Defying Beijing’s repeated threats, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy presented a carefully choreographed united front in California on Wednesday against an increasingly powerful and aggressive China.
For Taiwan, the rare high-level, bipartisan meeting is a timely show of US support, as China ramps up diplomatic and military pressure on the self-ruling island it claims as part of its territory.
But the encounter also carries great risks: the last time Tsai met with a US House Speaker – during Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei last August, Beijing retaliated by holding days of large-scale military drills and firing missiles over the island, pushing tensions to their highest in decades.
This time around, Beijing’s initial reaction appears more restrained. Its Foreign Ministry has condemned the meeting and pledged to take “strong and resolute measures,” though so far that has not translated into any specific military response.
To avoid provoking Beijing and triggering another military crisis, American and Taiwan officials have portrayed Tsai’s visit as nothing out of the ordinary, citing an abundance of precedents for a Taiwan leader to transit through the US.
But the political significance of Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy is unavoidable. It is the highest-level audience a sitting Taiwan president has received on American soil, with an official second in line to the presidency after the vice president.
Their meeting at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library highlighted the strengthening ties between Taipei and Washington, even though they remain unofficial in nature.
“I believe our bond is stronger now than at any time or point in my lifetime,” McCarthy said at a press conference after the meeting. “America’s support for the people of Taiwan will remain resolute, unwavering and bipartisan.”
Tsai reciprocated his pledge of solidarity, noting “we’re stronger when we are together.”
“In our efforts to protect our way of life, Taiwan is grateful to have the United States by our side,” she said, standing alongside McCarthy with Reagan’s Air Force One as a backdrop. “The constant and unwavering support reassured the people of Taiwan that we are not isolated and we are not alone.”
Under Washington’s longstanding “One China” policy, the US acknowledges China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but has never officially recognized Beijing’s claim to the island of 23 million. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, it is also bound by law to provide the democratic island with the means to defend itself.
Austin Wang, an assistant professor in political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the meeting illustrated the importance of the Taiwan issue in US politics.
“Whether it’s worth the risk depends on what will happen next,” he said. “If the meeting is a cornerstone to speed up further economic and military cooperation…(then it) is worth the risk.”
Following the meeting Wednesday, McCarthy tweeted the United States should continue to boost its support for Taiwan. “We must continue arms sales to Taiwan and make sure such sales reach Taiwan on time. We must also strengthen our economic cooperation, particularly with trade and technology,” he tweeted.
Beijing’s ruling Communist Party sees Taiwan as an inseparable part of its territory, despite having never controlled it – and has vowed to “reunite” the island with mainland China, by force if necessary.
To undermine its legitimacy, Beijing has spent decades chipping away at Taipei’s dwindling diplomatic allies and blocking its participation in international organizations – including the World Health Organization.
The US maintains an unofficial relationship with Taiwan after switching its diplomatic relations to Beijing decades ago.
Last month, Honduras also switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, leaving the island democracy with only 13 remaining allies.
But instead of becoming increasingly isolated from the global community, Taiwan has steadily built its international influence by expanding unofficial relationships with friendly Western nations – while also emphasizing shared values in maintaining its ties with official allies.
Tsai’s high-profile 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 parliaments in both countries and signed agreements to deepen their partnerships. While transiting in New York earlier in the trip, she also received a global leadership award from the Hudson Institute, a US think tank based in Washington DC.
Analysts say since Tsai became president in 2016, her government has increasingly shifted the focus of Taiwanese diplomacy on developing unofficial ties with Western democracies to compensate for the loss of official recognition.
Last month, Taiwan welcomed a 150-person Czech delegation, led by the speaker of the lower chamber of the Czech parliament, as a growing number of European countries raised concerns over the future of Taiwan following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
While President Tsai makes a high-profile trip to the Americas, her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou 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.
At a time of mounting pressure from Beijing, their parallel visits have come to present different visions for the future of the self-governing democracy.
Taiwan is set to elect a new president next year, when questions about the island’s political future are bound to arise. Having served two terms, Tsai is not eligible for re-election, but her vice president William Lai is expected to run.
Having lost to Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party in two presidential elections, the Kuomintang, or KMT, is doing all it can to avoid another defeat.
“We know that in Taiwan, that at every presidential election, China is the fundamental issue that matters most,” said Lev Nachman, an assistant professor in politics at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
The 2024 elections will be no different, and it’s just a matter of how the China issue is framed, he said.
“We already see, for example, the KMT trying to frame this as a case between war and peace, in which the KMT brings peace and the DPP brings war.”
The KMT is widely seen as more Beijing-friendly than the DPP.
When he was president between 2008 and 2016, Ma focused on establishing greater economic cooperation between Beijing and Taipei. The proposal sparked large-scale protests that saw demonstrators occupying Taiwan’s legislature for weeks.
In 2015, Ma held an historic meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Singapore – the first such meeting between political leaders of both sides of the Taiwan Strait in decades.
During his trip to China, Ma met with the director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, noting the importance of maintaining exchanges across the Taiwan Strait and “doing everything possible” to avoid conflict.
“People on both sides of the strait belong to the same Chinese nation and are descendants of the Chinese people,” he said last week.
In contrast to Ma, Tsai does not acknowledge that Taiwan and China belong to the same nation. Instead, she has repeatedly emphasized that the island’s future can only be decided by its own people.
“We will continue to bolster our national defense and demonstrate our determination to defend ourselves in order to ensure that nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us,” she said at national day celebrations in 2021.
Eric Cheung reported from Taipei. Nectar Gan wrote from Hong Kong. Clare Foran and Simone McCarthy contributed reporting from Washington DC and Hong Kong respectively.