High-stakes transit: Taiwan leader’s US visit risks provoking Beijing

AP Photo/John Minchillo
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen arrives at a hotel in New York on March 30, 2023. She plans to meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) this week.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to the U.S. this week is a carefully orchestrated trip to project Taipei’s strength against Beijing’s threats, but calculated to avoid sparking a military conflict after tensions flared last year. 

Taiwanese and U.S. officials are deliberately calling Tsai’s travel through New York and Los Angeles “transit” stops on her way to and from official, diplomatic engagements in Central America.

It’s a thinly veiled cover story for Tsai to carry out important, high-level meetings with American lawmakers and civil society, who view Taiwan’s survival as a democratic country as part of the vital national security interests of the United States. 

Tsai’s “transit” through the U.S. includes a stop in New York before heading to official visits in Guatemala and Belize. Tsai will fly through California on her way back to Taiwan, where she is tentatively scheduled to meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Chinese officials have warned of “consequences” and “counter measures” if Tsai is welcomed by American lawmakers, in what U.S. officials expect to be a replay of Beijing carrying out military provocations in the Taiwan Strait, like those that occurred in retaliation for an August visit to the island by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif). 

“Engagement with the world is the oxygen that is needed for Taiwan’s survival, and Tsai Ing-wen is determined not to let Beijing suffocate Taiwan,” said Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chairman at Hudson Institute. The Washington-based think tank is presenting Tsai with the Global Leadership Award at a ceremony in New York on Thursday evening. 

Even as Tsai’s travel marks the seventh time she’s “transited” the U.S., Beijing’s retaliation against Pelosi’s visit has set up a “new normal” of harassment and escalation over engagement between Washington and Taipei, he added. 

“Why this transit is different from previous ones, is that the level of anxiety, a level of tension is just higher than it has been in the past,” Cronin said. 

Chinese officials have lashed out at Tsai’s travel, viewing any global engagement with Taiwanese officials as an extreme provocation that undercuts what Beijing views as its solemn right to control the tiny island. 

“We firmly oppose any visit by leader of the Taiwan region to the U.S. in any name or under whatever pretext, and we firmly oppose the U.S. government having any form of official contact with the Taiwan region,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters on Thursday.

“The People’s Republic of China should not use this transit as a pretext to step up any aggressive activity around the Taiwan Strait,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday

“There’s no reason for them to react harshly or overreact in any way,” he added, describing Tsai’s “transit” through the U.S. as private, unofficial travel and consistent with U.S. policy toward Taiwan and China.

“In all previous transits, she met with members of Congress, as well as state and local officials, and had public appearances. She has also transited through both New York and Los Angeles before. Not uncommon,” Kirby said.

It’s a high-stakes farewell tour for Tsai, who will finish her second, four-year term as president in January and is seeking to show Taiwan’s robust international support as a bulwark against Chinese efforts at economic, diplomatic and military threats. 

Tsai’s trips in Guatemala and Belize are also consequential. The Central American countries are part of a small grouping of nations that have formal, diplomatic ties with Taipei, despite threats of retaliation and efforts of coercion by China.

Last week, Honduras downgraded a more than 80-year relationship with Taiwan — forged in the aftermath of China’s civil war, which saw the establishment of the Republic of China government in Taipei. 

Honduras switched its allegiance to Beijing, recognizing the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of China and Taiwan as an “inseparable part of Chinese territory.”

The move underscored China’s determination in severing Taiwan’s relationships globally as part of its efforts to weaken the self-governed island and eventually see Taipei come under the control of Beijing. 

“Taiwan remains firm in its commitment to freedom and democracy, and is determined to engage with the world,” Tsai said in remarks ahead of her departure for New York on Wednesday.

The U.S. does not recognize Taiwan as independent and maintains that Taipei and Beijing should work out differences diplomatically.

But President Biden, bolstered by robust support from both Democrats and Republicans, has pushed those boundaries by committing to Taiwan’s defense as the world has watched Beijing grow more assertive in its designs on the island.

The president has gone further than previous administrations, suggesting that he would deploy U.S. forces to help defend the island, even as his staff has sought to temper those comments. 

Still, the administration has focused on streamlining U.S. military supplies to Taiwan, with foreign military sales amounting to about $40 billion over the past decade, and half of that occurring between 2019 and today, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers this month. 

“I have signed out more cases [of foreign military sales] than any secretary of state in history for Taiwan,” he said during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this month. 

U.S. officials have warned that Beijing is preparing to invade Taiwan within the next five years, with some officials raising even higher concerns that China could launch an attack within the year. 

That’s creating anxiety on Capitol Hill, with Republicans, in particular, hammering the Biden administration for what they say are unnecessary backlogs for delivering weapons to Taiwan, matching criticisms that the administration is too slow to deliver necessary arms to Ukraine in its fight against Russia. 

“The weapons I signed off on, three years ago, have yet to go into country. I don’t understand why this takes so long,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a hearing with Blinken last week. 

“And if we do not have the deterrence — like we did not have the deterrence with Ukraine, I called for sanctions and weapons before [Russia’s] invasion — I think we should be doing the same thing with Taiwan,” McCaul added.

Blinken said there are a variety of factors influencing challenges of military production, including the COVID-19 pandemic, disruption to supply chains and the reality that some production lines “have gone dormant.

“All of these things have come to a head — that’s exactly what the Defense Department industry are working on right now. And my anticipation is you’re going to see significant progress on that,” he said.

McCaul is expected to travel to Taiwan in the coming weeks, which would mark his first visit to the island. The chairman met on Wednesday with Robert O’Brien, who served as national security adviser to former President Trump and returned from Taiwan on March 25. 

O’Brien told The Hill that he believes McCaul will likely meet with Tsai in Taipei. McCaul’s office declined to comment. 

“So I think he’s going to Taiwan soon, and I’m sure he’ll see the president,” O’Brien said, referring to the chairman.

“I had great meetings with President Tsai when I was there. And so she’s a terrific world leader, who leads a democracy, and we should make sure we interact with her on a regular basis. And I’m glad to see the Speaker’s welcoming her to California later this week,” O’Brien said.

McCarthy’s office would not confirm his plans regarding Tsai’s visit.

Tags Beijing China Kevin McCarthy Nancy Pelosi Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen Tsai Ing-Wen Tsai Ing-wen US-Taiwan relations

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