Defying Beijing’s repeated threats, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy presented a carefully crafted united front in California on Wednesday against an increasingly powerful and aggressive China.
The rare high-level bilateral meeting for Taiwan is a timely show of US support as China steps up diplomatic and military pressure on the sovereign island it claims as part of its territory.
However, the meeting also contains great dangers. the last time Tsai met with the speaker of the US House of Representatives during Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei last August, Beijing retaliated by conducting days of large-scale military exercises and firing missiles at the island, raising tensions between them. highest in decades.
This time, Beijing’s initial response seems more subdued. His foreign ministry condemned the meeting and vowed to take “strong and decisive measures”, although this has so far not translated into any concrete military response.
In an effort to provoke Beijing and avoid triggering another military crisis, US and Taiwanese officials portrayed Tsai’s visit as nothing out of the ordinary, citing multiple precedents for the Taiwanese leader transiting through US territory.
However, the political significance of Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy is inevitable. It is the highest-level audience a sitting Taiwanese president has received on American soil, officially second only to a vice president.
Their meeting at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library underscored the strengthening of ties between Taipei and Washington, although they remain informal in nature.
“I believe our bond is stronger now than at any point or time in my life,” McCarthy said at a news conference after the meeting. “America’s support for the Taiwanese people will remain resolute, unwavering and bipartisan.”
Tsai reciprocated her pledge of solidarity, noting that “we are stronger when we are together.”
“In our efforts to protect our way of life, Taiwan is grateful to have the United States on our side,” he said, standing next to McCarthy with Reagan’s Air Force One in the background. “Constant and unwavering support has reassured the people of Taiwan that we are not isolated and not alone.”
Under Washington’s long-standing “One China” policy, the US accepts China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but has never formally recognized Beijing’s claim to the island of 23 million people. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, it is also legally bound to provide the democratic island with the means to defend itself.
Austin Wang, assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the meeting showed the importance of the Taiwan issue in US politics.
“Whether it’s worth the risk depends on what happens next,” he said. “If the meeting is a cornerstone for accelerating further economic and military cooperation … (then it is) worth the risk.”
After Wednesday’s meeting, McCarthy tweeted that the United States should continue to increase its support for Taiwan. “We must continue arms sales to Taiwan and ensure that such sales reach Taiwan in a timely manner. We must also strengthen our economic cooperation, particularly in trade and technology,” he wrote on Twitter.
Beijing’s ruling Communist Party sees Taiwan as an integral part of its territory, although it has never controlled it, and has vowed to “reunify” the island with mainland China, by force if necessary.
To undermine its legitimacy, Beijing has spent decades dwindling Taipei’s diplomatic allies and blocking its participation in international organizations, including the World Health Organization.
The US has maintained informal relations with Taiwan since shifting diplomatic relations to Beijing decades ago.
Last month, Honduras also switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, leaving the island democracy with only 13 allies.
But instead of becoming increasingly isolated from the global community, Taiwan has steadily built its international influence, expanding informal ties with friendly Western countries while emphasizing shared values while maintaining ties with official allies.
Tsai’s high-level meeting in California followed a trip to Central America where she met with allies in Guatemala and Belize to promote “democracy and prosperity.”
Tsai addressed the parliaments of both countries and signed agreements to deepen their partnership. During a stopover in New York during the trip, he also received a global leadership award from the Hudson Institute, a US think tank based in Washington.
Analysts say that since Tsai became president in 2016, his government has increasingly shifted the focus of Taiwanese diplomacy to developing informal ties with Western democracies to compensate for the loss of official recognition.
Last month, Taiwan welcomed a 150-strong Czech delegation led by the speaker of the lower house of the Czech parliament, as a growing number of European countries expressed concern about Taiwan’s future after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
While President Tsai is making a high-profile trip to the Americas, his predecessor, Ma Yingju, is also making a historic visit to mainland China, the first such trip by a current or former Taiwanese president since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. .
Amid growing pressure from Beijing, their parallel visits have come to represent different visions of the future of self-governing democracy.
Taiwan is set to elect a new president next year, raising questions about the island’s political future. After serving two terms, Tsai is ineligible for re-election, but his vice president, William Lai, is expected to run.
Having lost two presidential elections to Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party, the Kuomintang, or KMT, is doing everything it can to avoid another defeat.
“We know in Taiwan that China is the most important fundamental issue in every presidential election,” said Lev Nachman, assistant professor of politics at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
The 2024 election will be no different, and it’s just how the China issue is shaping up, he said.
“We are already seeing that, for example, the KMT is trying to present this as a case of war and peace, where the KMT brings peace and the DPP brings war.”
The KMT is widely seen as friendlier to Beijing than the DPP.
When he was president from 2008 to 2016, Ma focused on establishing greater economic cooperation between Beijing and Taipei. The proposal sparked widespread protests, with protesters occupying Taiwan’s legislature for weeks.
In 2015, Ma held a historic meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Singapore, the first such meeting between political leaders from both sides of the Taiwan Strait in decades.
During his visit to China, Ma met with the director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, citing the importance of maintaining cross-strait exchanges and “doing everything” to avoid conflict.
“People on both sides of the Straits belong to the same Chinese nation and are descendants of the Chinese people,” he said last week.
Unlike Ma, Tsai does not accept that Taiwan and China belong to the same nation. Instead, he repeatedly emphasized that the future of the island can be decided only by its own people.
“We will continue to strengthen our national defense and show our determination to defend ourselves to ensure that no one can force Taiwan to follow the path that China has charted for us,” he said during National Day celebrations in 2021.