HONG KONG — China on Wednesday threatened retaliation if House Speaker Kevin McCarthy meets with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen as she passes through the United States next week, saying it would be a “provocation.”
Speaking hours later as she left Taiwan, a self-governing island democracy that Beijing claims as its territory, Tsai said external pressure would not deter her government from engaging with the world.
Tsai’s trip comes as Beijing is buoyed by newly established diplomatic ties with Honduras and a historic visit to China by Tsai’s predecessor. The dueling visits underscore Taiwan’s increasingly fragile status, as well as the growing tensions between the U.S. and China, which experts told NBC News could make Beijing respond to Tsai’s U.S. travel more aggressively than in the past.
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In remarks at an airport outside Taipei before her departure, Tsai said, “We are calm and confident, will neither yield nor provoke.”
“Taiwan will firmly walk on the road of freedom and democracy and go into the world,” she said. “Though the road ahead is rough and steep, we are not alone.”
Tsai will first stop in New York starting Wednesday on her way to Guatemala and Belize, then make another stop in Los Angeles before returning to Taiwan on April 7. In Los Angeles, she is likely to meet in person with McCarthy and other members of Congress, though it has not been officially confirmed.
A spokesperson for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office objected to any such meeting, which Beijing would view as an expression of support for Taiwan's independence.
“If she makes contact with U.S. House Speaker McCarthy, it will be another provocation that seriously violates the one-China principle, undermines China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and undermines peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” the spokesperson, Zhu Fenglian, said Wednesday at a regular news briefing.
“We are firmly opposed to this and will take measures to resolutely fight back,” she added, without saying what those measures might be.
When Nancy Pelosi, McCarthy’s predecessor, visited Taiwan last August, China responded with unprecedented live-fire military exercises that surrounded the island. Taiwan said this week there was no sign of any changes to China’s usual military deployment in the area, which includes sending warplanes toward the island almost daily.
The U.S. says visits by high-level Taiwanese officials, including Tsai, are routine and in keeping with the long-standing U.S. policy of recognizing Beijing as the sole legal government of China, while maintaining unofficial relations with Taipei.
Tsai’s U.S. travel should not be used by China “as a pretext to step up any aggressive activity around the Taiwan Strait,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters last week, noting that Tsai has passed through the U.S. six times since taking office in 2016 with minimal response from Beijing.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Wednesday that China had lodged a complaint with the U.S. over her transit plans.
“Past mistakes cannot justify today’s mistakes,” the spokesperson, Mao Ning, said at a regular news briefing.
U.S.-China relations have only grown more complicated since 2019, when Tsai last visited the U.S., said Lev Nachman, a political scientist and assistant professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
“Things that used to be very small are now very big,” he said. “So even though this is a totally long-standing practice, I still anticipate that the PRC is going to have some kind of overstated response to what normally would not be that big of a deal," he said, using an acronym to refer to the People’s Republic of China.
Dueling trips and diplomatic shifts
The status of Taiwan is among the most sensitive issues in U.S.-China relations, which were already at their lowest point in decades when Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a planned trip to Beijing last month over a Chinese surveillance balloon that was detected and shot down over U.S. territory. President Joe Biden says he expects to have a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping soon.
Ma Ying-jeou, Tsai’s predecessor, has been in China since Monday, the first former or current Taiwanese president to visit since the Republic of China government fled to the island in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong’s communist forces.
His opposition Kuomintang party favors closer relations with China, which says it seeks peaceful unification with Taiwan but has not ruled out the use of force.
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“The people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are Chinese people” and share the same ancestor, Ma said Tuesday in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing, using an expression that refers to Chinese people in terms of ethnicity, rather than nationality.
“We deeply hope that both sides of the Taiwan Strait will work together to pursue peace, avoid war and strive to revitalize China,” he said in remarks released by his office.
Public opinion polls show most people in Taiwan oppose unification with China and do not identify as Chinese.
Ma says the purpose of his 12-day visit, which is unofficial, is to make offerings to his ancestors, as well as promote cross-strait student exchanges.
Taiwan’s governing Democratic Progressive Party has criticized the trip as inappropriate given that Ma arrived in China the day after Honduras established diplomatic relations with Beijing, severing its ties with Taipei in the process. The decision leaves Taiwan with just 13 formal diplomatic allies, including Guatemala and Belize.
That has raised the stakes for Tsai’s trip to those two countries, her first diplomatic visits since before the pandemic.
But while Honduras’ switch has been met with disappointment in Taiwan, Nachman said, the island’s geopolitical security is far more dependent on its partnerships with the U.S., the European Union, Japan and other international backers with which it has no formal ties.
He also noted that Ma, who left office in 2016 with “drastically low” approval ratings and is no longer a major party figure, was not expected to go to Beijing or meet with any high-profile officials.
While the optics of the dueling trips are “meaningful,” Nachman said, Ma’s China visit is “not going to drastically alter the direction of Taiwanese politics.”
Tsai’s transit through the U.S. is more significant, said Jessica Chen Weiss, a professor of China and Asia-Pacific studies at Cornell University, and Beijing will be paying close attention to what is said while she is there.
While Tsai is widely considered to be reliably pragmatic and measured in her public comments, emphasizing her commitment to maintaining the status quo, the U.S. lawmakers who may meet with her could be more unpredictable.
“American leaders feel that they need to talk tough in order to signal their commitment and resolve and that that is the way to deter China,” Weiss said.
The danger, she said, is that some of that tough talk — such as references to Taiwan as an independent country or claims that China has a deadline for invasion — could provoke Beijing into taking action sooner and “might end up creating the very window of opportunity that we are seeking to prevent.”
It’s important for the U.S. to continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense, Weiss said, as well as to strengthen its own military presence in the Asia-Pacific.
“But that work can be done steadily, quietly, without the accompanying rhetoric that we increasingly hear from representatives on Capitol Hill,” she said.