McCarthy meets President Tsai; calls Taiwan a ‘great friend of America’

U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy welcomed Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in a rare high-level meeting on U.S. soil, as China pledges sharp response

Updated - April 06, 2023 10:36 am IST

Published - April 06, 2023 10:13 am IST - SIMI VALLEY

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and the U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy attend a meeting at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in Simi Valley, California, U.S., in this handout picture released on April 6, 2023

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and the U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy attend a meeting at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in Simi Valley, California, U.S., in this handout picture released on April 6, 2023 | Photo Credit: via Reuters

Risking China's anger, U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy hosted Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on Wednesday as a “great friend of America" in a fraught show of U.S. support at a rare high-level, bipartisan meeting on U.S. soil.

Speaking carefully to avoid unnecessarily escalating tensions with Beijing, Ms. Tsai and Mr. McCarthy steered clear of calls from hard-liners in the U.S. for a more confrontational stance toward China in defence of self-ruled Taiwan.

Instead, the two leaders stood side by side in a show of unity at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, acknowledging China's threats against the island government but speaking only of maintaining longstanding U.S. policy.

“America’s support for the people of Taiwan will remain resolute, unwavering and bipartisan,” Mr. McCarthy said at a news conference later.

Peace through strength

He evoked Reagan's peace-through-strength approach to foreign relations and emphasised “this is a bipartisan meeting of members of Congress,” not any one political party. He said U.S.-Taiwan ties are stronger than at any other point in his life.

He and Ms. Tsai spoke to reporters with Reagan's Air Force One as a backdrop.

She said the “unwavering support reassures the people of Taiwan that we are not isolated."

Still, the formal trappings of the meeting, and the senior rank of some of the elected officials in the delegation from Congress, 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.

More than a dozen Democratic and Republican lawmakers, including the House's third-ranking Democrat, joined Republican McCarthy for the daylong talks.

Self defence

During a private session they spoke of the importance of Taiwan’s self-defence, of fostering robust trade and economic ties and supporting the island government’s ability to participate in the international community, Ms. Tsai said.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen meets U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, U.S. April 5, 2023.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen meets U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, U.S. April 5, 2023. | Photo Credit: Reuters

They made no mention of calls from hard-liners in and out of Congress for a greater U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defense if China should attack.

Ms. Tsai said she stressed to lawmakers Taiwan’s commitment “to defending the peaceful status quo where the people in Taiwan may continue to thrive in a free and open society.”

But she also warned, “It is no secret that today the peace that we have maintained and the democracy which have worked hard to build are facing unprecedented challenges."

“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.”

Key provider

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 Ms. Tsai, this 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. After then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan last August, China responded with its largest live-fire drills in decades, including firing a missile over the island.

Sharp response

Chinese officials have pledged a sharp but unspecified response to the meeting with McCarthy.

Later Wednesday, China said it “firmly opposes and strongly condemns” Ms. Tsai’s visit, in a statement by China's official Xinhua News Agency.

China will take “resolute and forceful measures to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the statement said, citing an unnamed Foreign Ministry spokesperson. It urged the U.S. “not to walk further down the wrong and dangerous road.”

There was no sign of a large-scale military response as of Thursday morning as China had done previously.

Chinese vessels were engaged in a joint patrol and inspection operation in the Taiwan Strait that will last three days, state media said Thursday morning. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said Wednesday evening it had tracked the China’s Shandong aircraft carrier passing through the Bashi Strait, to Taiwan’s southeast.

The Biden administration insists there is nothing provocative about this visit by Ms. Tsai, which is the latest of a half-dozen to the U.S.

"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," Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Wednesday during travel in Europe.

Rising U.S.-China tensions

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 Ms. Pelosi's visit and again this winter with the cross-U.S. journey of what the U.S. says was a Chinese spy balloon.

Democratic Rep. Pelosi said in a statement, "Today’s meeting between President Tsai of Taiwan and Speaker McCarthy is to be commended for its leadership, its bipartisan participation and its distinguished and historic venue.”

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.

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, and they steer clear of Washington.

Mr. McCarthy, the newly elected House speaker, is making an early foray into foreign policy.

Joining him for the meeting were the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on a new House Select Committee on China, along with the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee that handles tax policy important to Taiwan, among others.

Seated to McCarthy’s right was the third-ranking House Democrat, Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, who spoke of the long history of U.S.-Taiwan cooperation and an “overwhelming bipartisan commitment” in Congress, working with the Biden administration, to strengthen the relationship.

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