanese authorities are nothing new,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Wednesday during travel in Europe. “They are private, they are unofficial, but they are nothing new.”
“Given that, Beijing should not use the transits as an excuse to take any actions, to ratchet up tensions, to further push at changing the status quo,” Blinken said.
“There’s no reason for the Chinese to overreact in any way,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday. “We’ll watch this as closely as we can.”
The Taiwan president’s visit to America comes as China, the U.S. and its allies are strengthening their military positions and readiness for any confrontation between the two sides, with Taiwan and its claim to sovereignty a main flashpoint. Confrontation between the U.S. and China, a rising power increasingly seeking to assert its influence abroad under President Xi Jinping, surged with Pelosi’s visit and again this winter with the cross-U.S. journey of what the U.S. says was a Chinese spy balloon.
Taiwan and China split in 1949 after a civil war and have no official relations, although they are linked by billions of dollars in trade and investment. China regularly flies fighter planes and bombers near Taiwan to emphasize its stance that the island is obliged to eventually unite with the mainland, by force if necessary.
When President Jimmy Carter formally established diplomatic relations with the Beijing government. Congress responded by writing into law that the U.S. would nonetheless retain close ties with Taiwan.
For their part, Taiwanese officials in the United States – and Taiwanese presidents on a succession of visits – aim for a delicate balance of maintaining warm relations with their powerful American allies, without overstepping their in-between status in the U.S , or unnecessarily provoking China.
To that end, no Taiwanese flag flies over the former Taiwan Embassy in Washington.
Taiwanese presidents call their stops in the U.S. “transits” rather than visits. They avoid Washington on their itineraries as well as any public meetings between their top-level officials and those of the U.S. on American U.S. soil.
McCarthy, who has seldom made forays into foreign policy, is trying to steer Republicans – and many Democrats – into taking a tougher approach to China.
As the newly elected House speaker, he started a Select Committee on China that is probing many aspects of Chinese actions in the U.S. and abroad. Joining him for the bipartisan meeting were the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on that panel, along with the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee that handles tax policy important to Taiwan, and lawmakers who are military veterans and members of the Armed Services Committee, among others.
The venue, at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley about 50 miles outside of Los Angeles and near McCarthy’s own home district, evokes an era when the Republican Party played a more substantial role on global matters. In contrast, McCarthy’s GOP includes a strong non-interventionist wing that is more skeptical of involving the U.S. overseas.